Decoding Carbon Jargon: Your Comprehensive Guide to Understanding Emissions
Updated: Jun 12
If you haven’t already, you’re about to start hearing the word “carbon” a lot. Everywhere. All the time. It is the most pressing topic in discussions on climate change and sustainable practices. Whether it is about emissions and footprints or offsetting and credits, the “carbon” conversation is here to stay and there’s a lot of information to absorb.
I’ve been studying it for a few years, and I know how overwhelming it can be to navigate, so I decided to put together a guide on all the carbon jargon that you need to know. Whether you’re completely new to the subject, a concerned individual or a business owner looking to make sustainable choices for your enterprise, I hope this guide equips you to be a part of bigger conversations about creating a sustainable future for everyone. (I’ve attached the full set of resources I created for this post at the end that you are welcome to download and share!)
Let’s dive into it with a quick refresher…
In the beginning, there was the word, and the word, was Carbon
Carbon is one of the most commonly found chemical elements in our galaxy, however, in the sustainability context it refers specifically to carbon dioxide (CO2).
Carbon dioxide is widely found in nature. It is a by-product of cellular respiration (animals inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide) and an essential component of photosynthesis (plants absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen). It is also the most prevalent type of greenhouse gas present in the atmosphere.
Greenhouse gasses are a class of gas that absorbs and reflects heat, creating what is known as the greenhouse effect. An optimum amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is what helps maintain the Earth’s temperature at a level that allows for the existence of life forms on this planet.
The problem the world is facing today is a drastic rise in greenhouse gas levels which is causing global temperatures to rise, disrupting eco systems and creating a chain reaction of harmful impact on people, animals, and plants alike.
Ok now that we’ve covered the absolute basics, let’s get into some details:
“Carbon emissions” refer to the generation of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere because of human activities like the extraction, refining, transportation and burning of fossil fuels. It is represented as CO2e and measured as a weight.
Every activity we undertake has a carbon emission associated with it. Sending a text message for example, has an emission of 0.01g CO2e while taking a 3.5 hour flight from Dubai, UAE to Bangalore, India has an emission of nearly 415 metric tonnes of CO2e (calculated for a full flight on an Airbus A380.)
A “carbon footprint” is the total sum value of all the greenhouse gas emissions generated in a given time frame, typically a year. Carbon footprints can be calculated at micro levels like for an individual or macro levels like for an entire organisation, industry or even a whole country.
A lower carbon footprint means that the net effect of all the activities undertaken by the individual, organisation, industry, or country has a lesser contribution towards the excess greenhouse gasses present in the atmosphere, conversely, a higher carbon footprint means the total emissions associated with a given entity has had a higher impact on the total greenhouse gasses present in the atmosphere.
While thinking about carbon footprints, we must also think about “carbon intensity”, which refers to the amount of carbon emissions or the size of the carbon footprint produced per unit of economic activity or output. It is often used to compare the emissions efficiency of different industries, sectors, or countries. Lowering carbon intensity involves reducing emissions while maintaining or increasing economic productivity.
It is also important to note relativity and scale while talking about carbon footprints or carbon intensity. For example, according to data published by the UNEP in 2021, India was attributed with the third highest carbon emissions in the world at 3619.8 million tonnes, nearly 7% of the global total in 2018. However, as a country of nearly 1.4 billion people, its per capita emissions were only 2.7 tonnes. Qatar on the other hand was attributed with the emission of 178.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gasses, but with a population of just 2.7 million people, that’s a whopping 66.2 tonnes of greenhouse gas emission per capita.
Fun fact: the term “Carbon Footprint” was coined and popularised by ad-agency Ogilvy (then Ogilvy and Mathers) for petrol giant BP in 2008. It was originally a clever way of foisting the burden of managing carbon emissions on the individual, as opposed to a massive corporation taking accountability for reaping billions in profit off drilling for, processing and selling fossil fuels. Thankfully, it is now widely used as a metric to measure the greenhouse gas emissions of large-scale entities and to hold them accountable for the impact of their actions.
If you’re still with me, now we’re getting to the really interesting stuff. Dare I say, cooking with (carbon neutral) gas? (Sorry, not sorry)
Terrible attempt at a joke, but what exactly is “carbon neutral”?
Carbon neutral is a term commonly used to describe sustainability goals. Simply put, it refers to when a company can balance the greenhouse gas emissions generated as part of their economic activity with a proportionate amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere.
You may also hear terms like “net zero” and “climate positive”, so what is the difference?
Net-Zero is sometimes used interchangeably with carbon neutral but there is a marked difference between the two. Where carbon neutral involves counteracting carbon emissions generated by facilitating the removal of carbon, net-zero demands that no carbon is emitted during the (economic) activity at all.
Climate positive, on the other hand, refers to when an activity not only does not emit any greenhouse gasses, but it also goes above and beyond to create environmental benefit by removing additional carbon from the atmosphere.
To make it easy, consider this,
Building A is constructed using materials and processes that generate a certain amount of greenhouse gasses, but to counter that, the contractors plant a lush garden filled with trees and algae filled ponds which can capture most or maybe even all the carbon generated in this process. This is carbon neutrality.
Building B is constructed entirely using eco-friendly materials and is even powered by solar energy. It effectively has no carbon emissions associated with its operation, making it a net-zero emissions building.
Building C is made identical to Building B, and the contractors also cultivated a forested area, in the near vicinity. This building would qualify as climate positive.
Did you know? Forests are known as “carbon sinks” because a single full-grown tree can absorb or “sequester” over 48 pounds of CO2 in a year and convert it oxygen. Thus, forests have a remarkable potential to act as giant repositories for excess carbon and why deforestation has contributed heavily to the rise in greenhouse gas levels present in the atmosphere and reforesting is playing such a critical role in “carbon sequestration”.
Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, effectively removing it from the carbon cycle. It can occur naturally through biological processes, such as photosynthesis in plants and the absorption of carbon by oceans, or it can be enhanced through technological methods like carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Why is it important for us to collectively strive towards net-zero emissions?
This is the most important part. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has projected that if we are not able to lower our carbon emissions by 45% and subsequently bring down the Earth’s temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by the year 2030, there will be catastrophic consequences for all of us.
Ecosystems are delicate things. Rising global temperatures have already led to a never-before-seen rate of melting of polar ice caps. The melting ice caps have been causing water levels in our oceans to rise. This in turn is leading cities and even entire countries to the brink of being permanently submerged under water. Furthermore, the dramatic change in water levels is affecting atmospheric pressure and disrupting natural weather patterns, which has led to uncharacteristic and unseasonal weather phenomenon like hail and snow in deserts and droughts in sub-tropical regions, adversely affecting agriculture, potable water supplies and ultimately the lives of countless humans, flora, and fauna. It is a devastating ripple effect and we’re running out of time to act on it.
The root cause of these issues is aggressive economic activity by human beings but to simply stop all manufacturing, construction, agriculture etc. is obviously not an option.
Enter the UNSDGs.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) are a framework of 17 goals proposed by the United Nations in order to ensure global prosperity while protecting the planet. While they are presented as 17 distinct action items, many of them are interlinked and related directly to SDG #13, “Climate Action”.
Climate action is a direct call to arms for governments, policy makers, corporations, and individuals to come together and work as a united front to reverse the damages done by greenhouse gas emissions.
As I’ve mentioned in my previous posts, real change and impact must be driven from the very top, which means that the most responsibility for implementing policies and enforcing sustainable practices lie with governments and market leaders. This is where it gets tricky.
Global supply chains are incredibly complex, and tracing carbon impact across raw materials, logistics, manufacturing, and consumption of final goods is a vast and daunting prospect. To bring some sense of order to it, the concept of “carbon emissions scopes” was introduced, over 20 years ago, by an organisation called the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHGP), a joint effort by the World Resource Institute (WRI) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).
In its simplest form, emission scopes provide a framework to categorise the sources of greenhouse gas emissions and to assign accountability to the relevant stakeholders. Broadly, emissions are categorised under Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3.
To explain this, let’s look at it in the context of, you guessed it, the fashion industry, by evaluating the emissions scopes of a fictional brand – let’s call it LabelZ
Scope 1 Emissions: Scope 1 covers emissions generated by sources that are directly in control of or owned by an organisation.
In this example that would include the greenhouse gas emissions, that are generated in LabelZ’s garment factories during the manufacturing process as well as emissions from fossil fuels burned by any vehicles that are owned by them.
Scope 2 Emissions: Scope 2 refers to indirect emissions generated by energy sources that have been purchased by an organisation.
So, in a given year, if LabelZ consumes 200,000 kilowatts of electricity to run its offices and factories, including powering equipment, heating and cooling etc, and it purchases 3000 gallons of fuel to power its fleet, including employee and goods transportation vehicles, the carbon emissions (CO2e) value of the electricity and fuel is added to LabelZ’s overall emissions.
An organisation can reduce its scope 1 and 2 emissions by investing in renewable energy sources for their offices and factories and transitioning to Electric Vehicles (EVs) for their fleet. Quick side note: Having an EV but using fossil fuel-based electricity to charge it would still result in a higher Scope 2 emission.
Scope 3 Emissions: Scope 3 is where it gets tricky. This includes indirect emissions that are associated with an organisation’s operations across the entire value chain.
Essentially it includes carbon emissions generated from upstream activities (sourcing raw materials, transportation of materials, manufacturing and operational waste, employee commutes, business travel, capital goods, leased/rented buildings or vehicles) as well as downstream activities (transport of finished goods, product packaging, the consumer of the goods, end of life treatment of the products).
Still complicated, I know, so let’s look at it in terms of our fictional fashion brand.
In the case of LabelZ, scope 3 emissions would include all the following emissions (and more):
From agricultural practices to grow the plants from which fibers are extracted
Textile manufacturing processes like spinning, weaving etc. undertaken by their suppliers to provide them with fabric as a raw material.
Transportation of fibers to textile manufactures and textiles to LabelZ’s factories
Commute of every single employee in the organisation
Business trips undertaken by anyone in the organisation
Production of machinery like sewing machines or equipment like computers and printers that they had to purchase to undertake their own manufacturing
Transportation of the garments manufactured by them to all their retail locations across the world
Production of all packaging material used by them and the disposal of said packaging
Energy consumed in rented offices and retail outlets
Consumers who ultimately buy their clothes and then consume energy to wash them
Disposal of their garments in landfills
And this is just a small fraction of the almost countless nuances that make up the full extent of Scope 3 emissions.
If you like, I’ve included an emissions scope worksheet as part of the resource deck at the end of this post! Feel free to fill it out in context of yourself, your household or even your school or place of work to see how you can start a conversation about climate change! And if you do use it, post a picture on Instagram and tag me @nan_ban, I’d love to see your explorations!
While it may seem almost impossible to tackle Scope 3, and indeed, corporations have tried to get out of it in the past because of the complexity and investment requirements, it is essential for all 3 scopes to be addressed to bring net carbon emissions down to the required goal (1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by the year 2030)
In fact, the EU Parliament passed a directive for the adoption of the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) in November 2022, that requires companies to report where they are sourcing their materials from, demanding that manufacturers exercise greater discernment while choosing suppliers, and what kind of investments they are making to help their consumers mitigate the emissions associated with the consumption of their products, as well as how they are addressing the end-of life treatment of their products.
Truly the extent of work that needs to be done to facilitate sustainable businesses is mind boggling, but it is heartening to see that governments are starting put pressure on corporations to not just take accountability but also forcing them to report with greater clarity and transparency.
Of late, more and more companies, have been turning to something known as “carbon trading” to present more favourable climate action reports. [I promise, we’re almost done]
So, what is carbon trading? It is a mechanism used by governments, like the EU ETS (European Union Environmental Trading System) in which an overall limit is set to limit how much carbon emissions are acceptable within a jurisdiction. Subsequently, “permits” are sold to corporations, allowing them a certain fraction of the overall carbon limit or “cap”. Corporations are invariably incapable of remaining within the permitted limit of emissions and so they purchase “credits” as part of a system known as “carbon offsetting”.
Carbon offsetting is a practice in which companies invest in other organisations that are working towards reducing the excess greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. They do this by paying these environmental organisations in exchange for “carbon credits”.
Coming back to our brand LabelZ, the company can claim to have offset its own emissions by purchasing carbon credits from a local NGO that works on planting more trees and from a small start-up that is working on converting agricultural waste into compressed gas for kitchen use.
You might think, "That’s not a bad deal!" Environmental agencies, NGOs and enterprises that are working on things like renewable or recyclable energy or any other kind of technology or service that has a positive environmental impact are often underfunded and unable to scale up to the levels where they can make a real impact so if they can get funding through the carbon offsetting mechanism, what’s the harm?
Well, the biggest drawback, is that carbon offsetting has become a get-out-of-jail-free card that corporations use to continue to pollute the way they have been doing all along because it supposedly eliminates the responsibility of taking measurable steps to reduce their own emissions. Furthermore, while investment in environment-friendly organisations and initiatives is an excellent thing, the results from those investments may not appear for many years. Consider the NGO that is working on planting more trees, however, it will take anywhere between 20-30 years for a sapling to grow into a tree that has that kind of capacity. And yet, the corporations that pollute in the present have gotten away with their harmful practices because of the carbon offsetting mechanism.
Additionally, it's worth mentioning the importance of transparency and credibility when it comes to carbon offsetting. Some projects may claim to be carbon offset projects but lack rigorous standards or verification processes. To ensure the effectiveness of carbon offsetting, it's crucial to support projects that adhere to recognized standards, such as the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) or Gold Standard and undergo independent third-party verification.
To address this issue, some organizations and experts advocate for a more holistic approach known as "insetting". Carbon insetting refers to the financing of climate protection projects along a company's own value chain that demonstrably reduce or sequester emissions and thereby achieve a positive impact on the communities, landscapes and ecosystems associated with the value rather than relying solely on external carbon offset projects. This could include investments in renewable energy sources, suppliers that are certified in and ethically aligned to sustainable practices, and companies that can help with minimising operational and manufacturing wastes, among others.
Governments need to hold corporations accountable for exceeding the limits set by their carbon permits. Companies have run out of time and have no choice but to take decisive action to reduce their own carbon emissions in a move towards net zero emissions at the source and transition to sustainable practices and technologies. In a race against time, we must unite to educate and demand accountability from major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Our collective efforts are crucial to reversing the damages and securing a sustainable future.
On that note, I’m going to conclude this post. If you’re still with me, congratulations! You’ve reached the end and are now aware of all the carbon jargon and are fully equipped to have meaningful conversations and perhaps, even drive change, in your homes and organisations. To make it even easier here’s a cheat sheet for all the terms covered in this post, or, you can download the full set of infographic resources I created for this post.