Following on from the success of IEMA’s Sustainability & Climate Change theatre at EMEX 2019, Dr Matthew Brander revisits the subject of counting the carbon and explores society’s renewed appreciation of scientific expertise as a result of Covid-19 and the need for more accurate reporting and practice.

Responding to the coronavirus is renewing society’s appreciation of scientific expertise and knowledge, and this may well be one of the positive legacies from the pandemic.

This renewed appreciation of expertise very much aligns with the purpose of professional bodies like IEMA, which exist to promote knowledge and best practice and readers of an IEMA blog post are likely to already have a well-established appreciation for scientific expertise!

A key part of a scientific outlook is to continually question and improve upon existing practices. And for those of us working in environmental and carbon management – this applies to the international standards and reporting initiatives that we currently use. This is particularly important as being the incumbent way of doing things is not a guarantee that it is best practice, or even necessarily good practice!

An example of an incumbent practice that deserves scrutiny is the ‘market-based method’ for reporting emissions from electricity consumption (also called ‘scope 2’ emissions). This practice allows organisations to buy renewable energy certificates (or Guarantees of Origin) or enter into other contractual arrangements, such as ‘green’ energy contracts, and then claim that their emissions from electricity consumption are zero.

One problem with this practice is that there is now a very large amount of empirical evidence which shows that buying renewable energy certificates is highly unlikely to drive an increase in the amount of renewable generation capacity, or reduce emissions. This is because most certificates come from renewable generation that would have existed anyway, due to government support schemes or legacy investments. This also raises the question ‘If buying certificates doesn’t help to reduce emissions then shouldn’t we be spending the money on something else that does?’.

Unfortunately, widely recognised international standards and initiatives endorse this practice, e.g. the GHG Protocol Scope 2 Guidance, and the Science-based Targets initiative. The latter initiative is particularly problematic as it means it’s possible for companies to achieve a significant part of their ‘science-based’ reduction targets without actually reducing emissions to the atmosphere! It also calls into question the idea that ‘non-state actors’ (e.g. civil society and corporations) are genuinely filling the ambition gap left by government commitments under the Paris Agreement.

This places professionals in a tricky situation, as schemes and standards advocating the market-based approach are widely used. One possible solution is to seek contractual arrangements, e.g. long-term power purchase agreements, that provide evidence of additionality. Professionals should also think about advising clients on the potential reputational risk from making reduction claims based on non-additional certificates.

A different example of questionable practice is treating emissions from the combustion of biomass as zero at the point-of-combustion. This strange practice has been inherited from national GHG inventory accounting, where, in theory, those emissions would be counted by the land use sector, when biomass is harvested.

However, the practice doesn’t reflect the reality of where and when the emissions actually occur. For instance, if the CO2 emissions from burning biomass are captured and stored, then why should they be counted as an emission in the land use sector, or counted as an emission at all? Arguably a ‘reality principle’ is needed, i.e. GHG accounts should count emissions (and removals) where and when they occur. The GHG Protocol is currently developing new guidance on accounting for land use, sequestration, and bioenergy – and hopefully this longstanding accounting error will be fixed.

Governments, companies, and individuals need accurate information in order to respond to global challenges, whether it’s a pandemic or the climate crisis. And it is important not to accept bad practices just because they are the incumbent ways of doing things. In fact, it’s incumbent upon us to do better.

Please note: the views expressed in this blog are those of the individual contributing member, and are not necessarily representative of the views of IEMA or any professional institutions with which IEMA is associated.

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Dr Matthew Brander

Senior Lecturer in Carbon Accounting, University of Edinburgh

Dr Matthew Brander is a Senior Lecturer in Carbon Accounting at the University of Edinburgh Business School’s Centre for Business, Climate Change and Sustainability. He is also the Programme Director for the world’s first MSc in Carbon Finance:


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