How to leverage data to operationalize sustainability post COP26

COP26 recently provided the opportunity for the world to come together and make progress on the climate agenda in recognition of the global nature of the problem. In the UK, 60 FTSE 100 companies signed up to the United Nation’s Race to Zero campaign – the largest ever global alliance committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Globally, over 5,200 companies joined the UN Race to Zero, representing sectors like transport, technology, manufacturing, retail, and finance.

After years of businesses talking about climate change, highlighting how concerned they are and how they are pursuing initiatives to lower their own impact, finally, COP26 provided a pivotal moment. A moment where several pledges and commitments were announced that addressed a business’s impact on the climate in a holistic way and provided a reference point for the continued consideration of how businesses can reduce environmental impact.

Post COP26, there continues to be a focus on monitoring, reporting and verifying greenhouse gas emissions. We continue to see marketing around specific changes, like adopting biodegradable plastic or zero-emissions vehicles, but no overarching strategy for achieving net-zero emissions climate change targets across industries. To effectively achieve those targets, businesses must consider how can it operationalize sustainability and the key to this lies in the data.

Digital Transformation

Many businesses will now have some level of in-house environmental tracking and can build carbon measurement into systems used to monitor productivity, logistics, service usage, and other business intelligence tools. Of course, following a decade or more of digital transformation, this is easier than ever.

If, for instance, a delivery company is already receiving real-time updates on the location and speed of every vehicle in a fleet, then the infrastructure for measuring CO2 is already in place. For businesses that operate fleets and are looking to reduce their carbon footprint, using mechanisms and processes to help them measure CO2 output will support a decline in greenhouse gas emissions for the transport sector. The value of digital transformation in supporting the measurement and leveraging this data to improve business operations must not be understated.

Finding Footprints

There is no doubt about it, collecting emissions data is increasingly complex. Even a relatively simple consumer item has, sitting behind it, a vastly complex web of emissions that a business might need to account for when assessing and reducing its environmental impact.

Take for example, the emissions sources associated with a television. The energy consumed by its manufacture, the transport systems that carry it, and the emissions of any warehouses or retail sites it is stored in are all relevant. The carbon costs of sourcing and processing the raw materials (whether recycled or first-life) that go into it, the energy consumed by operating it during its lifetime, and whatever energy was involved in its design process are also relevant. Then, we must add any impacts associated with packaging, company offices, marketing, and staff transport, not to mention those incurred when the consumer travels to look at their options – or even just browses the websites of manufacturers and retailers. As you can see, it doesn’t take long before an intricate web of carbon emissions processes to calculate arises.

Environmental specialists have developed a short-hand way of identifying and categorizing emissions.

  • Scope 1 contains any emissions produced on-site, such as by running a piece of manufacturing machinery.
  • Scope 2 contains any emissions created in order to power owned sites, such as the electricity used by an office space.
  • Scope 3 contains all of the emissions generated before and after a product or service is under the company’s direct control, from raw material sourcing to end-of-life disposal.

These scopes are used to measure and evaluate emissions, which in turn can help companies audit, understand and identify exactly how their processes are contributing to climate change. The problem is, there is no common standard for the measurement of such activity and rarely is a business’s process this clear cut.

High Quality Data

Very quickly, aspects of a business’s emissions monitoring system can look like a labour-intensive data collection effort with no built-in mechanism to demonstrate the validity of the data being received. Such problems are only compounded when the data is stored in various ways – measuring in grams of CO2e rather than kilograms, for instance, or using a different database format.

As a solution to this, one could rely on estimated averages for different emissions-producing activities, rather than trying to measure them directly. Such an approach, however, will always involve an element of estimation – and, over time, those estimates tend to become increasingly inaccurate, requiring recalculation to maintain usefulness and confidence.

To measure emissions more accurately, and to ensure we have emissions data that we can report to all interested stakeholders, there must be an emphasis on high quality verifiable emissions data that can be combined to form an overall view of industrial footprint viable in the real world. Achieving this outcome requires global alignment around data and that is the goal that sits behind the Open Footprint™ Forum, a Forum of The Open Group.

Setting the standard for environmental footprint data

An open standard for tracking environmental footprint data, unifying data recording, processing, and sharing across industries, will transform emissions reporting and propel businesses further toward their COP26 goals.

While it is still early days for the standard, we are making progress towards a vision of making it possible to automate the calculation of greenhouse gas data – and, eventually, data such as water usage and landfill – giving companies real-time, reliable insight into their impact. Linking it back to transport as an example, this can be invaluable to businesses that are looking to gain a better understanding of their CO2 emissions in order to decrease their greenhouse emissions.

With a defined API to access the data, businesses will be able to cascade environmental insight through the value chain, just as they now contribute to their sectors without necessarily having contact with all the other stakeholders in it.

Solving the climate crisis demands clearer conversations, stronger leadership buy-in, measuring data from each sector, greater support, and more forceful deadlines with digital transformation. We can support this through data and open standards.