Tuesday, 19 February 2013

More on the CRC and Carbon Offsets

One of the reasons participation in the UK's Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme is a poor alternative to offsetting your company's carbon emissions is that the Government has no obligation to use your CRC "tax" payments to spur greenhouse gas reductions. A second reason is because, by DECC's own admission, the £12 per tonne permit price "may have a marginal effect on decisions to invest in energy efficiency relative to overall energy prices".

Pulling back to look at the big picture provides us yet another reason why companies participating in the CRC should not abandon carbon offsetting as a tool to fight climate change: the CRC ignores a huge portion of most companies' carbon footprint.

The CRC focuses on emissions from stationary energy consumption - particularly the use of electricity and gas in buildings.  In traditional carbon reporting parlance, the CRC focuses on Scope 1 and 2 energy emissions.  It does not cover other types of Scope 1 emissions - from refrigerant leaks, from land use and forestry activities, or from burning fuel to power a company's vehicles. The CRC is also silent on most Scope 3 emissions, which come from third party activities undertaken on the company's behalf. This includes taxis, commercial air travel, hotels, and outsourced goods and services.  Finally, even that limited CRC footprint is focused only on a company's UK operations - all emissions from overseas assets are excluded.

From the point of view of government regulators, these exclusions make sense. After all, the UK would risk an international outcry if it unilaterally imposed a carbon tax on company operations in, say Germany or China. And with buildings responsible for the lion's share of UK emissions, there is a strong case for focusing on this area.

For many companies, however, an emphasis solely on the CRC footprint marks a retreat from best practice.  The GHG Protocol and ISO 14064 reporting standards require firms to report all Scope 1 emission sources, not just energy, and recommend further that firms measure and report their Scope 3 emissions whenever possible. Therefore, relying on the CRC footprint would not be enough to demonstrate a firm's low-carbon leadership - even if the CRC were to begin driving investment into emission reductions on a massive scale.

For professional services firms the situation is even worse. Business travel often represents more than 50% of the carbon footprint of a major accounting firm, consultancy or auditor. As a recent  infographic in the New York Times demonstrates, frequent long-haul flights can easily swamp an individual's or company's other emission reduction efforts.  The problem for professional services is that these companies are selling time and brainpower. They are often most effective when they can sit side by side with their clients to solve business problems.  And when their clients are all over the globe, that means they have to travel. A lot. Many of these companies are CRC participants, but their CRC performance says little about their overall GHG impact.

Let me be clear: the CRC has helped us make progress in our efforts to decarbonise the UK economy. It has raise awareness of climate change among finance directors and other corporate leaders in a way that would be difficult to accomplish with voluntary measures alone.  Furthermore, it gives government the tools to drive further reductions in future. However, corporates who wish to demonstrate their low-carbon leadership must go further. They can set ambitious near- and long-term reduction targets that go beyond compliance, and they can invest in verified carbon offset credits that achieve guaranteed emission reductions, right here and now.

Jamal Gore is Director at carbon management specialist firm Carbon Clear. All opinions are his own.