Software steps up to calculate carbon footprints

Data dashboards fed with finance and supplier information take the strain out of emissions auditing for companies.
1 August 2022

Green tech: emissions auditing software built upon robust standards such as the Greenhouse Gas Protocol are helping facilities to track their progress towards climate targets and win customers along the way. Image credit: Shutterstock.

As business lunches return to the menu, you might have glanced at the calorie information (now mandatory in the US, UK, and other countries) when weighing up which dish to choose. And while the nutritional numbers only tell part of the story, it’s still true to say that having such figures to hand helps consumers to make more informed (and hopefully healthier) decisions. Similarly, counting carbon emissions – rather than food calories – could turn out to be a long-term life-saver for the planet.

What’s more, just like there are plenty of apps to help calculate your food intake, there’s no shortage of online help to make it easier for businesses to determine their carbon footprint. Tech Zero, a group effort that encourages organizations to team up on understanding and reducing their emissions, has a useful toolkit [PDF] for firms starting out on their journey. “You can’t reduce what you don’t measure, so the first step in any net zero plan is to measure your emissions,” advises the toolkit’s authors, who recommend that businesses measure their emissions according to the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol.

Standards and training

First published in 2001, the GHG protocol set the corporate standard for GHG accounting and reporting. And today, its providers (the World Research Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development) offer accessible training programs such as ‘The Product Life Cycle Standard Online Course’, which teaches students on measuring the emissions of a product over its whole life cycle.

Lifecycle assessment (or analysis) is the ultimate in emissions accounting as it gives firms the full picture on the environmental impact of their products from raw materials extraction, device assembly, and customer use, through to end-of-life scenarios such as recycling and disposal. As well as the transparency that this data provides to customers, designers benefit too as materials choices, production methods, packaging, and transportation can all be refined thanks to knowledge unearthed. But these rewards take time to accumulate.

Keeping track of a company’s impact on the planet is a full-time job and a complicated one at that. But where there’s a problem to be solved, there’s a business opportunity, and in 2022 the environmental consultancy sector is a growth market for firms with tools to offer. Software that gives companies a headline view on the fuel that it’s used directly, utilities that have been purchased, and the indirect emissions from products, employee commuting, and other activities, simplify the reporting process for so-called scope 1, 2, and 3 carbon emissions.

Integrated approach

Carbon Analytics, an emissions accounting provider headquartered in the UK with a presence in the US, works with Virgin Atlantic, China Airlines, and others, to help total up firms’ carbon footprints and track progress towards more sustainable targets. The system integrates with finance tools such as Quickbooks, Xero and Excel to gather organizational data and find the supplier information necessary to start performing its environmental calculations (based on the GHG protocol).

OneTrust’s purchase of Planetly (a Germany-based emissions accounting provider) in December 2021 – to complement its privacy management, data governance, and ethics program activities – highlights the market value that plug-in software solutions are bringing to the environmental auditing space. “Sustainability reporting and carbon accounting are no longer just nice to have,” wrote OneTrust in an accompanying blog post. “Customers, investors, employees, and regulators expect organizations to act sustainably, reduce carbon emissions, and make meaningful climate impact.”

Today, Planetly – which remains in Berlin – works with more than 170 firms operating across a wide range of sectors from automotive to fintech and has drilled down into what tech companies can do to reduce and avoid emissions. And while the carbon footprint of streaming services may be smaller than headlines suggest (thanks to efficiency gains made by data centre operators and others in the data transmission pipeline), devices running software still represent a significant source of emissions. Devices need to be powered, manufactured, and their components sourced – all of which make the emissions add up.

Total package

With emissions trading schemes gaining momentum companies will need to be on top of their carbon footprint and have good visibility of the emissions that are associated with their business activities. Shipping giant Maersk briefed markets in July 2022 on the add-on cost that customers will face when shipping becomes included in the EU’s emissions trading system in 2023. And other sectors will be watching closely as cap and trade mechanisms extend out to lesser polluting industries to bring market forces to work more widely on finding greener solutions.

Plug-in emissions accounting solutions are already a game-changer for businesses and Carbon Analytics’ FAQ’s point to future opportunities for growth such as using similarly integrated systems to shine a light not just on carbon emissions, but on other environmental metrics such as water consumption and deforestation. But achieving such environmental enlightenment is not just about software, governance will be critical too so that companies act responsibly on the information put in front of them to steer around climate risks and embrace a sustainable future.