In this article I take a look at defining carbon awareness, talk about global and personal carbon budgets and finish by looking at how businesses could use these to drive accountability of carbon reductions throughout their businesses.
Here’s a quick jump-to list for this article:
What is Carbon Awareness?
Carbon emissions are part of pretty much everything we do in our lives.
We are becoming more aware of some of those sources of emissions, such as driving cars, flying in planes and even wasting food, yet there are many other sources of emissions that we fail to notice in our day to day lives.
“Carbon awareness” is this realisation, that carbon emissions of varying degrees are generated in everything we do, and when I say carbon, I mean carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), which includes other greenhouse gases such as methane.
Beyond the more obvious carbon culprits, there are plenty others that often avoid our daily attention, for example:
- When we buy things, we fund the emissions of carbon for the manufacture, storage and shipping of the things
- When we flush the toilet, carbon emissions are generated during the water treatment and delivery process
- When we go to the gym, we generate emissions
- When we save money, we fund emissions
- When we power things, we use energy, which generates emissions.
- Worse, when we leave unused electrical devices plugged in, we waste energy and generate unnecessary carbon emissions.
These last two points are covered in detail in my Discovering Digital Carbon Footprints talk.
Why is carbon awareness important?
As a civilisation we have an immense challenge ahead of us, one that must be tackled by each and everyone of us.
This challenge is to drastically cut our carbon footprints at incredible pace.
To do this …
- We will require gargantuan changes to our societies at a scale that can only be implemented by nations.
- We will require mammoth efforts from multi-national organisations and complex global supply chains.
- We will need huge efforts and systemic changes in our local governments, education systems and small business communities.
- We will need to make difficult and uncomfortable choices about our livelihoods and reform old habits.
And, importantly, we will need to make carbon aware decisions in every single thing we do.
Hope and Paralysis
But quite often we do nothing.
We sit in a state of denial, confusion and paralysis, going about what we’ve always done, making the occasional mental note about how we might need to rethink this, or that.
But why do we do this when the urgency and threat is all too clear and present?
My observation is that we find the threat simply unsurmountable, and believe our actions will be inconsequential. We expect others to implement the gargantuan and mammoth changes, hope that will be enough, and moan about the consequences when it happens.
There’s a couple of quotes I use quite a bit.
“If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito” — Dalai Lama
“Great things come from a series of small things coming together” — Vincent Van Gogh.
While the painful systemic, global changes can’t be avoided and must happen at an ever more urgent pace, there is still significance that can be achieved through our collective action, even at a smaller scale.
By becoming more aware of the daily carbon emissions we cause, we can make (and stick to) small changes in our lives, and collectively these will add up.
Beyond the cumulative impact, our daily changes will be a catalyst for broader change, as our collective changes send signals to markets, and markets adapt. As the old retail saying goes, “vote with your feet”.
This leads me to another important observation I have been sharing a lot recently…
Personal Carbon Budgets
In order to reach our collective global goals, in particular mitigating climate change by capping temperature rises to 1.5C (or however that changes following COP27) we must focus more on Carbon Budgets.
A carbon budget, at its very simplest is a the maximum amount of carbon we can emit (or spend) during our activities. We can work this out by understanding how much carbon we can afford to have in the atmosphere to avoid breaching the target 1.5C. We can then take that number and divide it by the population. That gives us our carbon budget.
Global Carbon Budgets
In order to cap temperature rise, our total global emissions can not eclipse 750 billion tonnes of CO₂ up to 2050. Allocating this equally across the entire planet’s population derives a personal carbon budget of 2.3 tonnes/year.
Putting that into context, the global average is almost twice that at 4.5 tonnes/year. But averages can be misleading. Some nations emit significantly less, some significantly more as this chart from Our World in Data shows:
The US and Canada are currently standing at around 6 times greater than the target of 2.3 tonnes/year, whereas the EU is almost about 2.7 times higher. At the other end of the scale, lower-income-countries average 0.28 tonnes per capita per year, about 8 times lower than the 2050 maximum budget.
That’s a huge difference and presents some of the challenges our societies need to deal with. US and Canadian citizens need to cut their individual carbon footprints by more than 80%, compared to todays levels, the UK needs to loose a little more than a half. Whereas other countries need as much support as they can to avoid their footprints accelerating in line with their economic growth.
How Can Businesses Manage Carbon Awareness Through Their Organisations?
Now I’ve set the scale of the challenge, I want to share with you an idea I’ve been sharing during recent conversations and keynote presentations.
I am often asked what companies can do to propagate their sustainability plans throughout their business. The challenge is that often company sustainability strategies are defined and agreed by management teams, or the “sustainability team”, and then struggle to gain awareness, let alone adoption, beyond those teams.
From a company carbon footprint point of view, I believe we already have the tools, governance and best-practices already installed in most companies today. These have existed for as long as companies have existed, but today they are used to disseminate awareness, ownership and accountability of other things throughout the business.
To delegate ownership and accountability of carbon budgets across organisations, we simply need to adapt this existing framework to incorporate carbon.
So what is this mystical set of tools, I hear you ask…?
To create financial autonomy and accountability most businesses cascade financial budgets top-down through organisations. These financial budgets are used to make decisions about investment, hiring, firing, product development, travel, procurement, acquisitions, bonuses and much more. In fact, financial budget delegation is at the heart of nearly all decision making.
Now let’s switch financial budgets for carbon budgets and we have exactly the tool set we need. If we can cascade carbon budget responsibility in the same was as fiduciary responsibility though an organisation we can have the entire company making decisions based on not just financial but carbon impact too.
Departments and teams would need to plan their year, their travel, equipment acquisitions, salaries, bonuses and staffing to hit carbon budgets as well as financial. Missing carbon budgets would have similar implications as missing financial budgets. Out-performing expectations would also have similar upsides.
I’ve had a lot of people look at me as if a (low energy) lightbulb just lit up💡 when I explain this.
In theory (at least at this level) it’s obvious when you say it out loud, right?
But then the challenge is, as always in the detail … Do we have enough information to put this into action, how granular can we go? What target should we have for our organisation? Should one company have a bigger total budget than another?
My response to this is that we must act now, and commit to improving our knowledge and performance as we go.
To get going try this … At a very high-level we know our target personal carbon budget is 2.3 tonnes/year. For organisations, their employees will spend a fraction of that budget during their working time, so either build a detailed model or start with an assumption that you are responsible for ~20% of each of your employee’s 2.3 tonnes/year budget. (I assumed 220 out of 365 days a year are ‘working days’ and about a 3rd of that time is spent at work)
That can give us a target carbon budget per employee (one that we will need to improve over time) of 1.3 tonnes/year/employee.
The next step is to understand the status quo. What is the total company footprint now, and how does that translate to a per employee number? This step isn’t easy, but is definitely do-able with assumptions (which, as mentioned above, we commit to continually improve). Start with what you know, perhaps cost of energy, transport etc (e.g. Scope 1 & 2), then add more.
With the status quo and target numbers, the same budgeting can take place as often happens for financial planning — different departments are allocated different budgets based on their function and output. Collectively, though, these budgets must not exceed the company wide budget of number of employees x 20% of 2.3 tonnes.
With that set in place, each and every decision can now be based on whether it moves the company closer to the target or not. During this holes and gaps in data will be discovered, but the great thing here is that there will be the institutional motivation required to actually solve that problem, instead of skirting around it. If you can’t grow your team or give bonuses because there’s critical carbon data missing in your process, then that will be a point of focus, right?
Anyway, I know there are a lot of holes in this, and it’s not as simple as the last 100 or so words, but I wanted to share the idea so more of you can have (low power) lightbulb moments and we can collectively find a way to solve this.
To let me know what you think use the comments below or contact me directly — I’m eager (as always) to learn and develop these ideas.