A breath of fresh air. Eventually.

Many companies have spoken to me of their ambitions to become carbon neutral by some date – usually long into the future. Others talk of cutting or offsetting their C02 emissions in a shorter timescale.

While admirable in their intent, closer examination reveals that they are working to different criteria. They may choose a different base year. They may restrict their emissions by product or division. They may choose to ignore ’embedded’ environmental damage caused by the mining, manufacture and delivery of the components they use. They might conveniently forget the in-use related emissions or ignore the end-of-life consequences.

Governments trumpet this that and the other ambitions for cutting greenhouse gases and they have plans to impose penalties and rewards based on the behaviour of large companies. But they stick to what they think they can (persuade others to) measure. And that, conveniently, is carbon, as I’ve mentioned before. (Sorry.)

What I want to concentrate on here is where the edge of policy lies. When the Carbon Reduction Commitment regulations arrive in 2010, the top 5,000 or so companies will be obliged to account for their direct and indirect emissions (from supplied energy). So all the accounting applies to what happens within the organisation. A company could theoretically dodge penalties by offshoring or selling off the nasty bits of its operations. But, given that the aim is to improve the earth’s climate, this won’t make a blind bit of difference. Indeed, if manufacture is ’offshored’ then additional carbon (etc) costs will be incurred through transportation.

Once again, I feel I should make it clear that reducing humanity’s impact on the environment is a good thing, quite regardless of whether or not we are actually the cause of climate change. There’s no point in challenging the carbon orthodoxy, but there’s nothing wrong with pointing out the narrowness of its vision and the timidity of its targets. Think of camels and committees.

Fundamentally, I’m suggesting that we accept the regulations but we don’t treat them as gospel. If all we do is conform to the obligations set down, then the world is likely to become a much worse place in environmental terms. The difficulty lies in knowing quite what to do for the best.

Recently, someone at Vodafone was talking about teenagers and young adults changing their mobile phone handsets up to three times a year. They don’t think about embedded carbon. Fashion is far more important. At the same meeting, someone made the astonishing assertion that Formula One motor racing is ’carbon neutral’.

A mobile phone shop might claim a clean environmental record based on its operations, quite ignoring how the stuff they sell came into being. Or, indeed, where it goes to at the end of its life. Max Moseley has been getting a lot of press lately, but not much with respect to his reforestation initiative in Mexico, something he kicked off in 1995, in close cooperation with Edinburgh University. The FIA Foundation’s news archive from 2002 states that it, "offsets all the carbon dioxide emissions from racing cars in the Formula 1 and World Rally Championship series."

In an excellent guide for businesses called ’Getting to Zero’, written by Clean Air – Cool Planet and the Forum for the Future, the authors state: "it seems unlikely that carbon-intensive activities such as Formula 1 motor racing can ever credibly claim neutrality." Interesting that it slipped the word ’credibly’ in there. And, to be fair, the FIA does not trumpet its neutrality, even if (judging from press coverage) it once used to. This is probably because offsetting is perceived by many as a kind of cheating. For organisations which are serious about genuinely improving the environment, offsetting is seen as a measure of last resort. But, there again, if a business like Formula One has to continue, offsetting is infinitely better than doing nothing at all.

Sticking with Formula One, it would be nice to think that all the teams’ private transport between events is included. But what about all the people who drive to these events? Not to mention the masses of non-team suppliers and support services. I have no idea what’s included in the offset calculations.

And this seems to be a general problem, not just for Formula One. Where does accountability end? Where should it end? The ’Getting to Zero’ report offers some good answers and plenty of food for thought. It refers to the three types of greenhouse gas emission: Scope 1 is the onsite stuff – direct emissions from company-owned or controlled sources; Scope 2 is indirect emissions, caused by the generation of electricity consumed (actually, it can include other energy sources); Scope 3 includes other indirect emissions resulting from the company’s activities. This stretches upstream to the production, processing and transport of raw materials. It extends corporate emissions to include business travel, employee commuting and outsourced corporate support services. And it includes downstream emissions in distribution, retail, product use and product disposal.

Currently, most concerned companies set their responsibility boundary around the Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions, with the addition of business travel from Scope 3. To strive for genuine neutrality, organisations would need to take all of Scope 3 into account. And, in the public eye, this is what they will be measured by rather than by their ability to meet regulatory obligations. If, as so many companies claim, they really want to address climate change, this is the only honest way to do it.

No-one’s making out it’s easy, but the ’zero’ guide is a good place to start.

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