Carbon Neutrality - what it is and how we get there

*by Vanessa Rauland*

So you want to go carbon neutral but you're not sure what that involves, how much it costs, what the process is and whether you need to be certified or not?

Having helped to certify the first carbon neutral school in Australia back in 2012 (which became the inspiration behind ClimateClever) and having written my PhD on the topic of low carbon and carbon neutral urban development, I have learnt a thing or two about it all over the years. Given the growing interest in carbon neutrality from a lot of our ClimateClever users (particularly businesses), I thought I'd share my insights into the topic.

I want to start by saying how encouraging it is to hear so many companies, schools and organisations - regardless of their size - considering the ambitious goal of carbon neutrality. It's completely achievable, something we can all do (even as individuals!), and helps each of us to take a leadership role in climate action, demonstrating what's possible to others.

While it's easy to be daunted by some of the more rigorous certification schemes, especially when you read through their documentation, I'll start by saying - you don't HAVE to be certified to claim carbon neutrality (but more on that later). It can be super simple to become carbon neutral!

The broad process of achieving carbon neutrality generally involves:

  1. Measuring your carbon footprint;
  2. Reducing it as much as possible each year through actions;
  3. Offsetting your remaining emissions to become carbon neutral.

So, let's now expand that a bit…

1. Measuring your carbon footprint

The first decision you have to make is around defining the boundary of your carbon footprint. Basically this means choosing what emission sources you want to include or exclude. There are some main ones that you should probably include (or that people might frown upon or ask questions if you didn’t). This generally includes things like electricity, gas, water and waste (they are often some of the biggest sources). We have historically included these four sources in our ClimateClever school's carbon footprint. The other reason we focussed on these four sources was because those sources are relatively easy to access data on (i.e. from utility bills) and schools are notoriously time poor. Balancing simplicity with impact has been a challenge for us from the start, but we are a big believer that any action is better than no action. And it's VERY easy to put people off...

For businesses, there are a few more sources that should be included, such as flights (which can be the biggest source of emissions for some businesses), company-owned vehicles, and reams of paper purchased. These sources will be added to the Business App (which we are launching this month #VERYEXCITED!), but we will also be making them available across all our platforms, including schools and homes. 

user with app

Some certification schemes require other emission sources to be included such as refrigerants (i.e. the emissions that leak out of your fridge and air conditioning system) and various other products or services. I would argue, you don't need to include the products you purchase (outside of paper) as this really is your supply chains' emissions (HUGE opportunities to influence the supply chain though! ...a topic for another blog).

So if you are using our ClimateClever platform, you simply need to enter the data from the emission sources that are relevant to you and the App will show you your total emissions, total abatements (i.e. if you had offset flights at the point of purchase or if you have chosen Green Power for your electricity etc) and what your net carbon footprint is (your total footprint minus the abatements).

This 'Net' figure is the one to look at if you want to go carbon neutral. That figure is the number of tonnes of offsets you will need to purchase in order to claim carbon neutrality.

I'll come to the certification issue later, but one thing to also be aware of/plan for is accessibility to your bills or data sources. If you ever get asked about how you calculated your carbon footprint (or if you want to be certified), you'll need to provide all the bills for someone to review (i.e. a third party auditor). We can provide the information about how it’s been calculated (i.e our methodology etc), which is based on international protocols and standards and uses National Greenhouse Account Factors (you can also read more about the carbon accounting side of things in our other blog here), but you will be responsible for being organised with your own data/bills!

2. Reducing your carbon footprint through actions

It’s generally seen as a bit ‘greenwashy’ and a cop out if you just calculate and offset your carbon footprint each year without actively trying to reduce your consumption/emissions internally (it's seen as palming off responsibility to someone else). So you always want to demonstrate that you are doing actions that are helping to reduce your overall consumption (and therefore emissions). The great co-benefit of this is that this will likely save you money too! By increasing your efficiency, you’ll notice a drop in your utility bills. Win win. 

action 2

Our ClimateClever App provides loads of ideas and suggestions for actions you can take from no-cost/behaviour change actions through to more expensive upgrades and retrofits of appliances. You can also manage the actions throughout the year in the app (i.e. assign users who will be responsible for actions, set deadlines for actions and provide feedback on actions). It's important to have your actions documented in case anyone questions if/how you have actually reduced your emissions (prior to offsetting).

Our ClimateClever Business App Subscription will also provide you with an annual report which will include a summary of these actions, in addition to the carbon footprint and methodology etc. This is what you should put on your website.

3. Offsetting emissions

The final step (always done at the end of the year - financial or calendar) is purchasing enough offsets to cover your total carbon footprint for the previous year. Cost for offsets can range from a few dollars a tonne - which are usually international offsets, to $30+ per tonne for Australian offsets (i.e. tree planting initiatives etc). You can also do a combination of both.

The most important thing is that they are credible offsets. There’s a lot of smaller offset companies popping up, so you just want to make sure that the offsets you purchase are legitimate. About a decade ago there were some big issues with offset providers reselling the same offsets multiple times (leading to double counting), and ultimately eroding consumer confidence in the whole idea of offsetting and carbon neutrality. Thankfully the government cracked down and started issuing big fines for dodgy players. It's a much more regulated playing field now so less to worry about! We can give you some recommendations when the time comes.

If you want to be certified, you should also check if the offsets you want to purchase are eligible under that particular scheme. Our Australian Federal Government's Climate Active certification provides their guidance on offsets on page 46 of this document.

To certify or not to certify…!

Going through the carbon neutral certification process with the school I mentioned back in 2012 was an interesting experience to say the least! My biggest take away from the whole complicated process was that schools probably don’t need to formally certified. While it certainly adds credibility to carbon neutral claims, it’s probably more designed for bigger businesses with bigger marketing budgets. It’s very time consuming, can be quite expensive (unless you were using free PhD students like the lucky school did back then!) and probably unnecessary for small to medium businesses or schools. That particular school ultimately decided top drop the certification (but they continued to measure, reduce and offset for a number of years) and used that money instead on tangible actions like LED lighting upgrades etc.

As I mentioned in the beginning, I wrote my PhD around the topic of carbon neutrality and certification (if you struggle sleeping at night you can read it here or purchase my book), so I've done a bit of research on this. What I can safely say is that you don’t NEED to be certified to claim carbon neutrality, you just need to:

  • be transparent about what you have included in your carbon footprint (i.e. your boundaries);
  • what actions you are taking to reduce;
  • what offsets you have purchased to become carbon neutral and the time frames (i.e. if it’s for last year etc).

If you stop the measuring/offsetting process but accidentally leave 'carbon neutral' messaging up on your website, you can enter into ‘false claims’ territory and can run the risk of big fines. And rightly so!

So just bear in mind, if carbon neutrality is the long term goal, then it’s an ongoing goal (not a once off). You need to keep measuring, managing/reducing and offsetting it annually to be able to keep claiming the status. I would argue that that's what we all need to be doing anyway to get this runaway climate change train back under control!

We all have a role to play and we certainly need to go above and beyond what government is 'requiring' us to do. Voluntarily going carbon neutral is a great option and a relatively affordable one.

I hope that helps (and hasn’t overwhelmed!).

Feel free to reach out if you have any other questions.

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