Decarbonization 101
Planning for Decarbonization

Assessing Current Emissions Data

May 28, 2024
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This lesson underscores the importance of quantifying and evaluating greenhouse gas emissions, guiding organizations through the steps of carbon accounting, data collection, standardization, and selecting a baseline to establish a foundation for emissions reduction efforts

Terms to Know

  • Paris Agreement - An international treaty that aims to hold “the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.”
  • Science-Based Targets - Emissions reduction targets that align with the Paris Climate Agreement
  • Science-Based Target Initiative (SBTi) - A collaborative partnership that drives ambitious climate action in the private sector by enabling organizations to set science-based emissions reduction targets.
  • Greenhouse Gas Protocol - A partnership with the World Resources Institute and World Business Council for Sustainable Development that establishes comprehensive global standardized frameworks to measure and manage GHG emissions from private and public sector operations, value chains, and mitigation actions.
  • Near-Term Target Type - A 5–10 year emission reduction target in line with 1.5°C scenarios. 
  • Long-Term Target Type - A target aiming to reduce emissions to a residual level in line with 1.5°C scenarios by no later than 2050. 
  • Decarbonization - Reducing the levels of carbon emissions (such as CO₂) caused by or involved in a facility, process, or organization.
  • GHG Emissions - Emissions from GHGs such as carbon dioxide, methane, and other carbon emissions.
  • GHG Inventory - A comprehensive report of emission sources and quantified emissions aligned with standardized methods over a defined reporting period.
  • Emission Factor Set - Representative values that relate the quantity of a pollutant released into the atmosphere with an activity associated with the release of that pollutant.
  • Global Warming Potentials - Measures how much energy the emissions of 1 ton of GHG will absorb over a given period of time, relative to the emissions of 1 ton of carbon dioxide.
  • Baseline - A point against which future emissions reductions are measured and reflect the emissions inventory for a specific period. 
  • Scenario Planning - A strategic planning tool used to anticipate and prepare for possible future events or developments, involving the creation and analysis of different situations to understand the potential impact on an organization.
  • Decarbonization Pathways - Strategic plans or sets of actions aimed at reducing carbon dioxide from specific industries
  • Net Zero - The state where adding GHG emissions into the atmosphere is balanced by removing GHG emissions from the atmosphere. Net Zero is the “gold standard” where absolute emissions are reduced as much as possible, and offsets or carbon removal are only used for the unavoidable residual emissions.

You can not manage what you can not measure.

Quantifying and evaluating the scale of your existing GHG emissions is essential within your organization’s specific industry or geographic region. Both components set the stage for identifying potential emissions reduction opportunities.

Let’s walk through how an organization would assess its emissions and choose a baseline. Quadial Inc. will serve as an example throughout these steps.

Step 1: Carbon Accounting and GHG Inventories

Carbon accounting measures the quantity of GHG emissions a company or organization emits to assess its environmental impact. It categorizes emissions into direct (scope 1) and indirect (scope 2 and 3) and helps organizations understand their carbon footprint. This also helps organizations make informed decisions about emission reductions and mitigate climate change. Businesses, governments, and individuals use carbon accounting to estimate their emissions and track progress in sustainability efforts.

Conduct a GHG inventory by identifying, measuring, and quantifying the emissions of various GHGs. Quadial Inc.’s GHG inventory accounts for the scope type, such as scope 1, 2, or 3; as well as the emissions source, such as energy consumption, transportation, land use, industrial processes, and waste management.

Step 2: Data Collection, Standardization, and Cleansing

Sourcing high-quality data is crucial for accurately assessing your emissions. Quadial Inc. begins collecting information on energy use, fuel consumption, production levels, activity data, and any other relevant factors contributing to its GHG emissions, such as internal records, energy bills, fuel consumption data, industry-specific databases, and government sources.

At this stage, cleaning your data by processing and converting it into standardized units for emissions calculation is also important. Use emission factor sets and/or Global Warming Potentials (GWP) to consistently measure the myriad emissions that make up your organization’s current emissions.

Since Quadial Inc. is in its nascent stages of decarbonization, the organization’s sustainability leaders enlist the help of Persefoni to continue their decarbonization journey by automating its calculations.

Additionally, organizations must ensure the quality and accuracy of their data by applying data validation techniques and quality control processes to verify its accuracy, completeness, and consistency. After calculating its initial carbon footprint, Quadial Inc. works with a third-party auditor for external validation.

Step 3: Baselines

Selecting a baseline is integral in calculating your organization’s emissions. It identifies a point against which future emissions reductions are measured and reflects the inventory for a specific period. In other words, it measures your organization’s current environmental impact. 

If your organizational structure changes significantly over time, consider rebaselining, also known as recalculating base year emissions. 

Rebaselining is vital to continue making consistent and relevant comparisons over time and occurs when there are:

  • Structural changes such as mergers and acquisitions that impact base-year emissions
  • Errors that are collectively significant
  • Changes or improvements made in calculation methodologies or emission factor accuracy that result in a significant impact on historical/base-year emissions data

Furthermore, for organizations that don’t have an official reporting or disclosure goal and are looking to establish a baseline, it is better to use available data (even if it is lower quality) rather than forgo calculating a baseline entirely. Baselining with estimate-grade data (such as spend data) is acceptable if the data quality improves over time.

For example, Quadial Inc. can choose any year as a baseline if there is comprehensive and reliable data. Quadial Inc. selects 2015 as its baseline year, even though it only began to keep digital records in recent years.

Up Next
Setting Decarbonization Goals and Targets
This lesson guides organizations in setting decarbonization goals, emphasizing the importance of selecting emission reduction targets, aligning ambitions, considering scope and coverage, defining timeframes, and tailoring targets to sectors, ultimately emphasizing milestones and monitoring for sustainable progress.