Carbon accounting – what gets measured gets done

Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

I hadn’t done much with carbon accounting in my professional life before 2020. It’s only mandatory for the largest companies and organisations so hasn’t been a requirement for me. But focussing on my personal carbon footprint this year has made me determined to bring carbon accounting into my professional life.

Measuring a personal carbon footprint

I reduced my personal carbon footprint by somewhere between 0.5 and 1 tonne this year.

How do I know this? Well, I don’t, not exactly, but I used the WWF footprint calculator at the start of the year to get an approximate figure. Then I played with a few of the variables to work out what would make the biggest difference. Then I measured it again, a few days ago.

I don’t have a car (I used to walk to work) and I haven’t flown for fifteen years, so the biggest contributors to my carbon footprint were food, “stuff” and household energy use, in that order. I decided to focus on food in 2020, reducing the amount of meat that I ate and trying to reduce food and packaging waste.

The coronavirus crisis and various lockdowns helped with this to a certain extent. With more time at home, there was more time for cooking. Shopping became a stressful chore which prompted me to streamline the process and meant that I wasted less food.

However, now that I’ve built these habits, I’m not going to slip back. And in 2021 I hope to reduce my footprint further.

How do you eat an elephant?

When faced with the horror that is man-made climate change and the knowledge that time is running out, it’s easier to cope if we minimise our influence. “Well, it’s all the fault of big companies”, we say. As if the big companies exist in a void without consumers.

If we’re going to prevent climate breakdown, it will be because of millions of people choosing to do different things. Choosing to cut down on motorised travel. Choosing to eat a more plant-based diet.

Government absolutely has a part to play in this, by incentivising good carbon choices. For example, by increasing fuel duty, or by offering interest free loans or grants to insulate people’s homes.

But we all have a part to play, not just in what we do but in who we choose to do business with. Who we buy from. Who we recommend to others.

Why carbon accounting is the answer (but it isn’t like “traditional” accounting)

This is where carbon accounting comes in.

Carbon accounting is the process whereby organisations quantify their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is set out in the GHG protocol. In brief, companies should measure emissions that they are directly responsible for (Scope 1) and indirectly via their energy use (Scope 2). There is then the wider question of Scope 3, which is everything else – eg supply chain, end of life disposal, employee travel and commuting. Because it is hard to draw the line, companies can define what to measure here.

For someone like me, used to the black and white world of debits and credits, this initially seemed like a cop out when I read about it. It’s like deciding that you won’t report on some of your liabilities because they’re too complicated to quantify. Critics have argued (justifiably) that if UK companies only have to report their direct emissions, energy and fuel use, they are missing an enormous part of their contribution to the problem, which is hidden away in factories in the Far East and landfill sites.

However, I’ve now come to realise that the importance of carbon accounting is about the journey. Or to put it another way, whether you’re responsible for 10m or 20m tonnes of CO2 is less important than how you are going to reduce that figure. And if you don’t start somewhere, you’ll never get anywhere.

My carbon accounting resolution

As a Finance Director, I should know the approximate carbon footprint of any organisation that I work for. But more importantly, I should know what we need to do to reduce it. It’s also part of my role to get the conversation going with banks and pension schemes about how they invest our money. I need to ask suppliers not just “How much does this cost” but “what is the carbon footprint of this product?”.

Ultimately we need to get to a point where the carbon impact of something is as big a consideration as the cost of it. And we accountants should be leading the way in this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *