How to calculate your carbon footprint

October 20, 2021
Article

Before you reduce, you need to measure.

How do you calculate your carbon footprint?

Every company that generates greenhouse gas emissions has a calculable carbon footprint. And if you’re committed to minimizing your impact on the environment, you must account for your emissions.

The first step? Measure the amount of greenhouse gases your company and its employees produce so you can create a thoughtful strategy to reduce your impact.  

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Why should you calculate your carbon footprint?

We’ve entered an era where companies big and small are making public environmental commitments. Alongside those commitments, you’ve probably heard the terms carbon neutral, net-zero, climate positive a lot and your company might be tempted to jump on the climate commitment bandwagon. But before you make unattainable promises and inadvertently start greenwashing, you have to take an important first step that all these companies have in common: measure your emissions.  

The adage, “what gets measured gets managed,” rings especially true when it comes to carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. Why? Because before you mitigate, you need to measure. It’s like saying you want to lose weight without stepping on a scale first. You can exercise and eat better—which feel great—but getting an initial benchmark, then tracking give you a better sense of what’s working.

“People don’t expect brands to become perfect stewards overnight, but they want to learn about what you’re doing to improve sustainability now.”

When it comes to sustainability, measurement and tracking help break grandiose sustainability goals into smaller, manageable steps. You’ll also be able to identify strategies and interim goals to support those big ambitions. And if your stakeholders—including employees, shareholders, and customers—expect you to make a commitment to the environment and take action, you need to measure your carbon footprint to show progress.

What to consider when calculating your carbon footprint

DIRECT AND INDIRECT EMISSIONS

At the highest level, you can break down your emissions into two things: the activities your business controls (direct emissions) and activities that support your business operation but are outside your control (indirect emissions). Direct emissions include things like energy and fuel used in your buildings. Indirect emissions include all upstream and downstream activities—everything from employee commutes and the software you use to the emissions associated with getting a product to your customers and so much more. Unless you own significant real estate, your indirect emissions, which are the most complex to identify and calculate, typically comprise the bulk of your emissions profile.

CO2e

Carbon—measured in metrics tons of carbon dioxide (MTCO2)—has become the standardized unit of measure for climate change-centric sustainability goals and targets. It’s not the only metric that matters, though—water consumption, waste, and other factors are also important. However, there’s an equal conversion for these activities: carbon emissions equivalent (CO2e or CO2-eq). It allows for universal measurement and captures all GHG like methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. For example, one metric ton of methane has a warming effect at least 25 times that of CO2 and would therefore amount to 25 metric tons of CO2 equivalent.

Using MTCO2e, you can quantify your business’s actions across any number of areas—vehicle emissions, purchased electricity, business travel, employee commutes, and more. Measuring your MTCO2e makes it possible to see where your business has the greatest environmental impact, and subsequently, highlights where significant reduction opportunities lie.  

EMISSIONS SCOPES

Now that you have a better handle on the unit of measure—MTCO2e— and direct and indirect emissions, you should get familiar with emissions scopes (scopes 1, 2, and 3), which you can think of as the standard framework that helps businesses bucket their emissions into categories. Emissions scopes might seem confusing at first but stick with us. They allow you to identify how much CO2e you emit based on everything it takes for your business to operate.  

Think of emissions scopes as emissions accounting boundaries that help create an accurate calculation of your carbon footprint. Take a t-shirt manufacturer, for example. It might first account for the fuel or electricity used at the factory it owns where it makes its t-shirts (scope 1 and 2). That’s a great start. But to fully capture the impact of its operations, the manufacturer needs to include the activities across its value chain—both upstream (before the raw materials make it to the factory) and downstream (what happens to its products after they leave the factory). These are the more nebulous scope 3 emissions. With the t-shirt manufacturer example, scope 3 emissions could include emissions from processing the fibers used to make the shirts, the transit miles to deliver the material to the factory and then deliver the shirts to retail stores or customers, plus landfill emissions after the shirt gets discarded.  

Take the time to set clear guardrails, and you’ll get a clearer picture of everything you need to examine. Boundaries also help you account for factors you might otherwise overlook, like office equipment used by remote employees.

At this point, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath. Don’t let that feeling dissuade you from getting started, and don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. According to Google, “People don’t expect brands to become perfect stewards overnight, but they want to learn about what you’re doing to improve sustainability now.” Plus, we have a free platform to help you calculate and track your emissions.

How to start calculating your carbon footprint  

Big companies have admitted they’re still using spreadsheets to track their carbon dioxide emissions, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We wanted to help democratize and make sustainability easier for everyone. That’s why our Emissions Management platform is free for everyone to use. The tools and calculators remove the guesswork and surface the data inputs you’ll need to calculate your carbon footprint. All you have to do is answer a few simple questions, and we do the rest.  

Free carbon footprint calculator on Sustain.Life

Get started with our free carbon footprint calculator:  

  1. Sign up for a free Sustain.Life account  
  2. Choose which contributors and activities apply to your organization  
  3. Answer a few questions and enter data you have available  

From there, we’ll deliver your estimated emissions profile and recommend strategies to reduce your emissions.  

What’s next: Reduce your carbon footprint

After establishing benchmarks, calculating, and tracking your CO2 emissions, your most significant emissions-creating activities—typically from non-renewable energy and transportation—will come into focus.

Sustain.Life can help you create a reduction strategy to help mitigate your emissions. And with over 100 step-by-step guides across areas like energy use, waste, water, software, office supplies, climate risk, environmental justice, and more to help you create behavioral change to improve your carbon footprint.

Examples of step-by-step emissions reduction guides available on Sustain.Life


And for the emissions you’re unable to mitigate in the near term, you can purchase a range of verified offsets directly on Sustain.Life. These allow your company to get started meeting your sustainability and carbon neutral goals. Remember, though, only purchasing carbon offsets isn’t a sound sustainability strategy. Instead, take action to reduce your impact, then offset truly unavoidable emissions.  

More from Sustain.Life
Author:
Sustain.Life Team
Tags:
Energy & emissions
Climate change
Sustainability basics
Sustainability
The takeaway

• Measurement and tracking help break big sustainability goals into smaller, manageable steps.

• The standard measure used to calculate your carbon footprint is metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MT CO2e).

• Sustain.Life’s free carbon footprint calculator helps you track your emissions.