Field Notes: Helping Guide GHG Protocol’s “Scope 3”

As BSR goes to press with “Looking for Signs Along the Road to Copenhagen,” the debate about whose emissions are whose and what constitutes progress is heating up. It is going to get hotter, because it looks more likely that the WTO will enforce prospective border measures on carbon.

Hopefully, the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol’s emerging guidance for “Scope 3 Emissions” will be useful toward spotlighting risk.

The GHG Protocol, which is the global standard for organizational greenhouse gas accounting, recently embarked on a 2-year process to develop detailed guidance for calculating emissions for Scope 3—the infamously ambiguous designation for emissions outside a company’s direct ownership and control, but which they still have meaningful influence over.

As a participant in the Technical Working Group developing new Scope 3 guidance, I recently visited New York for an in-person meeting. The event was one in a multi-layered series of research collaborations bringing together perspectives from various sectors and locations.

What will Scope 3 guidance eventually look like? It is early to say, but what is clear is that that developers will wrestle seriously with the following issues:

1. How comprehensive. Some want measurement areas to focus on straightforward activities like flights and hotel stays. Others, such as some companies in the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition, want rules and principles that will allow propagating a measurement scheme through multiple tiers of suppliers.

2. How to measure. There are various methods of possible measurement, such as prescriptive calculations for commonly purchased services (like flights), predetermined conversion factors for emissions-intense materials (like aluminum), and descriptive protocols for counting observed emissions from suppliers (potentially, multiple tiers) based on rules for overhead allocation.

3. How to stay relevant. The current basic guidance on Scope 3 from the GHG Protocol assumes end-user consumers at the end of a value chain. This life cycle analysis-based depiction is easy to envision and practical for many so far. Yet, producers are also consumers, and the “linearity” and “endpoints” that tradition suggests are not so hard-and-fast absolutes, as a rapidly decentralizing and service-orientated global economy suggests.

Each conundrum illustrates huge trade-offs. The real challenge, therefore, is not technical perfection, but guidance that will have the maximum benefit for the most situations around the world. The ideal result? Catalyzing a transition from debating about the data of carbon to ratcheting it down.

First posted by BSR.

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