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Scope 3 emissions are a hidden climate culprit

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Cover photo credit: Leucippus, Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

While the rate of natural disasters, extreme weather conditions and species extinctions increase, environmental activists and scientists are all the more determined to find ways to curb greenhouse gas emissions, which are the primary cause of climate change. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere in the same way as a traditional greenhouse, warming the atmosphere and changing the climate. In 2019, carbon dioxide accounted for around 80% of greenhouse gas emissions. Other greenhouse gases, such as nitrous oxide, methane and fluorinated gases, also pose a major threat to the atmosphere.

Although we know the dangers of greenhouse gases, one problem has been determining how we measure them. More than 20 years ago, in 2001, the World Resources Instituteand the World Business Council for Sustainable Development collaborated to create the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHG Protocol), which acts as an international set of emissions guidelines for public and private entities.

Companies can use the GHG Protocol as a method of tracking and reporting their emissions. The protocol enables cities, businesses and other groups to meet measurable emissions targets and standards such as those agreed upon when nations signed the Paris Agreement.

The GHG Protocol divides greenhouse gas emissions into three scopes based on how they are created.

  • the first litterknown as Scope 1, accounts for emissions that a company creates directly, such as emissions from burning fuel to run the machines that create products and the engines that power the company’s vehicles .

  • The second scope (scope 2) covers emissions that the company does not create directly, but uses, such as electricity and heating.

  • the scope 3 broadcasts category includes all other emissions released throughout the company value chain, which refers to the process of taking raw materials and turning them into a product. Basically, scope 3 emissions cover all emissions that a company is associated with but not necessarily directly responsible for. This category of emissions is divided into upstream and downstream activities. the upstream group encompasses emissions on the supplier side of the business, such as travel, purchase of goods and services, transportation and distribution. This category also includes capital goods such as buildings and machinery. Downstream focuses on the emissions created once the product reaches the consumer. This includes investments, franchises, uses of products sold and disposal of products sold.

Image credit: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)


While companies discuss and disclose Scope 1 and 2 emissions, they often ignore Scope 3. This is particularly problematic because Scope 3 emissions have the greatest climate impact. If we want to reduce our carbon output and slow climate change as a society, scope 3 emissions need to be part of the conversation.

For example, emissions caused by felling a tree, transporting it to a pulp mill, operating the mill to process the tree into wood pulp, and transferring the wood pulp to a manufacturing plant are all upstream Scope 3 emissions. The greenhouse gases caused by operating the manufacturing plant to make a box of tissues are scope 1 and 2 emissions. The emissions created by a consumer going to a store to buy the tissues and then throwing used tissues away so that they end up releasing carbon in a landfill are Scope 3 downstream emissions.

Scope 3 emissions often make up the vast majority of a company’s carbon footprint, sometimes reaching percentages as high as 85% or 90% of total emissions. This number is particularly high for companies that outsource some aspects of their businesssuch as logging or product manufacturing.

While the Environmental Protection Agency requires large emitters to report scope 1 and scope 2 emissions, they are not required to report scope 3 emissions and rarely do so voluntarily. While it is understandably difficult to track all Scope 3 emissions, avoiding doing so is detrimental to any genuine attempt to reduce emissions.

By failing to account for Scope 3 emissions, a company could meet net zero emissions goals by addressing Scope 1 and 2 activities and portray itself as a green company, while completely ignoring the majority of its carbon footprint. Despite this obvious shortcoming, the idea of ​​requiring companies to report their scope 3 emissions remains highly controversial.

The problem, according to companies, is that scope 3 emissions are difficult or even impossible tabulate. In order to successfully reduce Scope 3 emissions, companies must have access to information about their supply chains and data to create science-based targets. This information was missing, perhaps because companies have little incentive to strive to streamline the data collection process. But it is not impossible. According to Ceres, a non-profit organization that promotes market-based solutions to climate change, more than 3,000 companies declared their scope 3 broadcasts. It can be done.

Without focusing on Scope 3 emissions, the world faces a significant obstacle to mitigating climate risks. These emissions present the greatest opportunity to impact our carbon emissions. Without including all types of carbon production in a company’s value chain, other efforts to regulate or report emissions end up performing more than impacting. So, for the good of our planet and all its inhabitants, it is time for companies to take the initiative to voluntarily account for their scope 3 emissions.

This blog was co-authored by Environment America intern Abby Vander Graaff