3 Surefire Steps to Bring Climate Transparency to Your Supply Chain

With the release of guidance on supply chain reporting by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol just around the corner, companies will soon have more clarity on how to manage “Scope 3” emissions. 

At the same time, companies such as HP and others in BSR’s Energy Efficiency Partnership are working with a growing number of suppliers on climate change. As a result of these developments, minimum expectations for climate reporting on the supply chain are rising.

Now is the time for your company to embrace transparency, if it hasn’t done so already. It will help investors and partners, who increasingly see transparency as an indicator of a company’s competence, perceive your business as trustworthy. It will make outstanding achievements more credible, and it may even soften potential criticism, which is valuable in an environment where just about everyone, from journalists to employees, is inclined to write, blog, and tweet about your business.

But such transparency doesn’t come easily.

For one, almost every interest group, from consumers to investors to governments, has different information requirements, making reporting on climate impacts less about creating a single, comprehensive document and more about sharing granular information. The differences are growing. Consumers, for example, are using the Good Guide to screen for criteria that are most important to them, in effect creating their own “personal” certification.

Another challenge is the increasing demand for more specific information about companies’ suppliers — and their suppliers — when there is a lack of standards on what should be reported, when, and how.

A third challenge is the sheer expense of transparency, which takes substantial time and effort to effectively monitor and communicate.

To overcome these hurdles to transparency, we recommend a practical, three-part approach that involves monitoring your impacts, translating that data into actionable information, and promoting governance standards that catalyze progress.

1. Monitor in Order to Measure

Satisfying demands for granular information about climate impacts requires good measurement. Fortunately, most greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts boil down to energy, which is easy to measure.

Unfortunately, many suppliers whose impacts you want to report don’t have the monitoring equipment that’s needed to do so. It is unusual for suppliers in many countries, especially China — which matters most for many companies — to manage their energy use at all, both because they perceive it as a way to keep overhead low and because they don’t see other suppliers doing it.

Therefore, working with suppliers to install portable energy meters can be one of the most cost-effective ways to get more data. 

The basic versions of these monitors are available for less than US$10; more sophisticated options offer remote sensing and allow the uploading of data for analysis with software elsewhere. Over the course of a few months, companies can use a handful of meters to triangulate the most energy-intensive processes and pieces of equipment, and in doing so, show suppliers how they can take control.

In 2008, Nike was one of the first companies to report using remote energy meters (PDF). Today, Walmart is working with EDF to install energy meters in China, and BSR has recommended using energy meters to the 80 China-based suppliers who attended the recent launch of our Energy Efficiency Partnership.

In addition to enhancing transparency efforts, monitors open up new doors to companies in search of finance options. One of the main things holding up loans for the many energy-saving projects in China is verifiability. Monitors can potentially provide this assurance and therefore help companies in their efforts to gain finance from capital markets or private investors.

2. Count What Matters Most

Gathering granular data of the type provided by energy meters is useful in responding to the varying demands of different stakeholders, but it also creates a challenge in itself, often overloading you with information. To zero in on the important issues about your company’s climate impacts, it’s necessary to prioritize.

There are two ways to do this: Invest in intelligence tools that will help you glean more from the data, and use the right proxies to indicate how successful your company will be in meeting its quantitative targets.

Let’s look at intelligence tools first: Companies should consider how they can go beyond spreadsheets — the traditional mechanism for tracking GHG information — to using tools such as climate software packages (PDF) to glean more from data.

These tools complement energy metering equipment by allowing you to compare energy use at different points in time and on different time scales, which can help you identify cost-reduction opportunities and situations requiring maintenance. They also contextualize the energy meter information by putting it in terms of production output volume or other indicators your company is already managing. This helps embed analytics into existing business processes and continuous improvement initiatives.

Using proxies can also help you focus on the most important information. When starting energy management, it can be challenging in the short run to find a pattern in the most obvious and easily measurable data — energy actually used. That’s because things like weather and business variability make it difficult to see improvements in energy efficiency through electricity bills. However, you can use proxies as good predictors of success. These include, for example, whether a supplier has developed an energy action plan, what kind of target (say, to achieve 30 percent energy reduction) it has committed to, and how many energy meters it has installed.

Similarly, shortcuts are available with verification. For BSR’s work with Walmart, we designed a tiered approach to gathering data about suppliers’ energy impacts that included requests for narrative descriptions of energy projects and the names of team members working on energy efficiency. Those types of questions are easier to verify than accounting numbers themselves, and company representatives can use the information gathered to look for physical evidence of these things when they conduct supplier site visits.

3. Promote Action with Better Governance

Even when you have done your diligence to gather granular data and translate it into actionable information, one of the biggest barriers to progress in transparency remains: a lack of governance standards used by your peers. These shared systems are needed both to give stakeholders confidence in claims, and to create more clarity on where companies should focus their action.

What follows are some areas that are likely to present development needs for some time to come: 

Technical standards on how measurements are made: Even with more requirements, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s mandatory reporting rule (PDF) and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) interpretive guidance (PDF), many conventions are undefined, such as how to characterize progress on energy management, how to cost-effectively verify such results, and how to convert many local energy sources to GHG impacts. (See sidebar below for a more descriptive list.)

How Corporate Energy Managers Can Champion Better Technical Standards
One of the key challenges to improving business transparency on climate change is the development of technical standards that are shared across industries. Company energy managers have the opportunity to encourage the development of these standards, which are lacking in the following areas: 

•  Conversion factors: In much of the world, there is a lack of common measures for deriving GHG from energy sources. For example, in China, the government has published energy-carbon conversion factors for its seven grids, but there’s not yet an accepted standard for more local applications. A leadership opportunity exists for business to create open platforms that house much more specific and trustworthy conversion factors.

•  Supplier energy performance factors: In all but the most energy-intensive industries, there are few performance standards for energy use with suppliers in countries such as China. Managers can look for ways to identify and disseminate information about thresholds (e.g. best, average, minimum acceptability) with energy consumption and the type of equipment being used.

•  Management progress: There is a lack of agreement about how companies can state they have reduced or improved energy use for a group of diverse suppliers. Issues that need resolution include defining the scope and drivers of energy to account for changes to energy owed to operational changes, to describe how energy use is expressed (absolute or in terms of revenues or material inputs), and to determine rules for sampling (what minimum time period is allowed).

•  Cost-effective verification: There are few generally accepted alternatives to traditional energy audit processes like the International Performance Measurement and Verification Protocol, which are very expensive. Companies have the opportunity to work with stakeholders to create a system with sufficient accountability, while still being practical enough to apply to large sets of suppliers.

Shared systems: The process of interacting with suppliers and other partners to obtain information takes a commitment of people and resources. Suppliers and partners, in turn, are under pressure to respond to greater numbers and types of requests, meaning they have less time for your company’s request.A pioneer industry group, the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), was formed in part to develop a central repository for suppliers to report into and buyers to read from, significantly cutting down on administrative expenses. This and other kinds of “cloud computing” solutions offer important opportunities for sharing information.

Communication among diverse stakeholders: The development of new governance requires participation by a range of stakeholders, including technical experts, civil society representatives, and industry peers. In addition to observations being made and analysis done, subjective issues matter.

These issues include the types of people who want the climate information (e.g. whether they are customers or project financiers), what action the measurement is meant to encourage (e.g. energy management decisions or something else), and how much “uncertainty” is tolerated and how it is accounted for (e.g. what disclaimers are used for making estimations).

With this in mind, companies that want to improve the impact and recognition of climate transparency should join existing programs or groups such as the EICC. If such groups are not available, consider starting a new one with industry peers by sharing metrics, publishing useful internal studies, and sharing insights about the efficacy (or lack thereof) of a certain key performance indicator. Companies can also suggest that their existing working groups and associations facilitate standards.

In summary, more climate transparency will be good for business. It can improve credibility, win trust, and make discussions about climate change more meaningful. While the solutions provided here will take work, they are likely to lead to better incentives to find efficiencies and lower costs, and ultimate progress on climate change.

First posted at Greenbiz.

Real Climate Leadership and The Rules of Policy Engagement

As negotiators gather in Copenhagen next month to discuss a global climate policy framework, there has never been a better time for companies to influence policy instruments that could dramatically affect the future of climate change.

Business’ management of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is already improving. According to the Carbon Disclosure Project (PDF), more than 70 percent of the world’s 500 largest companies are now reporting their GHG emissions, and similar efforts are spreading rapidly, especially in the BRIC countries and throughout Asia.

Meanwhile, global emissions are continuing at a pace to surpass the 2 degrees Celsius threshold of climate change caused by a 350- to 450-parts-per-million concentration level. Even if we enact the most aggressive legislation proposed today, the concentration of GHG emissions would continue to rise rapidly, according to calculations from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s C-ROADS simulator. Meanwhile, there are questions about whether countries such as the U.S. and China — which together account for nearly 50 percent of global emissions — will be able to garner political support for basic commitments.

Under current regulatory frameworks, there is virtually no economic cost for producing GHG emissions, and it is increasingly clear that reversing the current path of climate change will require policies that put a price on carbon. By stimulating innovation in processes and products that would encourage a low-carbon economy and effectively align economic and environmental interests, this would address the single largest impediment to the significant expansion of fossil fuel alternatives.

Enacting such policies can happen only with the support of the private sector. Hundreds of companies ranging across industries and geographies — from British Telecom to Aspen Skiing Company to Levi Strauss to Shell — now consider climate policy engagement a key part of their efforts. These pioneers are demonstrating that there are many levers for informing and advancing effective climate policy.

Here are some examples and ideas to consider:

Direct and indirect engagement: Aspen has helped advance climate policy directly by submitting an amicus brief (PDF) to the U.S. Supreme Court, which led to a ruling that requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate GHGs. Direct action — which includes advocacy like this as well as lobbying for specific laws — is the most obvious option for climate policy engagement. There are also important opportunities to engage indirectly, such as by empowering the public to advance policy through education, and giving them more of a voice with policymakers. Marks & Spencer, for example, is inviting stakeholders to add their views by uploading patches to a virtual “quilt” that will be presented to negotiators at Copenhagen.

Input via multiple policy cycle stages: The previous examples emphasize input into policy formulation, but companies can also affect policy at other stages. For example, Hewlett Packard and Intel are co-leading an initiative of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition to develop a standard industry approach to measuring GHG emissions in supply chains. This effort aims to inform policymakers about how companies can share information at the operations level across borders. This will play a part in framing potential policy options. Once policy has been formulated, companies can engage in implementation in various ways. For example, the EPA offers 30-plus business partnership programs (PDF), to which companies such as Dell have subscribed, that offer feedback for further policy development.

Individual and collaborative action:
Timberland (PDF), Vale (PDF), and China Light & Power (PDF) are making individual appeals for robust climate policy, but they are also working collectively. Timberland, for example, is a member of the Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy (see sidebar for a list of coalitions). Other companies are focused on influencing the direction of existing business groups. PG&E and a host of others, for example, have left the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in protest of the organization’s position on climate legislation.

As these examples illustrate, climate policy engagement means more than simply taking a position; engagement must also include deliberate actions that inform and advance specific outcomes. This is difficult, however, because it is often unclear what the ideal policy outcome is. Indeed, companies and stakeholders are affected differently by different points of legislation.

So what should companies subscribe to? It’s safe to say that we should heed the calls of scientists to stabilize the climate. Business needs stable conditions to enable investment. It is also clear that these two issues are interdependent. Carbon-reducing investments are required for climate stabilization, without which there will continue to be persistent calls for more aggressive policies, which in turn will destabilize market expectations. And so on.

Companies should therefore call for legislation that peaks greenhouse gas emissions in the near term — ideally before 2020 — and that includes specific, robust accountability mechanisms. It also means asking for clear and durable rules that create the incentives for companies to invest in low-carbon energy and other GHG-reducing projects now.

Some companies have yet to join the policy debate due to the perception that their first step on climate issues should be to reduce their own emissions. However, engagement on policy can actually be undertaken concurrently, and may even enable more effective and efficient emission reductions.

What follows are five recommendations for engaging in climate policy based on the research BSR has conducted for a series of reports on climate policy engagement that will be published in early 2010:

1.    Start where you are. For most companies, managing climate policy proactively may seem like a brand new arena. But many of those same companies are already engaged in related activities, such as education and awareness building. Companies have pursued these activities because the public is often unclear that there is such robust scientific consensus about climate change, and public attitudes can have a strong impact on the success of legislation. Take stock of your existing efforts and capabilities, and use those successes to build the case internally for greater commitments.

2.    Follow emerging performance indicators related to climate policy. These include the Carbon Disclosure Project’s Investor Questionnaire (see question 28.1) and the Center for Political Accountability, as well as frameworks like Climate Counts. If you see room for improvement, communicate with these groups about the type of policy they should be encouraging.

3.    Focus your efforts. Identify your strongest levers for credibly influencing climate policy. The suggestions above provide a framework for considering your options.

4.    Pay attention to your company’s process. Policy outcomes are important, but so is the credibility and effectiveness of your company’s internal process. When it comes to managing operational emissions, the outcomes garner the most attention. With climate policy engagement, however, the quality of your approach is a chief success driver, because standards are emergent.

5.    Act now — and stay involved. The rules are currently being defined, and policy action is urgently needed to both mitigate climate change and reduce the uncertainty of market conditions. At the same time, key upcoming events, such as the Copenhagen climate change summit and the prospective U.S. Senate vote on emissions regulation, represent beginnings more than ends, because they will start a long process of standards development, international harmonization, and financial and technological innovation.

Given the fundamental changes that new climate policy will drive for energy, agriculture, and other markets, companies should develop more robust intelligence functions for anticipating and reacting to opportunities, and treat policy engagement as a continuous process.

First posted at GreenBiz.