What are scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions?

March 15, 2024

To reduce your carbon footprint and impact climate change, you must start by understanding, then measuring your greenhouse gas emissions.

buildings with scope 3 emissions

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According to the U.S. EPA, transportation and electricity—two essential functions for most businesses—produce over half of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG emissions) in the U.S. Both are great places to start if you’re looking to mitigate your GHG emissions, but did you know that global emissions are about more than what comes out of an exhaust pipe or a smokestack?

If you honestly care about sustainability, you must measure and track your carbon emissions before attempting to reduce your carbon footprint. But you have to look across your entire business, and emissions scopes—often colloquially referred to as “scope emissions” or scope 1, 2, and 3—help you break down your emissions sources and behaviors.

While CO2 emissions scopes might seem confusing at first, they actually help you create a GHG inventory by identifying your total emissions or how much CO2e you emit based on everything it takes for your business to operate.  

Learn everything you need to know about scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions

Deep dive: Scope 1 emissions

Deep dive: Scope 2 emissions

Deep dive: Scope 3 emissions

What do the different emissions scopes mean?

The Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHG Protocol) divides emissions into three scopes:

Scope 1 emissions – direct emissions from sources owned or controlled by a company

Scope 2 emissions – indirect emissions from purchased electricity, steam, heat, and cooling

Scope 3 emissions – all other emissions associated with a company’s activities

If this is hard to grasp at first, we have a good shorthand to remember what each scope includes: Burn, Buy, Beyond. Scope 1 is what you burn; scope 2 is energy you buy; and scope 3 is everything beyond that.

Illustration explaining emissions scopes 1, 2, and 3

While scope 1 and scope 2 emissions might be the easiest to measure, tracking what is often the largest culprit of a company’s carbon footprint—scope 3 emissions—tend to be more nebulous. Scope 3 emissions include an array of elusive carbon dioxide-emitting activities that, when added up, often account for more significant carbon emissions than Scopes 1 and 2 combined.

If a company truly intends to reduce or even eliminate its carbon footprint, it must address all three scopes and pay special attention to scope 3.

What are some examples of scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions?

Scope 1 – Emissions from fuel burned in owned or controlled assets—think buildings, vehicles, and equipment (like boilers). Scope 1 also includes accidental or fugitive emissions like chemical and refrigerant leaks and spills. (Remember, a good shorthand to remember scope 1 is what you “burn.”)

Scope 2 – Indirect GHG emissions from purchased electricity, steam, heat, and cooling in buildings and production processes. Think of these as indirect emissions you create by figuratively “keeping the lights on.” (Remember, a good shorthand to remember scope 2 is what you “buy.”)

Scope 3 – This includes all other indirect emissions associated with a company’s upstream and downstream operations. (Remember, a good shorthand to remember scope 3 value chain emissions is everything “beyond” what you burn and buy.) Unless a business has significant real estate holdings and energy consumption, scope 3 typically represents the most significant contributor to a company’s carbon footprint because it includes things like:  
Business travel (e.g., air travel)
• Employee commuting
Waste generated in operations and waste disposal
Purchased goods and services
Transportation and distribution tied to suppliers and customers
• Capital goods, investments, and franchises
• Leased assets
• Emissions from the use of a product or service sold
• Product’s end of life (when it’s no longer useful)

Ebook: Choosing the best carbon accounting methods

Why measure scope emissions?

Measuring GHG emissions or creating an emissions inventory is critical to understanding your company’s carbon footprint and impact. If you want to reduce your emissions and fossil fuel use, you have to calculate them before creating an emissions reduction target. If you didn’t, it’d be like saying you want to lose weight without first stepping on a scale. You can exercise and diet all you want, but how would you know what’s working without an initial benchmark?

Emissions calculation through a reliable ESG VC software is also good for business. It requires a deepened understanding of every part of your business—your own operations, product lifecycle, supply chain and value chains, stakeholder and supplier relationships, and all other related activities.

While GHG or carbon accounting might seem daunting, it should be the first step in your sustainable development journey. And good news: Sustain.Life’s platform includes over a dozen carbon footprint calculators that make getting started a breeze. After that, you’ll be able to look for efficiency opportunities, waste reduction opportunities, or ways to streamline procurement or other essential activities.  

America’s recommitment to the Paris Climate Agreement has set the stage for a new emissions accounting era, likely bringing additional regulatory standards. Quantifying your emissions now will not only help you stay ahead of the legislative curve but also help you maintain a competitive business advantage.

Sustain.Life emissions dashboard

What emissions reporting is required by the GHG Protocol Corporate Standard?

The gold standard for corporate carbon accounting and corporate emissions reporting is the GHG Protocol, a framework to define and translate business activities into emissions figures.  It was designed “to help companies prepare a GHG inventory that represents a true and fair account of their emissions through the use of standardized approaches and principles.”

That means, if you’re looking calculate a complete scope 1 and 2 emissions inventory, you must account for all emissions categories and activities that are material to your business and corporate value chain standards, not just the ones you want to track.  

Layer in the complex world of global sustainability regulations and reporting disclosure requirements and you'll see that getting a handle on your emissions is an essential task to operationalize sustainability at your company.

How can you measure and reduce your scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions?

Use Sustain.Life to calculate your carbon footprint and start your path to net-zero.

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Editorial statement
At Sustain.Life, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Written by practitioners and experts, articles are grounded in research and experience-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by our team of sustainability professionals to ensure content is accurate and aligns with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
Alyssa Rade
Alyssa Rade is the chief sustainability officer at Sustain.Life. She has over ten years of corporate sustainability experience and guides Sustain.Life’s platform features.
Constanze Duke
Constanze Duke is a director of sustainability at Sustain.Life and leads the company’s technical practice. She began working in sustainability in 2007 and has worked through sustainability’s dramatic evolution into a multi-faceted discipline.
The takeaway

Scope 1 – direct emissions from sources owned or controlled by a company

Scope 2 – indirect emissions from purchased electricity, steam, heat, and cooling

Scope 3 – all other emissions associated with a company’s activities