carbon accountingIn recent years there has been a ‘boom’ in the availability of online carbon emission calculation tools. It seems as though every company with the slightest interest in the area is offering assistance on both commercial and personal levels. This do-it-yourself approach offers pros and cons, opportunities and problems. Are these tools reliable? Do they do what they say they do or are they simply a way to appear green whilst actually doing very little? This article seeks to explain the issues surrounding this type of emissions calculation and answer these important questions.

By Peter Garvin, Green Economy Post

Arguments for Carbon Accounting

Recently, it seems that economic contraction has had important (though to some extent contradictory) implications for the greening of production and consumption.  Last year, some commentary in the media anticipated that current economic recession conditions bode a new ‘age of austerity’ where consumers (and businesses) will be compelled to save more and reduce ‘wasteful’ consumption. This trend would also seem to link to debates in the academic literature relating to the need for a shift in societal values to curb conspicuous consumption in the developed world and the need for reductions in material and energy consumption and a greater focus on quality of life improvements and ‘sufficiency as policy’.  It was also said, on the other hand, that the credit crunch and economic downturn may pose a set-back insofar as green and more ethical products and services which continue to be more expensive, lose market share to the cheaper products and services they seek to displace.

Government regulations on corporate CO2 emissions are not the only reason firms may wish to support green initiatives during an economic downturn; environmental programs also help to demonstrate company commitment to sustainability, improve staff morale and retention and attract new customers.

Bearing that in mind, it is easy to see why many companies are keen to establish their level of emissions but are not willing to fork out capital to a consultant to do it. This is where “do-it-yourself” carbon accounting comes into play.

This process (usually in the form of free online carbon calculators) offers both positive and negative facets to businesses and the greater good.

Approach and Boundaries

As carbon footprinting is a relatively new procedure, it is understandable that there is confusion about the appropriate means and boundaries to adopt for these impact analyses. The boundary of a carbon footprint can vary depending on how it was calculated and how much responsibility the entity being footprinted is willing to take on. It can also, particularly in the case of Small and Medium Enterprises (SME), depend hugely on time and cost associated with the calculation.

For instance, to use a modern, if unrelated example, should a consumer be responsible for the electricity purchases of an aluminium producer far down the supply chain of producing an iPod? Should Apple be held responsible for these purchases and thus account for them in its own footprint? What about the aluminium producer itself? It is clear that in the case of any complicated product, any number of different players in the supply chain could claim responsibility for the emissions associated with producing materials, basic chemicals, and other low-value-added goods that end up embedded in final consumer goods. If it is desirable to achieve total GHG accounting without double-counting, multiple counting of responsibility is problematic. The point is that if everyone footprinted their own operations, the system would run perfectly. Each stage of production would be accounted for by those directly involved and embedded carbon data could be passed on up the supply chain. The problem is that until the system becomes that advanced, there are issues with who feels responsible for what. In my opinion, why should one company be punished for taking a proactive approach and trying to calculate its emissions by being required to spend time calculating the emissions of others who do not have the same proactive approach?

Just as there are problems with counting only direct emissions and energy inputs, there are problems with responsibility sharing as well. Firms often produce many different products, all of which have different supply chains, and sharing responsibility with both their suppliers and their consumers for all these products would likely produce a harrowing accounting task. Even if this issue could be overcome, it is unlikely many firms would spend the necessary time and money to calculate and, more importantly, understand this type of footprint. If calculating footprints remains voluntary for firms, simplicity must be valued highly in the design of protocols. It is probably for such reasons that the original protocols for carbon footprinting were written from a company, instead of a product, perspective. The LCA technique for carbon footprinting is a perfect example of an approach from a product perspective; however it is notable that the majority of methodologies (GHG Protocol; ISO 14064; PAS 2050; online calculators) do not follow its approach.

Online Calculators

Despite the broad use of the term ‘carbon footprint’ in both the academic and the public domain, neither a clear definition nor standard measurement is applied universally.  The term is being defined by common usage. Until recently there were no attempts at standardizing the methods for measuring CO2 emissions and consequently, no standards for becoming carbon neutral.

With this in mind, and the consideration that a single, proliferating ‘standard’ does not exist, carbon calculators, as long as allowing for the emissions necessary to satisfy the base level of a carbon footprint, can be valid tools.

The carbon footprint process is, thus far, still a voluntary measure for the majority of SMEs. The voluntary nature explains the widespread variation in methodology and use of the carbon footprint as a reporting and behavioral change tool. Governmental policies with regard to standards for measurement and reporting on the carbon footprint are yet to be developed.

The base level of emissions calculation suggested by all three emerging “standards” (GHG Protocol, ISO 14064, and PAS 2050) is that of direct emissions. Many online calculators fully consider the use of direct emissions needed for a base level carbon footprint. The problem with this is that the online calculators have different sources of conversion factors (data on the amount of CO2 produced by an activity), and thus may give different results, allowing a firm to report a lower amount of emissions simply by choosing their calculation tool carefully. This may be something to address in future as emissions reporting becomes more commonplace in the market.

A key consideration in the utilization of the online calculators is their ease of use. Concepts such as the carbon footprint have gained momentum among organizations precisely because of this characteristic: it is easy to grasp and indicates the direct effect of an organization on the environment. SMEs depend more heavily on easily accessible tools such as internet-based carbon calculators because of the barriers they face to implement environmental management systems. Therefore SMEs require different tools than the ones so far developed for larger corporations and online carbon calculators could provide a valuable tool to analyze their environmental impact. This overcomes many of the barriers to SME uptake of environmental initiatives including a lack of knowledge, expertise and funding, as well as cost.

This has a two-fold effect in terms of SMEs. Firstly, it means the company is more likely to be able to perform the calculation in the consistently year on year. Secondly, the ease of use means that the company are more likely to be able to complete the annual study without complications, and without the need to source costly outside help. Both of these factors increase the likelihood that the company will carry on performing the calculation and presumably addressing its result, thus increasing the positive effects on the environment and company credentials.


Two of the primary concerns within the literature when speaking in reference to online carbon calculators are those of reliability and accuracy. Carbon calculators are a useful alternative only when they are both accurate and effective.

A 2008 study saw that the recent rise in carbon calculators has been accompanied by inconsistencies in output values given similar inputs for individual behavior, stating that, in some cases, values can vary by as much as several tonnes per activity. These variations in input could influence both the types of steps companies take and the level of overall effort put in (e.g. the total amount of emissions reductions completed or offsets purchased).

However, this difference in calculation does not necessarily have to be negative. If some over-estimate and some under-estimate it may be a fair assumption that things would ‘level-out’ on a global scale. It also neglects the fact that over-estimation, if only by the magnitude of a few tonnes, may have little effect on people’s desire to offset, and add a few tonnes extra to the fight against climate change.

One of the main factors criticized in the wealth of online calculators is the lack of inclusion of various business activities, such as air freight, which would prevent a business calculating the effects of all its activities. This may be possible to combat by using other tools to work out the missing emissions.

High level support has been shown for the general theory behind carbon calculators as the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) produced its own, funded by Environment Secretary David Miliband under the New Labor government in 2007.  This shows a certain belief in them from a wider organization. Admittedly it is a personal emissions calculator but the thought processes behind its publication are one and the same – an easy, low cost technique to encourage the establishing of carbon footprints.

Lots of published work in the area criticized the fact that different calculators used different inputs. This may well be the case but as long as a calculator is used that has inputs to cover all activities and operations of the company, need this be a problem? It seems that much of the criticism applies to the lack of a worldwide or even national methodology that can be used by all, thus standardizing the process. This means that essentially there is not a level playing field. As stated earlier, standardization of the process is a long term goal that is far from implemented. Consequently, in the mean time, does it not make sense that the use of any tool that can account for a firm’s activities in terms of emissions will have a positive effect?

Beyond the Footprint

It has been said that all calculators fail to enable the user to effectively understand and act upon the results of the carbon footprint calculations, and that calculators available to SMEs therefore do not go beyond providing a snapshot of the organization’s environmental impact. While an understanding of the implications of the footprint is critical in effectively trying to improve business’ sustainable practices, I believe it hugely unfair to assume that delivery of this understanding should be a major function of the calculator. A calculator, by definition, works out the figures. It is a tool to generate a number. The implication that it should be a one-stop-shop for calculation and sustainability advice is too much to expect, certainly given the relatively infantile development stage of carbon accounting worldwide.

It can be said, then, that internet carbon calculators do not provide an accurate and effective option to act upon an organization’s carbon footprint. They can, however, provide an accurate way to measure it providing due diligence is exercised in calculator selection.


To summarize, online carbon calculators, selected correctly and used with care, can provide a valid and usable result, particularly in the case of SMEs. The accessibility and low cost of these tools are allowing the spread of carbon footprinting to extend much further that it would if more complex and costly. If the only effect of this is to act as a precursor to lower tier emission trading schemes, or more effective accounting protocols, it is still a very good thing. After all, if only 1% of the companies assessing their emissions in this way were to offset, that is still far more of a reduction worldwide than if the tools weren’t available, regardless of accuracy. Is it not true that every little helps?

© 2010, peter.garvin. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: peter.garvin (7 Articles)

I am a recent Clean Technology MSc Graduate with a keen interest in all elements of Green Business. My main areas of experience are in carbon footprinting, reduction and offsetting. I have a strong desire to extent my expertise in many directions, particularly that of sustainability management.

  • Lindsay Cox

    Good article giving a convincing argument that doing the calculation, putting a measurement stake in the ground and acting on it is the most important thing at this stage.

    It is probably worth noting however that at some point in the near or medium term, particularly when carbon trading takes off, there will be increased scrutiny on the calculations themselves and the provenance trail. No company wants to have to re-state its declared emissions, which could have a damaging effect on reputation and brand equity, so endeavouring to get it right from the start has to be a goal as well.

    Look hard to find calculators that can provide auditablity and a provenance trail.

  • Chris Lindley

    Great article. Thanks Peter. I’d also suggest defining a SME. If a SME is a two or three office company for example then fine.

    But if it’s a 30 site, 60 vehicle fleet healthcare company or an exporter of food to the EU, Japan or North America (still classified as a SME in many parts of the world) and they’re trying to establish the level of risk they face regarding approaching regulations or customer mandates then the self help approach could be problematic.

    For example, a lack of expertise in the company may cause them to disregard their refrigeration emissions when actual fact they could make up more than 4% of their total carbon footprint. The problem arises with a misrepresentation of the size of risk and also the scrutiny situation as mentioned my Lindsay above.

    Cheers. Chris.

  • Eric Novinson

    It’s a good point to bring up the carbon footprint of suppliers. It’s difficult to know whether a company should only report its own carbon emissions, or whether it should report emissions of upstream suppliers who might not make this information available. Hoping for some international reporting standards systems here that would simplify the reporting process.

  • Ranjan Kumar Sethi

    Thank you so much peter..very helpful