Can software improve climate action through better data?

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With more than 20 years of experience in carbon footprinting, the Carbon Trust helps organisations to measure their emissions, removals and reductions with greater precision. As digital solutions become more refined, our expert, Tom Richardson, outlines the importance of data quality and explores the opportunities and challenges of utilising online software.   

Getting your carbon data right 

Data quality is an essential and easily overlooked element of carbon footprinting, as it directly impacts the uncertainty of a reported footprint value. For an initial emissions inventory, estimated activity and spend-based emissions factors help an organisation identify their hotspots. Their usefulness, however, quickly diminishes. This rings especially true in the largest emitting areas of an organisation’s value chain, such as a logistic company’s fuel emissions or a farmer’s livestock emissions, where higher certainty is needed for confident decision-making.  

Organisations need to have confidence in the data quality of their reported emissions to track their progress against climate targets. This includes: 

  • Data granularity: the level of detail or precision in a given dataset, for example, annual energy consumption vs half-hourly metering data. 
  • Data accuracy: the correctness and completeness of data compared to expected values or trusted sources.   
  • Data specificity: how well a data point describes a particular aspect or characteristic of the subject being measured, specifically regarding the emissions factors used. 
  • Data integrity: assuring your data is consistent and reliable, protecting it from unauthorised changes or corruption.  

Anyone striving to cut their emissions towards Net Zero will quickly come up against the issue of uncertainty resulting from low-quality data when:  

  • Creating decarbonisation roadmaps - High levels of uncertainty in your baseline data undermine senior decision-makers’ confidence in appraising potential carbon reduction initiatives, particularly when tracking reductions over time.   
  • Engaging and monitoring suppliers - Sole reliance on industry average emissions data will offer fewer insights. Such data has limited specificity and neither reflects the emissions your organisation generates from purchased goods and services nor shows how your suppliers’ emissions change over time.   
  • Making credible claims - Low-quality activity and reference data can undermine the certainty of your results when communicating your organisation’s progress against its climate targets, especially in the face of increasing external scrutiny. 

How can software support more accurate footprints?  

One of the main benefits of footprinting software lies in its role as a tool that facilitates the management storing and sharing of large amounts of data. In moving away from manually maintained Excel spreadsheets to online systems, organisations can gather and retain larger volumes of data – and thereby obtain more accurate footprints. This can help organisations implement and track the impact of their decarbonisation efforts.   

Carbon footprinting software handles large data volumes and plays a role in maintaining data integrity. It achieves this by detecting anomalies in data inputs and employing sign-off workflows. This ensures accurate and reliable information is used for carbon footprint calculations.   

Lastly, footprinting software opens the door to extensive supply chain engagement. By leveraging software’s capability to collect supplier data at scale, organisations can gather information from primary suppliers, secondary suppliers and beyond. Similarly, data can be collected from downstream actors closer to the distribution, use phase and disposal of a given product – opening the door to high-quality data across their entire value chain.    

What to consider?   

Although the availability of higher volumes of data can improve the quality of a footprint inventory, it does present some risks:    

Large volumes of data can be overwhelming - As software solutions rise in popularity and more data becomes available, organisations may struggle to see the wood for the trees and waste their data collection efforts on immaterial areas of their value chain. To make the best use of everyone’s time, organisations should first focus on improving the data quality of material areas.    

Inconsistent data assessments - The Greenhouse Gas Protocol defines five standard indicators to evaluate data quality for footprinting. However, their practical application varies; if data quality is assessed at all. As organisations seek to calculate emissions outside of their operations, the reliance on suppliers’ carbon data grows. While software solutions can provide unparalleled access to carbon data from suppliers, establishing trust in said data will be crucial. Transparent data quality scoring is part of the solution, but a common approach is needed to establish a reliable chain of custody.    

Data sharing - When moving to an online system, processes on how suppliers and customers share carbon data are crucial. There is a risk of simply transferring the traditional survey-driven approach to an online system, leading to numerous survey formats and data requirements that burden suppliers. Common data standards could streamline this process. Initiatives like PACT establish minimum data requirements for product carbon footprint sharing and are a good starting point. Software must be built with interoperability in mind and standardise how data is stored and shared. In doing so, organisations should be able to complete high-quality inventories of their value chain emissions without overburdening the providers of said data.    

Commercial sensitivities - Organisations may face conflicting needs: to protect sensitive commercial information, such as changing cost bases, versus the desire to share reliable emissions data. It reiterates the importance of widespread assurance of carbon calculations. With these services in place, suppliers can confidently share verified product carbon footprints without compromising their commercial sensitivities.   

The conclusion? While software is a much-welcomed solution, we cannot expect it to fix all carbon accounting headaches. It is a product in its infancy, and, like the first iPhone, the carbon footprinting software used in 5-10 years will look and feel very different from today’s offerings. To add complexity, not only are the tools themselves evolving, but so are the standards on which they are built. By being mindful of these limitations, users can begin to reap the benefits of online tools without falling into the trap of treating software as a silver bullet.     

How we can help   

We understand that the volume of software solutions available can be overwhelming. As footprinting experts with more than 20 years of experience, we can help you navigate this new space of software solutions without compromising on the quality of your carbon footprint. Our experts are here to advise you on finding the right technology providers for your footprinting needs while verifying your calculations and results through independent assurance.    

This insight piece is part of a series surrounding the digitisation of carbon footprinting. Read the first in the series:

Unlocking Net Zero: the potential role of carbon footprinting software