The beginners guide to carbon footprinting for small business

We often get asked about carbon footprinting and we provide advice and support to enable small businesses (and some big ones too) to measure their carbon footprint. See more about the service we provide here. In case you want to have a go yourself, all of the questions we are commonly asked are covered in this guide. 

The guide provides all of the information you need to develop a carbon footprint for your small business.

We have tried to use plain English and keep everything as simple as possible. If you are busy or just find it overwhelming, Green Small Business can do the work for you. Book a call to discuss your requirements. We would be happy to help.

Here’s what you will learn:

What is carbon?

In this context, carbon refers to carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a gas which is generated by burning fossil fuels (coal, gas, oil, petrol, diesel etc) in homes, cars, power stations and businesses.

Carbon dioxide is the most common greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gases got their name because increasing levels of these gases in the earth’s atmosphere are causing global temperatures to rise.

Other greenhouse gases include methane (the gas produced by cows), nitrous oxide (another gas produced by burning fuel) and hydrofluorocarbons or ‘HFCs’ (the gases used in refrigeration and air conditioning). Each of these gases has a different capacity to cause global warming. This is often measured relative to carbon dioxide, using CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent).

In the context of a carbon footprint, ‘carbon’ is often therefore used as shorthand not just for carbon dioxide but for CO2e, i.e. the emissions of all the greenhouse gases being measured.

CO2 in clouds

When you see the term ‘carbon emissions’, it may well be referring to the emissions of all of the greenhouse gases.

What is a carbon footprint?

A carbon footprint of your business is a measurement of the greenhouse gases which your business produces. 

The activities of your small business produce these gases directly and indirectly. They are directly produced by burning gas to generate heat for your building(s) and using fuel in your vehicles. They are indirectly produced from using electricity, some of which may have been generated from burning coal or gas in power stations. They are also produced indirectly when you purchase goods and services, all of which will have required energy to produce and deliver to you. 

You should always include the direct emissions in your small business carbon footprint but the extent to which you include the indirect emissions will be a decision you need to take. More on that later.

A carbon footprint is a tool you can use to understand the different ways in which your small business is contributing to climate change. It will allow you to identify ways of reducing that contribution in future. Updating your carbon footprint on a regular basis will allow you to measure your progress in reducing the carbon emissions from your small business.

What are Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3 emissions?

The GHGProtocol is an organisation which has established a globally-recognised standard for measuring and managing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. GHG Protocol distinguishes between direct and indirect emissions but breaks down the indirect emissions into 2 separate categories. Overall, greenhouse gas emissions are therefore divided into 3 categories or ‘scopes’:

  • Scope 1 emissions are the direct emissions. These are the emissions produced by activities which are under your direct control as a small business. This would include emissions from burning fuel in boilers for on-site heating, burning fuel in vehicles owned by the business and gases escaping from on-site air conditioning systems.
  • Scope 2 emissions are the indirect emissions resulting from the generation of electricity which you use as a small business.
  • Scope 3 emissions are all of the other indirect emissions resulting from the activities of your small business. This could include:
    • business travel in vehicles which are not owned by the company
    • distribution of products and services that you buy and sell
    • waste disposal
    • water use

To some extent at least, your small business is responsible for all of these emissions. However, in the case of scope 2 and scope 3 emissions, they come from sources which you do not own or control.

Source:GHG Protocol

How can I develop a carbon footprint for my small business?

Step 1: Decide on the scope of your carbon footprint

It is good to include the emissions from as many of the sources you are responsible for as possible. In practice, what you include will depend on which of these sources you can realistically measure.

As a minimum, you should include all scope 1 and scope 2 emissions. Measuring scope 1 emissions requires a record of fuel used on-site (available via energy bills), refrigerants used in servicing any air conditioning (available from invoices from the service engineers) and fuel used in company vehicles (usually available in financial records).

Measuring scope 2 emissions simply requires a record of electricity used (available via energy bills).

That’s the easy bit.

You should also include as many of your scope 3 emissions as you have the time and data for. A recently introduced UK Government requirement may provide a useful steer.  This is a requirement for businesses to measure their carbon footprint if they want to bid for big Government contracts. They have specified that the footprint must include some scope 3 emissions. This includes the following, which should be feasible for many businesses to measure:

  • Business travel – emissions from transportation of employees for business-related activities. Measuring this would require records of trips taken and the mode of transport used for those trips.
  • Employee commuting – emissions from transportation of employees between their homes and their worksites. Measuring this would require analysis of the commuting trips completed and the mode of transport used.

Two further categories are included which may prove trickier:

  • Transportation and distribution – the emissions from the transportation of products supplied by the business and products purchased by the business. Measuring this would require analysis of all of the trips taken by transportation providers in bringing goods to you and shipping any goods to your customers. For many small businesses, this may be something to aspire to rather than something that could be included in an initial footprinting exercise.
  • Waste – emissions from the disposal and treatment of waste generated by the business’s operations. Measuring this would require data on the quantities of waste disposed of and the type of disposal/management method used (landfill, recycling, composting etc). Again, this may be something that your small business could think about measuring in future but few small businesses will have sufficient data to include it initially.

Following the surge in home-working during the Covid-19 pandemic, we think companies should also account for the emissions from home-working. That’s now pretty straightforward given the publication ofthis guide, which includes useful estimates on which you can base your calculations.

Which emissions you include and exclude may be partly determined by the reasons you are calculating your carbon footprint in the first place. If you are doing it as part of your B Corp application process to improve your B Impact Assessment score, for example, the questions you are asked will depend on the nature of your business. If your business has straightforward environmental impacts, the maximum score can be achieved by measuring and improving the management of only scope 1 and scope 2 emissions.

For small businesses which are measuring their carbon footprint for the first time, we generally recommend that they include all scope 1 and 2 emissions and the scope 3 emissions from:

  • business travel
  • home working – more and more staff are working from home so we encourage inclusion of emissions from home working where this is relevant
  • staff commuting
  • supply chain emissions from purchased goods & services
  • any other scope 3 categories that are likely to form a significant portion of the overall business footprint

We also generally recommend that businesses seek to expand the scope of their footprint over time so that they take responsibility for as much of it as they can.

Most importantly, in any reporting of your carbon footprint you should be transparent about what emissions are included and excluded. 

Step 2: Decide on a baseline year and gather the data

To be really useful in measuring your progress in reducing emissions, you will need to update your carbon footprint on a regular (probably annual) basis. However, initially you will need to decide on a baseline year that you can measure your progress from.

Much of the data which you will use for your carbon footprint will come from your financial records so you may want to align your baseline year with your accounting period.

Your baseline year needs to be the most recent year for which you have the data BUT it also needs to be as near as possible to a typical year for the business. If you choose a year in which business was significantly impacted by the Covid pandemic or some other major event, it will not provide a useful basis for monitoring future change.

Having decided on your baseline year, you then need to gather the relevant data from that year. The likely data sources for the emissions included in a basic carbon footprint are shown below.

ActivitySource of data
Heating / cooling company facilitiesTotal kilowatt hours used from gas bills.

Total litres and type(s) of top-up gases for any air conditioning units, from servicing bills. 

If you rent part of a building and do not have a separate bills, you will need to estimate your usage – a percentage of the overall bill which is equivalent to your percentage of the overall floorspace of the building, for example.
Operating company vehiclesLitres of fuel purchased from invoices and receipts (more accurate); or 

Vehicle mileage from vehicle log books/odometers (less accurate)

Plus the vehicle type(s) used for the journeys.
Electricity use in company facilities Total kilowatt hours used from electricity bills.

If you rent part of a building and do not have a separate electricity bill, you will need to estimate your electricity usage – a percentage of the overall bill which is equivalent to your percentage of the overall floorspace of the building, for example.
Home workingNumber of employee days worked from home, which might be available from timesheets or might just need to be estimated.
Business travelMode of travel (car, train, plane etc) and distance travelled for each journey taken.

Mode of travel can be identified from expenses claims. If distance travelled isn’t also captured in those claims, this can be calculated using Google Maps or equivalent.
Staff commutingCommuting distance, frequency and usual mode of transport for all staff

This data is usually gathered via a staff survey
Supply chain emissions from purchased goods and servicesAmounts of spend in broad categories – food & drink; computing; insurance etc

This can usually be extracted from financial management software

Collating all of your data in a single spreadsheet will help keep you organised and make for easier updating in future years.

Step 3: Calculate your emissions (do the math!)

Having gathered data on all of the activities of your small business that have generated greenhouse gas emissions, you then need to do some simple calculations to convert the activity data to emissions. This is done using conversion factors.

Activity data x Conversion factor = Greenhouse gas emissions

This can be done in one of two ways or a combination of both.

  1. Using an online calculator. You are spoiled for choice when it comes to carbon calculators. Use Google to find one you like. Conversion factors vary from place to place because of distinctions between how electricity is produced, the efficiency of vehicles etc. So make sure that the one you choose uses conversion factors which are relevant to the country you operate in. We usually refer small businesses to the brilliant Climate Impact Partners calculator, which allows calculations of emissions from flights, road transport, energy use and various other categories, and also allows you to specify the country you are in.
  2. Manually, using officially recognised conversion factors. Many Governments issue conversion factors to make carbon calculations more consistent. The UK Government updates conversion factors for the UK on an annual basis and publishes them online here. Factors fir calculating emissions from the supply chain of purchased products and services can be found here. Some conversion factors are published by the Australian Government – the factors for 2020 are here. Emission factors for the USA are included in this (unfortunately rather complicated) GHG Protocol spreadsheet. Various other country-specific spreadsheets and tools can also be found on the GHG Protocol website. Try Google searches too.

Calculators like the Climate Impact Partners calculator allow the calculation of emissions from most of the activities that will be relevant to a small business. Doing the calculations manually will enable a slightly more accurate calculation (e.g. through allowing more specific details of vehicle type). A manual approach will also allow a wider set of activities to be included but this may not always be necessary when you are starting out on your carbon footprinting journey.

One activity which might require some manual calculations is home working. This super-useful guide to measuring emissions from homeworking provides two calculation methods for each of emissions sources: use of office equipment; heating the home office space; and cooling the home office space. The two methods are described as ‘Base Case’ and ‘Enhanced Data Collection’. The easier ‘Base Case’ approach should be more than sufficient in most cases.

Once you have added up the emissions from each of the emissions sources, that is your small business carbon footprint. Nice work!

What should I do with my small business carbon footprint?

There are three main uses for your small business carbon footprint:

  1. To identify priority areas for improving your environmental performance. Your carbon footprint should give you a clear idea of which activities are generating the most emissions and, therefore, where you might be able to make improvements.
  2. To monitor progress. Recalculating your carbon footprint on a regular basis will enable you to monitor your progress in reducing the carbon emissions from your small business.
  3. To establish how much carbon offsetting you would need to do in order to be a ‘carbon neutral’ business – more on this below.

How can I reduce the carbon footprint of my small business?

The answer to this question will be different for every small business. At Green Small Business, we take a structured and systematic approach to understanding all of the different business activities that generate an environmental impact and work with businesses to develop policies and action plans to address those impacts. Our free guide provides a step-by-step process for you to do the same, or you could get us to work with you.

From our work with dozens of different small businesses, there are some common areas for action, including:

  • Reducing energy use in buildings, e.g. through improving energy efficiency.
  • Developing a principled approach to business travel through reducing travel and using more sustainable modes of transport.

But there are lots of other areas that are commonly overlooked, including the choices made about things like company pensions and web hosting. Depending on how you have measured it, action in such areas may or may not make a measurable difference to your carbon footprint but they are crucial to ensuring your business has real integrity in its environmental management.

What is carbon offsetting?

The main purpose of calculating a carbon footprint for your small business should always be to better understand how you can reduce carbon emissions. However, you will not be able to eliminate all of your carbon emissions. Carbon offsetting provides a way of compensating for the emissions that you can’t eliminate by investing in projects that result in a reduction of carbon emissions. Such projects might include tree planting or new renewable energy.

Not all carbon offsets are the same. Standards have been developed as a way of independently verifying the carbon emissions reductions promised by the offsets. Two of the biggest verification schemes are the Gold Standard and the Verified Carbon Standard. We often refer clients to Climate Impact Partners for the purchasing of carbon offsets as all of their projects are externally verified. 

What does carbon neutral mean?

‘Carbon neutral’ is a label that is sometimes claimed by businesses that have offset all of their carbon emissions. ‘Climate neutral’ and even ‘climate positive’ are also used and seem to mean similar things.

These terms are being used by businesses more and more. To be used with integrity, you must always be clear what is and is not included in your calculations. Once all indirect and lifecycle emissions are taken into account, it is unlikely that any business will be fully carbon neutral. So if you are claiming that your business is carbon neutral and want to avoid accusations of ‘greenwash’, always also include a short explanation of what is and is not included in your calculations.

carbon neutral logo

What does net zero mean?

‘Net zero’ has been described as the most important metric of the 21st century but there is a lot of confusion about what it means.

A net zero world would be one in which the amount of greenhouse gases coming into the atmosphere was equivalent to the amount being taken out, e.g. through being absorbed by plants and trees. In that sense, it is very similar to ‘carbon neutral’ but the key difference is that net zero relies on carbon offsetting only once radical reductions in direct emissions have been achieved.

The term also implies reference to an important global movement. In Paris in 2015 a global target was set of achieving net zero by 2050 in order to prevent dangerous levels of global warming. The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) subsequently stated that an interim target of achieving a 50% reduction by 2030 was necessary.

Businesses and other organisations have since been encouraged to set targets which are consistent with these global net zero targets. The United Nation’s Race to Zero campaign has been established to support this. Numerous country-specific initiatives have also been set up to encourage businesses and other organisations to set targets which are aligned with these global goals. 

For net zero to be achieved, clearly it requires consistency in the way it is measured. The Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTI) is attempting to standardise and verify the setting of these targets by individual businesses and organisations. Use this methodology if you can but beware that for many smaller businesses, meeting SBTI requirements will be extremely challenging due to the often limited control over some emissions sources, e.g. when operating from rented premises.

What is carbon intensity?

In the context of carbon footprinting, carbon intensity is a measure of carbon emissions relative to business turnover. It is usually measured in CO2e per $million revenue.

As a business grows and the levels of its different activities increase, it’s carbon emissions are also likely to grow. Measures that have been taken to reduce carbon emissions might not then show in the business carbon footprint as they could be outweighed by the extra emissions from the growth in business activity.

Similarly, if a business was shrinking, this is likely to result in a reduction of emissions. 

Carbon intensity is therefore an important measure for getting an accurate understanding of the success or otherwise of your carbon reduction efforts. If carbon intensity is decreasing then it is an indication that carbon reduction efforts are succeeding (bear in mind though that there will be a natural reduction in carbon intensity anyway as the level of renewable energy in the grid increases, the efficiency of vehicles improves etc). If carbon intensity is increasing then it is an indication that your efforts are not having the impact you intended.

Our advice – unless your business is growing really fast, keep an eye on your carbon intensity as it’s easy to measure and can be useful but always aim to reduce your absolute carbon footprint year-on-year.

carbon footprinting service

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We would love to hear from you. If you need help with your carbon footprint or have any questions or comments about any aspect of Green Small Business, please contact us. Book a call with Tim or send us a message using the contact form.

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