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Today, measuring company carbon emissions is about doing your best

measuring tree

Even if your measurement of carbon emissions isn't perfect, you still should start. 

Measurement feels like it should be an exact science, with imputative results and no guesswork. But in the world of carbon emissions, we just aren’t there yet.

At least that’s what I took away from the sessions about carbon measurement at GreenBiz Group’s VERGE Net Zero conference last week. While tools including the Greenhouse Gas Protocol by the World Resources Institute (WRI), disclosure organizations such as CDP and goal frameworks such as the one set by the Science-Based Targets Initiative are helping companies move in the right direction, the process of measuring emissions at a corporate level is still half art and half science, according to the experts and practitioners speaking during the event.     

Measurement is, of course, a core principle to addressing sustainability in a company — we are all familiar with the phrase that what gets measured gets managed. But to truly understand the progress being made — or lack thereof — companies need better access to standardized measurement techniques for what it means to be net zero.

"Because we don’t have consistency in measurement," said Suz Mac Cormac, partner at Morrison and Foerster, an international law firm advising some of the top companies including those in the Fortune 100, during VERGE Net Zero. "Business can’t really say, ‘Yes, I’m meeting my net-zero goals.’" 

Some of the best minds, businesses and nonprofits are working towards making the act of measuring net-zero commitments as precise and exact as possible. According to David Rich, a senior associate at the climate program at WRI, just like sustainability, measurement is a journey; getting more accurate as you go.

It is acceptable to estimate and rely on the best data you have available.

Julia Silberman, associate director of corporate engagement at CDP, suggested that businesses should start by collecting and disclosing any data they have, even if it’s partial, before moving on to accounting for all direct operational climate impacts and setting targets. From there, they can create action plans to reduce impact for Scope 1 through 3 emissions and advance onto finally integrating climate issues into core strategies and having board-level oversight with verification. But even she understood the limitations most companies are dealing with.

"It is acceptable to estimate and rely on the best data you have available," Silberman said. 

What is slightly counterintuitive is that while the measurement industry and methods for assessing net-zero progress are still somewhat nascent, companies are drowning in data. 

"We are going to be living in a very data-rich and measurement-rich world when it comes to climate," said Jared Westheim, vice president of sustainable finance at Goldman Sachs.

But according to Amberjae Freeman, chairperson and CEO at Etho Capital, a financial company that creates index strategies that focus on ESG goals, the data is incomplete. Sometimes it’s also inaccurate or unverified. That is one reason CDP encourages companies to have third parties look over the self-reported emissions data and there’s also intense examination from the stakeholders such as investors and customers that promotes good data practices.

"Companies are reporting to stakeholders that are scrutinizing the data that they provide. So there’s a high degree of incentive, just by virtue of where the data is going, to provide accurate data," Silberman said. 

But the reality is that the data is self-reported because all carbon emissions accounting in the United States is voluntary. Getting accurate, good and meaningful data on carbon emissions can seem overwhelming, but these experts don’t want that to stop companies from starting on the journey to accurate measurement and informed decision-making. As Pooja Khosla, executive vice president client and product development at Entelligent, a climate investing group said:

"Don’t let the data rule you. You rule the data."

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