During the month of September, Sustainable Brands published a series of articles on evolving metrics for sustainable business. As I read through the adoption of context-based sustainability metrics by Cabot Creamery, Autodesk, BT, and EMC, I noticed a common thread: the usage of science-based global climate stabilization targets like WRE350 as the basis for corporate CO2 goals. I had an issue with this at first: those global climate stabilization targets are intended to be met by reductions in total CO2 emissions from humankind, not just reductions by any one company or group of companies. For that reason, a tie between global targets and corporate goals seemed arbitrary. But after thinking a bit, I asked myself: is this tie possibly the right kind of arbitrary — less arbitrary than other methods, and more likely to be supported broadly?
What perturbed me a bit about using global targets as corporate goals is that we can’t assume every company on the planet will align their corporate goals with global science-based targets and take action accordingly, even if we could attribute 100% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions to corporate activity in one way or another. When Bill Baue interviewed Ben Thompson of Autodesk on their freely-available C-FACT methodology, Bill mentioned the “‘what if everyone did the same thing’ dynamic.” I’m very supportive of efforts to encourage a wide variety of companies to adopt context-based sustainability metrics and goals, but I have to ask: what if everyone didn’t do the same thing? What if only a handful did, as Kevin Moss lamented near the end of his interview with Bill? Millions of companies contribute to global CO2 emissions — just as millions of vehicles contribute in the global transport sector — and a few or even a thousand companies adopting context-based goals for their direct emissions won’t bend the CO2 trajectory.
So let’s just give up then, right? Well… no. I recognize the value of thought leadership on metrics, not just for developing new ways of goal-setting but also for advancing the conversation around the role of business in sustainability. Furthermore, I believe there’s immense potential in focusing context-based corporate CO2 emissions reduction goals beyond the GHG Protocol’s scopes 1 and 2 (direct emissions, and indirect emissions associated with energy purchases) to non-corporate scope 3 emissions: indirect emissions from suppliers and customers who aren’t companies. That unleashes the opportunity to achieve reductions beyond the company walls while avoiding the problem of counting corporate emissions too many times (since a company’s scope 3 emissions would include the scope 1 and 2 emissions from supplier and customer companies). For instance, this year Honda revealed that anticipated customer use of its vehicles sold in fiscal year 2012 would produce 195.88 million tons of scope 3 CO2-equivalent emissions, which is 87% of Honda’s total GHG emissions that year. Even though some fraction of those vehicles would be used for business purposes, 87% is a big number. Imagine that the world’s top car companies produced context-based sustainability metrics that included non-corporate scope 3 emissions and then picked global CO2 targets for corporate goals. Now imagine that they took the daring step of including emissions from vehicles sold in previous years and developing strategies to reduce the emissions of those. Suddenly, we’re talking amplified potential to cut CO2 emissions globally.
One phrase I’ve encountered quite a bit in the context-based sustainability dialogue is “fair share of CO2 emissions.” Skipping over the ethical expansion of everything that implies (a great big topic unto itself), I want to point out questions raised by the fact that not every company on the planet will adopt science-based global targets like WRE350 as corporate goals:
The first movers in this space are already being recognized as leaders, but there just aren’t very many movers yet. Maybe this is because corporate leaders aren’t seeing the obvious business case; or, maybe leaders are afraid that context-based metrics will reveal a footprint that they don’t want people to see. If the latter is the case, I think that internationally-recognized standard-setting organizations will have to play a big role in influencing how organizations report their CO2 emissions. The most effective way to do that would be to support metrics and goals that tie directly to science-based information; anything else would invite even more accusations of arbitrary selection. I don’t see a better way to get a large subset of global industry to adopt comparable context-based metrics and goals.
Given the incredible scientific and sociopolitical complexity of climate change, it’s easy to encounter analysis paralysis. I wrote last week that normative impacts are full of value judgments — there’s usually no rigid answer about what is right and wrong. With criticisms flying everywhere about whether corporate sustainability claims are trustworthy and whether business is doing enough, “green burnout” and apathy is becoming a real problem. Though I think the adoption of global CO2 targets for corporate goals is arbitrary because not all businesses will contribute, I also think it’s less arbitrary than other approaches to climate-based metrics. For that reason, it just might see wider adoption.
Picture “Twittergrams: Morning Tweet Graph” by blprnt_van, on Flickr.