Mar 05 2024

Navigating the Complexity of Scope 3 Emissions Accounting for Corporates



Navigating the Complexity of Scope 3 Emissions Accounting for Corporates

As the business world grapples with the urgent challenge of climate change, companies are facing growing pressure from investors, regulators, customers, and other stakeholders to take a more comprehensive and transparent approach to measuring and managing their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While many companies have made significant progress in reducing their Scope 1 and 2 emissions (direct emissions from owned or controlled sources and indirect emissions from the generation of purchased energy), Scope 3 emissions remain a major blind spot and untapped opportunity for corporate climate action.

According to CDP, Scope 3 emissions account for 75% of the total carbon footprint of the average company, and up to 90% or more for certain sectors such as apparel, food and beverage, and transportation. This means that even companies with ambitious Scope 1 and 2 reduction targets may be missing the majority of their emissions impact and the potential for value chain collaboration and innovation.

Moreover, as investors and other stakeholders increasingly expect companies to disclose and manage their Scope 3 emissions, those that fail to do so may face reputational, financial, and regulatory risks. The Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), for example, recommends that companies disclose their Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions as part of their climate risk assessment and management processes. And the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) requires companies to set Scope 3 targets if their Scope 3 emissions account for more than 40% of their total emissions.

However, measuring and managing Scope 3 emissions is easier said than done. Unlike Scope 1 and 2 emissions, which are largely within a company's direct control and can be measured using established protocols and tools, Scope 3 emissions are dispersed across multiple tiers of suppliers, distributors, and customers, each with their own data systems, methodologies, and incentives. This complexity poses a range of challenges for companies looking to get a handle on their Scope 3 footprint, from data collection and quality assurance to boundary setting and attribution, engagement and collaboration, target setting and tracking, and reporting and disclosure.

In this article, we'll take a deep dive into the key issues and best practices in Scope 3 emissions accounting, drawing on the experiences and insights of leading companies and experts in the field. We'll explore common challenges and pitfalls, as well as proven strategies and tools for overcoming them and unlocking the business value of Scope 3 emissions management. Whether you're just starting your Scope 3 journey or looking to take your approach to the next level, this guide will provide you with a comprehensive and practical roadmap for navigating the complexity and driving meaningful action and impact.

The Business Case for Scope 3 Emissions Accounting

Before diving into the technical aspects of Scope 3 emissions accounting, it's important to understand the business case for investing time and resources in this area. While measuring and managing Scope 3 emissions can be complex and challenging, it also offers a range of significant benefits and opportunities for companies that get it right. Here are some of the key drivers and benefits of Scope 3 emissions accounting:

Stakeholder expectations and pressure: As mentioned earlier, investors, customers, regulators, and other stakeholders are increasingly expecting companies to measure and disclose their full Scope 3 emissions footprint, as part of a broader push for greater transparency and accountability on climate-related risks and impacts. Companies that fail to do so may face reputational damage, shareholder resolutions, customer boycotts, or other forms of stakeholder pressure.
Risk management and resilience: By measuring and engaging with their Scope 3 emissions, companies can better understand and manage the climate-related risks and opportunities in their value chain, such as exposure to carbon pricing, supply chain disruptions, or shifts in customer preferences. This can help companies build resilience and adaptability in the face of a changing climate and policy landscape.
Cost savings and efficiency gains: Scope 3 emissions often represent a significant source of cost and inefficiency in a company's value chain, such as energy waste, material losses, or transportation inefficiencies. By identifying and addressing these hotspots, companies can drive operational improvements and cost savings, as well as reduce their emissions footprint.
Innovation and growth opportunities: Scope 3 emissions management can also be a driver of innovation and growth, as companies work with their suppliers and customers to develop new low-carbon products, services, and business models. By positioning themselves as leaders in the transition to a net-zero economy, companies can tap into new markets and revenue streams, as well as differentiate themselves from competitors.
Contribution to global climate goals: Finally, measuring and reducing Scope 3 emissions is critical for companies to contribute meaningfully to the global effort to combat climate change and align with the goals of the Paris Agreement. Given the outsized impact of Scope 3 emissions for most companies, failure to address them would undermine the credibility and effectiveness of any corporate climate strategy.

Key Challenges and Complexities in Scope 3 Emissions Accounting

While the business case for Scope 3 emissions accounting is strong, the reality is that it can be a complex and challenging undertaking for many companies. Here are some of the key issues and complexities that companies may face when measuring and managing their Scope 3 emissions:

Data availability and quality: One of the biggest challenges in Scope 3 emissions accounting is obtaining accurate, complete, and timely data from suppliers, customers, and other value chain partners. Many companies struggle with inconsistent or missing data, differences in methodologies and assumptions, and lack of transparency and verification. This can make it difficult to calculate and report Scope 3 emissions with confidence and credibility.
Boundary setting and attribution: Another key challenge is determining which Scope 3 emissions to include in the inventory, and how to allocate them between different companies in the value chain. The GHG Protocol's Corporate Value Chain (Scope 3) Standard provides guidance on setting boundaries and avoiding double counting, but there is still significant room for interpretation and variation across companies and sectors.
Engagement and collaboration: Measuring and reducing Scope 3 emissions requires close collaboration and engagement with suppliers, customers, and other stakeholders, who may have different priorities, capabilities, and willingness to participate. Building trust, aligning incentives, and creating shared value can be difficult, especially when dealing with large and complex supply chains or downstream emissions.
Methodological and data quality challenges: Scope 3 emissions accounting often involves the use of estimation methods, emission factors, and other assumptions to fill data gaps and convert activity data into emissions data. Choosing the right methodologies and ensuring data quality and consistency can be challenging, especially for certain Scope 3 categories such as purchased goods and services, capital goods, or investments.
Organizational and resource constraints: Implementing a comprehensive Scope 3 emissions accounting program requires significant organizational commitment, cross-functional collaboration, and dedicated resources and expertise. Many companies may lack the internal capacity, leadership buy-in, or budget to effectively measure and manage their Scope 3 emissions, especially when compared to other business priorities.
Evolving standards and expectations: The landscape of Scope 3 emissions accounting is constantly evolving, with new methodologies, tools, and best practices emerging all the time. Keeping up with these changes and ensuring alignment with the latest standards and stakeholder expectations can be a challenge for companies, especially those with limited bandwidth or expertise.

Best Practices and Strategies for Scope 3 Emissions Accounting

Despite these challenges and complexities, there are a number of best practices and strategies that companies can use to effectively measure and manage their Scope 3 emissions. Here are some of the key recommendations and examples from leading companies and experts:

Conduct a Scope 3 screening and prioritization exercise: Before diving into detailed Scope 3 emissions accounting, companies should conduct a high-level screening to identify the most relevant and significant Scope 3 categories for their business, based on factors such as emissions magnitude, data availability, stakeholder interest, and reduction potential. This can help companies prioritize their efforts and resources on the areas that matter most.

Example: Dell Technologies used a Scope 3 screening tool developed by the GHG Protocol to identify its top Scope 3 categories, which included purchased goods and services, use of sold products, and transportation and distribution. This helped the company focus its Scope 3 accounting and engagement efforts on these key areas, while still reporting on other relevant categories.

Engage suppliers and other value chain partners early and often: Measuring and reducing Scope 3 emissions requires close collaboration and data sharing with suppliers, customers, and other stakeholders. Companies should engage these partners early in the process to build awareness, trust, and buy-in, and to co-create solutions that benefit both parties. This may involve providing training and resources, setting clear expectations and incentives, and creating shared value through joint innovation and investment.

Example: Walmart has been working with its suppliers for over a decade to measure and reduce Scope 3 emissions through its Project Gigaton initiative. The company provides suppliers with tools, guidance, and support to set emissions reduction targets and implement best practices, and publicly recognizes top performers through its Giga-Guru awards. As of 2021, over 2,500 suppliers have joined Project Gigaton, representing over $1 trillion in sales.

Use a combination of primary and secondary data sources: While primary data from suppliers and other partners is the gold standard for Scope 3 emissions accounting, it may not always be available or feasible to collect. Companies should use a combination of primary and secondary data sources, such as industry averages, economic input-output models, or lifecycle databases, to estimate emissions where necessary. The key is to be transparent about data sources and quality, and to continuously improve data over time.

Example: Microsoft uses a hybrid approach to Scope 3 emissions accounting, combining supplier-specific data with industry averages and economic models. For example, for its purchased goods and services category, Microsoft collects primary data from its top suppliers and extrapolates this data to the rest of its supplier base using economic input-output models. The company also uses lifecycle assessment tools to estimate emissions from certain product categories.

Leverage technology and automation to streamline data collection and analysis: Scope 3 emissions accounting can be a data-intensive and time-consuming process, especially for large and complex value chains. Companies should leverage technology solutions such as supplier data portals, blockchain, or AI-powered analytics to automate data collection, validation, and analysis, and to enable real-time tracking and reporting. This can help reduce the burden on internal resources and improve the accuracy and timeliness of Scope 3 emissions data.

Example: IBM has developed a blockchain-based platform called Trust Your Supplier, which enables suppliers to securely share and verify ESG data, including Scope 3 emissions, with their customers. The platform uses smart contracts and consensus mechanisms to ensure data integrity and traceability, and allows companies to track and report on their Scope 3 emissions in real-time.

Set science-based targets and track progress over time: To drive meaningful Scope 3 emissions reductions, companies should set ambitious yet achievable targets that are aligned with climate science and the goals of the Paris Agreement. The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) provides guidance and validation for companies to set Scope 1, 2, and 3 targets that are consistent with limiting global warming to well below 2°C or 1.5°C. Companies should also regularly measure and report on their progress towards these targets, and adjust their strategies as needed.

Example: Mars, Incorporated has set a science-based target to reduce its absolute Scope 3 emissions by 27% by 2025 and 67% by 2050, from a 2015 base year. To achieve this target, Mars is working with its suppliers to implement sustainable agriculture practices, reduce food waste, and transition to renewable energy. The company reports annually on its progress and has already achieved a 3.5% reduction in Scope 3 emissions as of 2019.

Collaborate with industry peers and stakeholders to drive standardization and best practice sharing: Given the complexity and evolving nature of Scope 3 emissions accounting, companies should actively collaborate with industry peers, value chain partners, and other stakeholders to drive standardization, harmonization, and best practice sharing. This may involve participating in industry initiatives, benchmarking exercises, or working groups, as well as engaging with policymakers and civil society to create enabling environments for Scope 3 emissions reduction.

Example: The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) is an industry-wide group of over 250 apparel, footwear, and textile companies that are working together to standardize and improve Scope 3 emissions accounting and reduction practices. The SAC has developed the Higg Index, a suite of tools that enables companies to measure and benchmark their environmental and social performance, including Scope 3 emissions, across the value chain. The SAC also facilitates peer learning and collaboration through workshops, webinars, and other events.

The Path Forward
As the business case for Scope 3 emissions accounting becomes increasingly clear and compelling, more and more companies are taking steps to measure and manage their value chain emissions. However, the path forward is not without its challenges and complexities, as companies navigate a rapidly evolving landscape of methodologies, standards, and stakeholder expectations.

To successfully navigate this landscape and unlock the full potential of Scope 3 emissions management, companies will need to take a strategic, collaborative, and technology-enabled approach. This means prioritizing Scope 3 emissions as a core business issue, engaging closely with value chain partners and industry peers, leveraging digital solutions to streamline data collection and analysis, setting science-based targets and tracking progress, and continuously improving and innovating.

The good news is that there are a growing number of resources, tools, and best practices available to help companies on this journey, from the GHG Protocol and SBTi standards to industry collaborations and technology platforms. By tapping into these resources and learning from the experiences of leading companies and experts, any company can start to build a robust and impactful Scope 3 emissions accounting program.

Ultimately, however, the success of Scope 3 emissions accounting will depend not just on the technical solutions and methodologies, but on the leadership, collaboration, and innovation of the companies and stakeholders involved. It will require a fundamental shift in mindset and culture, from seeing Scope 3 emissions as a compliance burden to seeing them as a strategic opportunity to drive value, resilience, and impact.

As a sustainability professional and business leader, I have seen firsthand the transformative power of Scope 3 emissions accounting to drive positive change and create shared value across the value chain. I have also seen the challenges and pitfalls that companies face in navigating this complex and rapidly evolving space, from data gaps and inconsistencies to organizational silos and short-term thinking.

But I firmly believe that with the right combination of vision, strategy, and execution, any company can overcome these challenges and become a leader in Scope 3 emissions management. By doing so, they can not only reduce their own environmental footprint and build resilience in the face of climate change, but also catalyze broader systems change and contribute to the urgent global effort to transition to a net-zero economy.

The journey to Scope 3 emissions mastery is not an easy one, but it is a necessary and rewarding one. It will require courage, collaboration, and commitment from all of us – business leaders, sustainability professionals, value chain partners, policymakers, and civil society. But the stakes could not be higher, and the opportunities could not be greater.

So let us embrace the complexity and the challenge of Scope 3 emissions accounting, and use it as a springboard for innovation, value creation, and impact. Let us work together to build a more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive economy that works for people and planet alike.

The time for incremental change and siloed thinking is over. The time for bold, systemic, and collaborative action is now. Let's get to work.

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