If you are searching the web to find out how to understand or do something about your business carbon footprint, odds are you will have come across a number of carbon calculators. So do they work? Will they give you a meaningful result?
Unfortunately the answer is “not really”. The quality of carbon footprint calculators varies immensely but even the best ones fall short of the mark in providing a full picture of your greenhouse gas emissions. The reason for this is easy enough to understand. Without some human expertise involved in the assessment process, online carbon calculators would have to ask a huge number of questions to cover all the bases adequately. So they must take some shortcuts to achieve usability and speed. This compromises overall accuracy however. So the question then becomes “how many shortcuts has each carbon calculator taken to make their tool more usable?”
Some calculators are targeted at individuals or households and a web-based footprint calculator is fine for that as capturing the full spectrum of emissions is not especially important. We’d even happily recommend a couple of Australian carbon calculators here but the two we liked best have both disappeared from the web.
For business however, calculating greenhouse gas emissions by use of a business carbon calculator is high risk, even for a micro business. If business decisions are riding on the outcome or a green marketing strategy is being developed, the result needs to be robust. Additionally, if an organisation wants to track emissions over time then it needs to ensure a consistent methodology and calculations. Online business carbon calculators generally don’t divulge the sources of emission factors they use so the user cannot verify if the conversion values change, nor see if these or the methodology of the site changes over time. Worse still, there is no certainty that the site is going to continue to be available in the future, which then leaves the user back at square one.
Where an online carbon calculator can prove worthwhile is in providing an initial screening tool to estimate the general magnitude of emissions for an organization but still there are some caveats. Capturing fuel, electricity, gas and flights might sound like it covers the bulk of potential emissions for an organization but it depends heavily on the organization profile. It is quite possible that these may represent a mere one third of total emissions, even for a service firm.