What are scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions?

February 26, 2021

Measuring greenhouse gas emissions is essential to reduce your carbon footprint, and do your part to impact climate change.

According to the EPA, transportation and electricity—two essential functions for most businesses—produce over half of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the U.S. Both are great places to start if you’re looking to mitigate your GHG emissions, but did you know that 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 bucket or break down your emissions sources and behaviors.

While 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.  

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What do the different emissions scopes mean?

The 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: scope 1 is what you burn; scope 2 is what you buy; and scope 3 is everything beyond that.

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-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.

Graphic explaining Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions

What activities emissions scope 1, 2, and 3 include

Scope 1 – Emissions from fuel burned in owned or controlled assets—think buildings, vehicles, and equipment. Scope 1 also includes accidental or fugitive emissions like chemical and refrigerant leaks and spills.

Scope 2 – 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.”

Scope 3 – This includes all other indirect emissions associated with a company’s upstream and downstream operations. 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)

Learn everything you need to know about each emissions scope

Deep dive: Scope 1 emissions

Deep dive: Scope 2 emissions

Deep dive: Scope 3 emissions

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 a 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 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 relationships, and all other related activities.

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

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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