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Research post: Why carbon accounting matters

By Liz Dinnie, JHI
At present the contribution of community initiatives to carbon reduction is difficult to assess because the data is unavailable, fragmented or incompatible. If a relatively simple tool could be developed that could accurately measure the carbon reduction potential of community-led action across a range of activities, that would help us as researchers to understand how community-based initiatives could contribute to a more sustainable society, and it would help policy makers to make choices about which kinds of activities to support through funding, regulation and incentives to change behaviour.
Over the last few weeks at the TESS project we have been developing a methodology for the carbon accounting framework. One of the key aims of TESS is to develop a carbon accounting toolkit for communities.
We will soon be testing this methodology with our case study communities. So it’s useful to remind ourselves what is carbon accounting, and how can we measure the potential carbon reduction impacts across multiple activities at a community scale?
The term carbon accounting is used to refer to the quantification, or measurement, of the impact of an activity, product or organisation, in terms of greenhouse gases that are emitted into the atmosphere. It forms the key part of what is termed a CO2 inventory which can then be used to identify areas for reducing carbon emissions. In TESS, we know that our case studies are undertaking activities to reduce carbon so we wanted to measure this reduction compared with what would have otherwise happened. This meant developing a CO2 inventory for each activity identified in our case study projects, involving lots of technical discussions about inputs, boundaries and counterfactuals. Without going into too much detail, we had to identify stages of each activity and, using existing calculations, estimate the amount of carbon that would have been emitted had the project not stepped in to do it differently.
An example may help to clarify. One of our case study initiatives, in north-east Scotland, redistributes produce and other products donated by the food industry, which often would otherwise be dumped in landfill. We have produced the following process diagram – showing the different stages that produce carbon emissions (& therefore potential reductions):

carbon ac diagram

The diagram shows that carbon reductions (represented as green arrows) can be calculated from the difference between produce sent to landfill/waste, and produce redistributed. Carbon reductions also occur in reduced food demand. This needs to be balanced by the carbon emissions produced from transport and storage of redistributed produce (orange arrows).
By calculating the weight of redistributed produce, and the mileage & storage requirements, we can identify how much carbon is being saved by this activity.
In the next few weeks, each of the TESS partners we will be meeting their case study communities, in each of their regions across Europe to identify activities and gather information. We will then calculate how much carbon each activity potentially saves.
Carbon savings can be a tangible way to show policy-makers and funders how community-based initiatives are contributing to a more sustainable society. But for initiatives it can be quite a technical and bureaucratic process that is at odds with the ‘real’ work of being part of a community-based initiative. It is easier and more tempting to plant something, or do some deliveries than it is to put numbers into a ledger! It is also somewhat disheartening to reduce all those sociable hours of effort and enjoyment to mere numbers and stages in a process. But policy-makers and funders love numbers that can show, at a glance, how different activities compare.
Here at TESS we believe that carbon accounting is only one of the ways in which community-based initiatives contribute to a more sustainable society. That’s why we are also looking at the social, economic, political and environmental impacts of community-based projects. Future blogs will discuss how we are also developing methodologies that aim to measure these impacts and compare them with the carbon-reduction potential of different activities.

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