Tracking our carbon footprint

30 July 2019

by Karina Chow

The aims of the Paris Climate Agreement resonate in almost every climate discussion: To keep global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels and limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees celsius. It’s becoming increasingly common practice for nations and companies to measure, report and set targets on carbon, or greenhouse gases (GHGs), as they commit themselves towards the global goal.

As a sustainability organisation that advocates for better, cleaner, less polluting buildings, it’s only reasonable for NZGBC to monitor its carbon footprint. Third party auditors are surely helpful for complex companies, but as a small, independent organisation, we decided to give it a go ourselves. With the right documents and data on hand, calculating your footprint isn’t as daunting as it seems. Although I do recommend finding a very patient staff member to do the job.

There are many resources available to guide corporate carbon reporting. The Ministry for the Environment has published a series of documents including guides, calculators and examples for organisations to refer to. They are all available for free download on the MFE website.

The Greenhouse Gas Protocol provides comprehensive global standardized frameworks to measure and manage greenhouse gas. These documents are clear and easy to understand and set the foundation for your carbon tracking. They split the emissions into three areas. Scope 1 (direct emissions) and Scope 2 (indirect emissions from electricity purchase) rely mostly on internal data and data from the electricity provider respectively, which are relatively easy to attain. Scope 3 (indirect emissions) relies on internal data along with parties up and down the value chain, which makes data collection very challenging.

However, according to the Corporate Standard, reporting Scope 3 data is optional and the company has the discretion to decide which categories to include. Different companies will have different profiles depending on the significance of those activities in relation to the carbon inventory and the amount of reliable information available.

Like many companies in the service sector, employee business travel is the most significant kind of emission for New Zealand Green Building Council (NZGBC). Our approach was to look at the expenses of each relevant activity then trace back to the emissions involved. Once the key activity data (e.g. the distance travelled or the weight of a certain subject) was identified, we multiplied it by the emission factor provided by the guidelines to give emission figures. I created my own spreadsheet and inputted the emission factors manually but to make things simpler, you can use established emission calculators to help complete the calculations. Data collection was tedious, but thankfully, we live in a digital era of electronic receipts and email conversation, which helped a great deal. I must also thank the Operations and Accounts team at NZGBC for their comprehensive and organised expense record, which saved me a lot of time.

This exercise is helpful to gain a basic understanding of what it means to calculate emissions and what data you need to do so. With this knowledge you can devise better systems for documentation and information collection, making future carbon auditing easier. The next step for us here at the NZGBC to decide as a team the way forward in offsetting and reducing our emissions.

A lot of assumptions and uncertainties are embedded in carbon calculation and reporting. It is important to keep in mind that these are just numbers that allow us to have a better grip at understanding our contribution to the climate change problem and solving it as a collective.

My advice is: don’t get too caught up in the numbers from a marketing and financial headspace.

Measuring your carbon is a starting point for improvement, it’s important not to lose sight of what all of this is for – our environment.

Resources from the Ministry for Environment can be found here.

The following documents are published by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol:

Corporate Accounting and Reporting Standard

Corporate Value Chain (Scope 3) Accounting and Reporting Standard

Technical Guidance for Calculating Scope 3 Emissions

An Environmental Management student from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Karina Chow has just completed an internship at NZGBC. One of her projects while here was to set  up a process and measure our carbon emissions.