Resulting from bottled up-emissions that trap heat in our atmosphere, the “greenhouse effect” is the main cause behind climate change. And since business operations inevitably result in harmful emissions (some more than others), it’s useful to identify which types of practices do the best or worst jobs of limiting or even cutting carbon emissions — especially in the commercial and industrial sector, which is responsible for about 30% of carbon emissions in the U.S.
In addition to mitigating climate change, reducing your company’s carbon emissions holds potential benefits for your mission and values, operations, and bottom line. You might be surprised what your organization’s largest emissions categories are, and that the tools to reduce those emissions are already available.
About five years ago, a small group of CEE staff instituted a “greenhouse gas inventory” of our company operations, with ongoing tracking and annual reporting to our staff and board of directors. Analysis of their findings helps CEE to monitor and document our negative impacts (through our operations) and positive impacts (through our programs) on global carbon totals. And as these numbers become more embedded in our organizational culture, our yearly process helps us set new goals to improve our carbon-related bottom line over time.
As a nonprofit in the energy efficiency sector, the motivations to track and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions may seem more obvious for CEE than for others. Still, an increasing number of organizations and companies are breaking new ground in carbon monitoring. Although Fortune 500 businesses (Walmart, Apple, Google, etc.) tend to grab the headlines for environmental accountability, it's important to note that nonprofits, academic institutions, and companies of just about any size can play meaningful roles in reducing harmful emissions.
A win-win for your business and the environment
Increasingly, values-driven consumers and employees are taking note of organizations that are mindful of their environmental impact.
Demonstrating your company’s true commitment to track and reduce GHG emissions may appeal to individuals’ goals to reduce their own carbon footprint and promotes a sense of corporate leadership, responsibility, and dependability. Likewise, as more cities enact climate plans, your organization’s green efforts may help position you to take advantage of valuable municipal programs, policies, and related incentives.
Starting a GHG inventory also offers your business practical internal benefits. With it, you can learn more about where and how your company’s energy is used, target inefficiencies in day-to-day operations, identify opportunities to cut carbon and costs, and make more informed decisions on company expenditures.
Creating a GHG inventory, don’t reinvent the wheel
Creating and maintaining a GHG inventory might seem like a big lift among your company’s long list of priorities, but the truth is you probably already have most of the data you need to get one started. Nonetheless, you'll likely need to build in some new tracking practices and allow colleagues plenty of time to pull together what you need. Like any organizational priority, this is a process that benefits from multiple people working together — but it will also require some institutional "stretching" to accomplish new tasks, so make room for that too.
For CEE’s inventory, the team initially based its methodology on The Climate Registry’s General Reporting Protocol Tool. This is just one of many free protocol tools that are available to businesses to build a framework to measure direct and indirect energy use, and how to translate those measurements into GHG emissions. You can always research and adapt available carbon tracking tools to define the scope and approach that align with your business’s goals and operations.
Then get ready to make friends with every department in your organization, since your colleagues likely already have key data you’d need for your GHG inventory.
After identifying the scope of what we'd measure for CEE’s inventory, our team set to work collecting data. Lots and lots and lots of data — although, because of those in-house connections, data collection proved more straightforward than you might expect. For example, CEE’s accounting department was already tracking many of the factors included in our inventory, such as gas mileage and expenses for work-related transportation.
Setting and measuring goals for a cost-effective and sustainable future
Once you’ve identified and collected the information for your GHG inventory, you can use that data to reveal the story of your company’s energy use and how to improve and streamline it. Some examples of key considerations might be:
- Are rising gas prices straining your overhead?
- Are you overheating or overcooling part of your workspace?
- Is outdated lighting driving up your electric bill?
- Can documents be digitized to reduce paper consumption?
- Are commuting and air travel major sources of GHG emissions?
Using this information on your business’s total GHG emissions, you can set appropriate and actionable goals for reducing GHG emissions and making your operations more cost-effective. Choose a baseline year and timeframe in which to track and measure progress toward a goal. The more specific you are in defining goals, the more effective the outcomes and the greater the likelihood of success.
As with any tracking meant to drive progress, there may be unique barriers and opportunities to what your company can do to lower emissions based on market factors, your business model, and your level of control over different energy uses and resources. But even as a starting point, a GHG inventory could empower your business to see the full picture of its emissions and effect change for a more cost-effective and sustainable future.
Greenhouse gas emissions inventory 2005-2018 (MN Pollution Control Agency)