In last week’s post on the Sustainability InSite Blog, I mentioned five key terms involving the word “green” in connection with sustainability and the lubricants industry. I also said that it’s often overused and is, in fact, mostly misused across the board as a somewhat obvious marketing ploy. But it’s used properly in the notorious phrase “greenhouse gas.”
A greenhouse gas is one that absorbs and emits radiant energy within the thermal infrared range, causing what’s commonly known as the greenhouse effect. This effect is the process by which radiation from a planet’s atmosphere warms the surface to a temperature above what it would be without an atmosphere.
Earth’s natural greenhouse effect is in fact critical to supporting life, and evidence points to it being a precursor to life moving out of the ocean onto land. But for those who still may be in denial, when we refer to greenhouse gas emissions, we mean greenhouse gases vented into Earth’s atmosphere because of humans, leading to anthropogenic climate change. Human activities since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1750 – burning fossil fuels, clearcutting forests and industrial livestock farming – have emitted tons of carbon dioxide disproportionately into the atmosphere, increasing the greenhouse effect by almost 50% and in this way causing global warming.
At current greenhouse gas emission rates, temperatures could increase by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is the upper limit to avoid “dangerous” levels by 2050. The Paris Agreement was signed in 2016 in order to keep the rise in global average temperature to well below 2 C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 C.
The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change, adopted by 197 countries that are committed to substantially reduce their impacts on climate change, by reducing emissions as soon as possible and achieving net-zero emissions in the second half of the 21st century.
Some countries have already announced their respective plans in order to fulfill the Paris Agreement. In April 2021, the U.S. announced its aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% over the next nine years, compared with levels in 2005. In May 2021, the German government raised its climate change ambition to target net-zero emissions. Proposed targets now call for a 65% reduction of emissions by 2030, 85-90% by 2040 and net zero by 2045, all compared with 1990 levels. Previously, the goals were 55% by 2030 and climate neutrality by 2050.
Why have I mentioned all this? Because by understanding where CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions come from, organizations and companies such as the one you might work for right now can measure and identify their priority areas for sustainability action.
Working toward climate neutrality for a lube company, for instance, is about the three Cs – the strategic triad of calculating, cutting down and compensating its own corporate carbon footprint, in other words, “it’s good to cut the greenhouse gas (emissions) of home,” to paraphrase the song.
It all starts with measuring, because what you cannot measure, you cannot manage and what you cannot manage, you cannot minimize.
Generally speaking, there are five steps that lubricant companies – and in fact companies from any industry – should take to measure and calculate their corporate carbon footprints:
For lube manufacturers in particular, this means looking at the CO2 emissions from its own lubricant operations (known as “gate-to-gate”) at company locations worldwide, if applicable, which are generated through heat, fuel and electricity consumption in production, administration, business trips and employee commuting, as well as through waste generation and wastewater by the company, among other things.
The Greenhouse Gas Protocol is the most widely used and recognized international standard for accounting CO2 emissions of companies. It was developed by the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. The GHG Protocol defines the basic principles of relevance, completeness, consistency, transparency and accuracy and is based on the principles of financial accounting. The protocol also defines rules for the organizational delimitation of a greenhouse gas balance and for operational delimitation.
The delineation of greenhouse gas emissions into three discrete categories, known as “scopes,” is particularly relevant here. Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions refer to direct emissions from owned or controlled sources; indirect emissions from purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling; and all other indirect emissions in a company’s value chain, respectively.
While Scope 1 includes all emissions generated directly by combustion of the company’s activity, Scope 2 emissions are associated with purchased energy (for example, electricity and district heating). Scope 3 in turn encompasses emissions from services and third-party services.
The GHG Protocol has turned out to be the de-facto standard for greenhouse gas balancing, and incorporates these definitions of scope into it methodology. Other existing standards, such as ISO 14064 and PAS 2050, are regarded as alternatives but in fact are very similar to the GHG Protocol.
Organizations across the world are measuring and reporting their carbon footprints according to the GHG Protocol. It is advisable to consult a professional sustainability consultancy to accompany, verify and review the calculation of a lube company’s CO2 emissions and confirm the accuracy of the data basis and the application of the GHG Protocol guidelines during the process.
Once being calculated, lube companies can take the next steps in strategically avoiding and cutting down their own greenhouse gas emissions and compensating for unavoidable emissions in order to reach a net-zero carbon status.
A year and a half ago, I made the leap from my last permanent position as a vice president and chief sustainability officer in the corporate stability of an organization into the unknown world of independent sustainability consulting. This time of excitement was tinged with the sadness of going through my late father’s possessions.
During this process I came across some of my parents’ old records, which I loved to listen to when I was a kid. I remembered one of them, “The Green, Green Grass of Home”, sung by Tom Jones, while I was writing this column. To me, the song says no matter how painful what lies ahead may be, there is hope. And I firmly believe that the discomforts of changing business habits for a better future will be overcompensated by the sustainable results.
As Tom sings at the end of the song: “On and on, we’ll walk at daybreak”.