How to strengthen greenhouse gas accounting

How to strengthen greenhouse gas accounting

The process of tracking greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, referred to as GHG accounting, allows organizations to understand and count emissions from man-made sources in order to understand their contribution to overall global GHG emissions. GHG accounting is important because, as they say, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. In other words, in order for an organization to set and achieve decarbonization goals, it needs to be able to measure its GHGs.

Organizations of all types are increasingly committed to quantify and report their emissions. Corporations, cities, states, countries, and other types of organizations prepare their GHG emission inventory, sometimes called a carbon footprint. While the science of GHG accounting is mature and the processes for estimating GHGs is well established, organizations are still challenged in understanding their GHG emissions due to the availability of data, expertise needed to quantify emissions, and, increasingly, the ability to include data from other organizations that may fall within their inventory boundary.

The Carbon Call, a coalition of organizations including the ICF Climate Center, launched a new roadmap at COP27 to improve the flow of data and information that can support companies as they measure and report their GHG emissions. Marian Van Pelt, senior vice president of climate and clean energy and Climate Center Senior Fellow, co-wrote the report.

We sat down with Marian to explore some of her key takeaways from the report.

ICF: Why is global GHG accounting so complex?

Marian Van Pelt: More and more organizations are recognizing the importance of understanding their GHG emissions, and there is a huge amount of investment at all levels in understanding and managing their emissions. However, once those emissions are generated and reported, it can be difficult for that information to be shared and used by others. In addition, the expertise of the person or team responsible for calculating those emissions can vary widely. In some organizations, there is a dedicated team of experts who are responsible for performing the calculation; for others, the responsibility may be one of their many ESG functions. This leads to inefficiencies and, in some cases, impacts the accuracy of the emission estimates, which can affect the utility of the information when making decisions.

The challenge is that this is happening at many different scales and by many different organizations. For example, imagine two companies use the same vendor to procure goods and services. Both companies go through the process of determining the contribution those goods and services have on their organization’s carbon footprint. Even following the best practices and protocols for GHG accounting, the two companies may possibly estimate different emissions from the same activity. When you look at this challenge across the globe, you can see how this can introduce challenges in understanding an organizations’ emissions, taking actions to reduce emissions, or achieving GHG reduction goals.

ICF: What are some potential solutions to this challenge?

Marian Van Pelt: Fortunately, solutions are emerging. The Carbon Call came up with three actions to help improve the flow of GHG data and information:

  1. Digital smart dictionary. A digital smart dictionary promotes consistency in the language used to share and report GHG related information. With a digital smart dictionary, data can also be processed and shared quickly—and can be used with confidence.
  2. Discoverable data. Discoverable data can be more easily located, mapped, and integrated into software systems, analyses, and tools. GHG-related data and other information can be accessed and made machine-readable, allowing organizations to get the information they need to estimate GHG emissions.
  3. Metadata requirements. Metadata increases transparency, traceability, and auditability of GHG accounting and reporting by ensuring that reported emissions are accompanied by the critical information (e.g., units of measure, data quality, timestamps, data sources) needed to understand how they were developed. 

Together, these are three promising solutions that could significantly improve the ability of organizations to calculate, share and compare their GHG emissions.

ICF: What experience does ICF have with GHG accounting?

Marian Van Pelt: We’ve been doing GHG accounting for more than 30 years. We supported EPA on the first U.S. estimate of GHG emissions back in the late 80s. And we continue to help EPA create the annual Inventory of U.S. GHGs and Sinks, a flagship federal climate program.

We also work with dozens of federal agencies, utilities, state and local governments, and private-sector companies to measure their GHG emissions. And we have contributed to several of the foundational guidance documents that form the basis of the GHG accounting field.

As a knowledge partner for Carbon Call, our Climate Center remains on the cutting edge of GHG accounting innovations.

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Meet the author
  1. Marian Van Pelt, Senior Vice President, Climate and Clean Energy + ICF Climate Center Senior Fellow

    With over 20 years of experience, Marian leads business relating to climate change and sustainability experience helping federal, municipal, and commercial clients to reduce emissions. View bio

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