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What are Scope 3 emissions?

Sustainability jargon is frequently batted around without being clearly defined or contextualised; one such term is ‘Scope 3 emissions.’ It is time to demystify Scope 3 emissions, explain why they can be so significant, and explore what makes them an issue.

The manufacture of products, such as a pair of shoes, generates greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which are broken down into three categories. The GHGs linked directly to the pair of shoes, to run with this example, are called Scope 1 emissions. They include GHGs emitted by the factory where the shoes are manufactured, as well as the exhaust fumes released by company vehicles. Indirect emissions linked to the shoes are labelled as Scope 2 and Scope 3. Scope 2 emissions are limited to those generated by the purchase of electricity, heat, steam, or energy used during the manufacture of the shoes. Scope 3 emissions encapsulate everything else…

Scope 3 emissions refer to the indirect GHGs associated with an organisation’s activities and assets, but are emitted from sources that are

“not owned or controlled by the reporting organization, but that the organization indirectly affects in its value chain.”

They can include supply chain emissions, transportation and distribution, waste management, product use and end-of-life, and business travel.

It is difficult to definitively categorise an emissions type as ‘Scope 3′ as they change depending on the individual company. This is because each business has a unique value chain and operational context. For the production of a pair of shoes, Scope 3 emissions include business travel, whilst for a train or transport operator, emissions linked to transportation are typically categorised as Scope 1.

Scope 3 emissions can be the largest chunk of an organisation’s carbon footprint. This is the case for Formula E, the electric-car racing series. In Formula E’s Season 8 Sustainability Report it is stated 98.8% of total emissions are Scope 3.

It is incredible to think that the carbon footprint of Formula E, a sport designed around cars, albeit electric vehicles, is almost completely unrelated to the cars themselves. The ‘car’ only accounts for 1.2% of total Formula E emissions. Instead, emissions are produced by the activities and infrastructure that allow races to go ahead: Freight transporting the Formula E circuit accounts for 73% of the total carbon footprint, operations 7%, whilst business and estimated spectator travel make up 13% and 4% respectively, noting that spectator attendance across the 10 season 8 race locations reportedly averaged 14,559 (The Race, 23/06/23) – a fraction of the sports 381m broadcast media audience.

Why are Scope 3 emissions an ‘issue’?

Formula E is a leader in sustainability. It is the first sports organisation to have achieved Net Zero Carbon certification since Inception. As a result, Formula E is not representative of other sport organisations. Many fail to prioritise sustainability, and where eco-friendly initiatives are implemented, they are not as consistently measured, analysed, or reported on.

An article published by Tortoise Media, ‘The Better Food Index 2023’, investigated the environmental impact of agriculture and the lack of transparency amongst the 30 largest UK Food & Drink companies. They reveal that of the 26 companies that report on their Scope 3 emissions, half ‘appear to underreport.’ A meat producer, Moy Park, reported ‘80.2 tonnes of Scope 3 emissions in 2021, accounting for only 0.05 per cent of their total emissions.’ For context, the article informs readers that Scope 3 emissions ‘typically account for 90 to 95 per cent of all emissions in the UK food sector.’

The fact remains that data on Scope 3 emissions is limited as reporting is not a legal obligation across the board and emissions are difficult to measure. Perfect data on Scope 3 emissions is scarce, however sophisticated technologies that capture such data exist, including the ‘You. Smart. Thing.’ (YST) travel assistant service. As the leading travel demand management service for events, destinations, and venues, YST has worked with organisations including Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games to capture the carbon footprint of visitor travel.

Solutions exist… Why don’t more organisations use them?

Unfortunately, there is a prioritisation issue when it comes to sustainability. As seen by Zac Goldsmith’s open resignation letter in June, even governments committed to addressing the Climate Crisis fail to deliver on sustainability promises. The UK government has, in Goldsmith’s words, effectively abandoned its ‘pledge to spend £11.6bn of our aid on climate and environment.’ This prioritisation-complex extends to Scope 3 emissions.

Scope 3 emissions ‘almost always represents the largest proportion of emissions.’ Despite this, many organisations addressing impact on the environment begin with Scope 1 and 2 emissions. Tackling the lowest hanging fruit first rather than the most significant is illogical, and if applied elsewhere this approach might easily make front-page news.

Increasingly, organisations want to achieve significant goals because of internal and external pressures. Consumers and organisations recognise the prestige of environmental accreditation offered by BCorporation and The Carbon Trust Standard. To attain these accreditations, organisations must become educated on Scope 3 emissions and work towards a net zero or carbon neutral position.

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