Factory exhaust with Electricity Map and WattTime logos

WHITE PAPER: To Drive More Authentic Impact, Faster, Look at the Consequences of Your Choices and Actions

 August 24, 2021 

Let’s face it. The latest UN International Panel on Climate Change report is grim. Our planet is in real trouble.

But as the sheer magnitude and urgency of the climate crisis becomes ever clearer, we at WattTime see one piece of real genuine hope on the horizon. Over the past year, there has been a quiet sea change in corporations and other institutions starting to ask what the true emissions benefits of their strategies, investments, and actions are. 

Because it is so critical that organizations succeed in this important goal, we are proud to partner with the other leading global provider of highly detailed electricity emissions data, in writing a new joint briefing on this issue. Together with Tomorrow, the folks who created Electricity Map, we’re jointly releasing A vision for how ambitious organizations can accurately measure electricity emissions to take genuine action. We focus specifically on the emissions associated with electricity, commonly referred to as Scope 2 emissions in GHG reporting.

What’s in the briefing? Long story short: to measure GHG emissions from electricity, organizations somewhat surprisingly face two different questions. And spoiler alert: one of those questions is more important than the other when it comes to measuring true impact and achieving larger system-wide emissions reductions sooner. Those two questions are:

  • What is the carbon footprint associated with an organization’s electricity use?
  • What is the carbon impact on global emissions as a result of different sustainability actions/interventions that they have been or could be undertaking?

At first glance, these might appear to be variations on the same question. But answering them accurately requires using two different frameworks: the attributional framework (answering the first question) and the consequential framework (answering the second). And it turns out that the seemingly subtle difference between these two frameworks actually really matters.

The attributional framework (most often associated with the scope emissions in the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Corporate Standard) accounts for an entity’s emissions inventory or footprint. It essentially focuses on assigning responsibility for emissions to different institutions.

But it doesn’t always provide as much insight on how to fix climate change. Because by relentlessly focusing on only the emissions that a company “owns”, the attributional framework can leave us blind to the effect of one organization’s actions on actual global emissions outside of that organization’s boundary. That’s where the consequential framework comes in.

The consequential framework quantifies the actual emissions impact of different actions or interventions, allowing organizations to optimize their investments to achieve greater real-world emissions reductions. Whether it’s deciding when to use electricity, where to site a wind farm, or even adopting energy efficiency measures, these choices affect other grid users, too. So, when one is looking at emissions data and deciding what to do, whether one considers the global emissions effect or not can actually heavily change what strategies look best.

Consider a company that is based in a grid powered entirely by natural gas. If it moved part of its operation to a grid that is powered 2/3 by nuclear, and 1/3 by coal, what happened to its emissions? From an attributional perspective, it has lowered its own carbon footprint because it has the right to claim a share of that clean nuclear energy in its carbon accounting. But from a consequential perspective, will the nuclear power plants change their output to accommodate the newcomer? Not likely. It’s the coal plants that will ramp up to power the newcomer. So total global emissions will actually go up, not down. 

“Only one thing will stop climate change: if all of us collectively somehow find a way to lower total global emissions by about 36 billion tons of CO2 each year. The fact is, my avoided emissions help you and yours help me. And optimizing sustainability strategies to measure and maximize the emissions consequences of our actions for everyone, doesn’t just affect our own individual inventories, it can often make it possible for sustainability teams to generate around 2 to 3 times as much real-world emissions savings for the same total cost and effort,” said Gavin McCormick, WattTime Executive Director.

When measuring electricity emissions, the GHG Protocol stipulates that companies must report their inventory using the attributional framework (e.g. GHGP Corporate Standard), and may also report their avoided emissions using the consequential framework (e.g. GHGP Project Protocol). At Tomorrow and WattTime, we recommend measuring and reporting both while seeking to utilize the most scientifically sound methods available to do so. The consequential framework can help organizations maximize the real world emissions benefit of their actions.

"Attributional and consequential methods are both necessary for managing responsibility, yet to date attributional methods have been the dominant focus for companies' GHG reporting," explains Matthew Brander, senior lecturer in carbon accounting at the University of Edinburgh. "But in today's day and age, corporations are increasingly focused on ensuring that their actions and investments achieve bigger and faster emissions reductions, not just for their own carbon footprint, but for the system as a whole. That's where consequential methods can add real insight to their strategies."

"Consequential and attributional accounting are complicated concepts that are sometimes conflated," added Olivier Corradi, founder and CEO of Tomorrow. "Given the recently increased ambitions of major organisations and governments, we felt the urge to create a document that acts as a guide for organisations that want to drive real and tangible impact. It felt important to partner up with WattTime in order to have a strong and unified voice on the topic."

To learn more, please download the white paper.