A digital carbon footprint represents the total amount of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) attributable to the lifetime manufacture, use and end-of-life of the digital products and services we use. However, the generated CO2e is is not equally distributed across that product lifetime.
The lifetime CO2 e of a product or service is typically split into two high-level categories; embodied emissions and operational emissions.
- Embodied emissions are those that are generated in the manufacture, storage and shipping of the items.
- Operational emissions are those generated in the lifetime use of the product or service.
The split between the two is typically 80% embodied, 20% operational as mentioned in the previous article.
GHG Scopes 1, 2 and 3
The Greenhouse Gas Protocol defines three scopes of emissions — Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3.
Related: Find out more about the GHG Scopes in this article.
For many industries, Scope 3 (indirect upstream & downstream) emissions are by far the largest majority, indeed Apple’s Scope 3 accounts for more than 99% of their total reported emissions.
Then of that Scope 3, the Purchased Products and Services category is then often the largest contributor. In the conversations I’ve had, it’s often between 80–90% of the total Scope 3.
That means the digital products and services purchased by procurement could have the single biggest impact on a quest to reduce digital carbon footprints.
Distributed Procurement Impact
While procurement might be the best place to have the biggest impact, the biggest opportunity is to distribute the sustainable purchasing decision making beyond the direct influence of a procurement team.
This is done today for financial control, using tiered purchasing authorities and budget settings. In order for sustainability focused decision making to trickle down through the organisation, managers and individuals need access to sustainability data and guidelines.
This is where one of the challenges pops up in this process — there simply isn’t the level of maturity in the carbon data market.
Not yet, but it is coming.
In the meantime, we all need to be comfortable with decision making involving incomplete and often somewhat vague data.
This is much easier said than done, and to help, I created two metrics and an illustration to show how this can be used over time.
The two metrics are :
- Carbon baselines: This is a frequently updated snapshot of the current digital carbon footprint of the company, division, team, or product line (depending on how it is implemented). The baseline is a best-effort estimate that is intended to be improved iteratively.
- Carbon incrementals: These are the changes to the baseline that a purchase will have to the baseline.
Together the carbon baseline and carbon incrementals are used to score individual purchasing decisions against, “Do I improve our digital carbon footprint when purchasing laptop A or laptop B…?”.