Monday, 13 August 2012

What Defra's Greenhouse Gas Reporting Consultation Won't Tell You

In late July I tweeted the news that the UK Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has released the final consultation on its proposed mandatory carbon reporting legislation.

If you went to Defra's website and download the consultation documents following that announcement, you might have felt somewhat confused and more than a little disappointed.  It all feels rather vague.

The draft consultation document from late last year, and Defra's ensuing feedback document released this spring each ran to dozens of pages focusing on the technical minutiae of setting organisational footprint boundaries based on operational versus financial control, whether or not to include Scope 3 emissions in the footprint, and the pros and cons of reporting all six Kyoto categories of greenhouse gases.  In the end, Defra expressed strong views on how these and other points should be addressed, and went to some length to justify those decisions.

The final consultation document totals just six pages and lacks specificity on most of these important points.  Required reporting standard? Not specified. Financial versus operational control? Not clearly specified. Penalties for non-compliance? Silence. What is more, the final consultation document appears to change the inclusion criteria that determine which companies are covered under the proposed legislation, narrowing them in one regard and substantially broadening them in others. You can find Defra's greenhouse gas reporting consultation page here - as I said, it's a relatively quick read.

When Nick Clegg announced the introduction of mandatory carbon reporting at the Rio+20 summit, it was touted as proof that the UK was leading the world in its response to climate change.  So why the sudden absence of detail?  I have three theories.

The first is political. The initial consultation documents clearly were written by technical specialists, who were focused on getting things right.  The final legislation needs to be read into the House of Commons and debated by politicians.  The more detail is included, the more likely the legislation will get delayed due to time pressure or tripped up by a Member of Parliament who objects to one or more provisions.  Seen from this perspective, short and sweet is the way to go.  Perhaps Defra will choose to issue clarifications containing the detail once the legislation is passed.

The second potential reason for this approach is to maximise the number of companies who report.  I call this the "boiled frog" approach.  By refusing to define rigidly what companies must report and how they must report it, Defra might be making it easier to comply.  Given the choice between companies submitting poor quality or incomparable data versus no data at all, my preference would be to get poor quality data. After all, we know the footprint isn't zero, and this flawed initial number gives us something with which to start.  Defra can then issue additional guidance as time goes on to improve the quality of data that companies submit and ensure that it becomes easier to make  comparisons between companies or industry sectors.  The responding companies, meanwhile, can gradually begin to implement better data collection and quality assurance systems - perhaps with less internal resistance than if they tried to jump from no carbon reporting to industry best practice all at once.

And the third potential reason Defra may have chosen to keep it simple, is that many of the largest companies already report their carbon footprints in a reasonably consistent way via the Carbon Disclosure Project.  CDP respondents report their greenhouse gas emissions using ISO 14064 or the GHG Protocol and answer the same standard questions about their carbon footprints.  Carbon Clear is a CDP accredited Consultancy Partner, and while respondents' footprints are not directly comparable, they do tend to take a similar approach.  I expect UK listed firms that already report their emissions to comprise the bulk of the total footprint covered under the Government's mandatory carbon reporting scheme.  As a result, Defra may have decided they did not need to reinvent the wheel.

The real reason is likely to include some of each of these, and perhaps some others that never see the light of day.  Whatever the reason, the result in the short term is confusion for firms that don't yet know whether they will be included, nor what they need to report.  Based on our previous conversations with Defra and the CDP, our team at Carbon Clear is able to tease some extra detail out of the current legislative draft, and will aim to give our clients a head start in preparing for the advent of mandatory carbon reporting in the UK.