What is Scope 4?

Sophie Harbert

Sophie Harbert

By now for anyone in the world of sustainability, reporting on scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions is commonplace. Scope 1 covers greenhouse gases released from direct (operational) activities, scope 2 refers to the emissions generated from purchased electricity, heating or cooling, and scope 3 are any indirect emissions occurring in the value chain, both up and downstream. But what is scope 4?

Scope 4 is all about avoided emissions, looking at emissions reductions occurring outside a product or service’s value chain that result from its use. These may also be known as ‘climate positive’ or ‘net positive’ emissions. Despite being a complex area that is not yet officially incorporated into the GHG Protocol, it’s worth looking at innovative ways businesses can reduce their carbon footprints.

The rise of teleconferencing services which reduce the need to travel locally and internationally for meetings is a great example of scope 4. Grain’s client Bio Capital is an anaerobic digestion facility that is turning food waste into biogas for heating and domestic use, providing a circular economy solution to waste and renewable energy. As another example the products and services offered by Grain client Megger reduce the loss of electricity in national grids, renewable energy installations and many other electrical installations which means their daily work helps to avoid huge amounts of emissions. In this context it is worth thinking about how changes to products could contribute to scope 4, for example the creation of laundry detergents that work at low temperatures while ensuring that the chemicals used do not undo the emissions saved by the lower temperature. A complicated balancing act we explored together with our client the Textile Services Association.

When reporting on your company’s scope 4 emissions, accuracy is key to prevent greenwashing. Suggestions to combat this from the World Resources Institute (WRI) include:

  1. Ensure accurate comparisons: if you are looking at energy efficiency for example, do not base energy saving calculations on a model from 20 years ago; instead compare the proposed one to a similar product currently on the market.

  2. Account for every stage of the product’s life cycle: while a product may be more efficient once it is in use, it could be a lot more energy intensive in production. It is therefore important to account for every stage, from collecting raw materials to end of life, in reporting carbon savings.

  3. Consider changes to consumer behaviour: if people are told the product they are using is better for the environment, like electric vehicles, they may begin to use them more than they would have used a petrol car. A vast increase in production could then lead to other issues such as the global lithium shortage.

  4. Look at market size versus impact: as new products have lower energy use, we should not assume that they will immediately replace previous, less sustainable options. For a while both may be in use and the waste created by disposal of the older devices is worth considering.

  5. Transparent reporting of all products: while one of your services may be low-carbon, it is important to look at and report on the whole range, enabling consumers to make the most sustainable choice.

If done correctly, scope 4 reporting will likely bring benefits to organisations including a strengthened reputation for being environmentally considerate, attracting eco-conscious suppliers, consumers and employees and providing competitive advantage, as well as the opportunity to become an industry-leading business. While predominantly occurring in the renewable energy and capital goods sector now, the breadth of scope 4 is likely to expand as more and more organisations report on their GHG emissions.

The idea of negative emissions is very promising, yet we should ensure it is not enabling greenwashing and promoting consumption. In order to reach the UK target of net zero by 2050, companies need to begin reducing emissions rapidly. While scope 4 is a great way to visibly see those reductions, decreasing carbon footprints and transparent reporting needs to already be standard procedure for businesses.

For help measuring your organisation’s carbon footprint or any other sustainability work, please get in touch.

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