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What Is a Carbon Calculator and How Can You Use One?

April 19, 2022 - Ellie Poverly

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Organizations today are increasingly concerned about their impact on the environment. As climate data has become more available, businesses’ environmental impact has become clearer, and consumer pressure to go green has risen. Thankfully, companies today have many tools at their disposal for sustainability, including using a carbon calculator to get baseline emissions readings.

While 92.1% of small and medium enterprises see green business practices as important, only two-thirds have implemented any. That discrepancy arises from many individual factors, but part of it is a lack of knowledge. Businesses may want to go green but don’t know where to start.

Using a carbon calculator can provide that starting point, paving the way for sustainable actions.

What Is a Carbon Calculator?

A carbon calculator, as the name suggests, calculates an individual’s or business’s carbon footprint. More often than not, these are estimates, not exact figures, but they can provide a baseline for where a company stands on sustainability. Businesses can then take that information to inform a company-specific plan for going green.

Sometimes these calculators use general estimates about various processes to help highlight potential areas of improvement. For example, energy in the U.S. produces roughly 1,238 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity. Applying that formula to a company’s energy consumption can help gauge their energy-related emissions, but it’s not an exact figure.

Other approaches to carbon calculators are more in-depth. Businesses will look at hard data about their specific processes. Their location, vehicle types, energy sources and more can all set them apart from the average, for better or worse. Understanding these specific factors can provide more relevant insights.

Regardless of what method companies use, a carbon calculator can be a helpful first step toward sustainability. Once businesses understand the scale of their carbon footprints, they can take appropriate action to reduce them.

Carbon Calculator Options

As the need for sustainability has grown, so have the available tools that help businesses pursue it. Companies today have several carbon calculator options with varying levels of precision, insight and functionality.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers a free emissions calculator aimed at small businesses and “low-emitter” organizations. This calculator looks at both direct and indirect emissions sources but doesn’t account for everything, such as embodied carbon in buildings. However, simplified tools like this may be ideal for smaller organizations with fewer resources.

Most free, publicly available carbon calculators are similarly simple. If businesses want a more in-depth look at their carbon footprint, they may consider a third-party audit. Several organizations today provide environmental, social and governance (ESG) audits, including carbon footprint estimates.

Businesses could also calculate their carbon footprint independently. With the right data collection tools and analysis expertise, businesses could perform their own calculations based on their real-time data. As machine learning algorithms advance, these options are gaining traction.

How to Use a Carbon Calculator

Carbon emissions aren’t the only climate issue companies may be responsible for, but they’re perhaps the most significant. As a result, carbon calculators are among the most significant tools for ESG initiatives. However, a tool is only as useful as the user’s application of it.

Carbon calculators are only helpful if companies provide the right data and apply them correctly. With that in mind, here’s how companies can use a carbon calculator to understand and lower their emissions.

Gather the Necessary Information

The first step to using a carbon calculator, like with any data analysis, is to collect the right information. First, businesses must quantify their emissions sources, including transportation, electricity, water and gas.

It’s important to record as many details as possible. Recording miles traveled and megawatts of electricity used alone won’t provide accurate results. Vehicle types, energy source types and locations, equipment repair status and more can all skew the results. The more contextual data companies have, the better.

This data should also cover more than just direct emissions. Indirect emissions from processes and sources businesses don’t own or control often represent the greatest share of a company’s carbon footprint. Without knowing these, a company may think it’s carbon-neutral when it indirectly contributes a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

Gathering all of this data can be challenging. Technologies like internet of things (IoT) sensors can help by providing real-time data over specific processes. Businesses should always strive to collect hard data, but averages can serve as a placeholder where that isn’t possible or viable.

Calculate Your Footprint

After businesses have collected all the relevant information, it’s time to turn it into insights. All a carbon calculator does is add up a company’s annual emissions and subtract any carbon offsets. While that seems fairly straightforward, it’s often a more involved process than it appears.

If companies are outsourcing their carbon calculation, then all they have to do is provide the necessary data. If they’re performing their own calculations, there’s more to consider. Most notably, businesses must assign the right emissions factor to each activity. 

For example, companies must multiply how much fuel they burn by how much CO2 that fuel type emits. Propane emits 139 pounds of CO2 per British thermal unit of energy, while some coal types produce 228.6 pounds. These calculations are why gathering in-depth data is so important.

Businesses should also ensure that all their data comes from the same period. If it’s an annual review, all figures should be yearly ones from the same year. Results won’t be reliable without this consistency.

Take Action

A carbon calculator by itself is only an informational tool. Putting data into these models won’t change anything, but the results show where companies could reduce their footprints.

The carbon calculator results will break emissions down by their source. That way, businesses can see which parts of their operations produce the most greenhouse gases. Overall, most emissions come from transportation, with electricity close behind, but that could vary between organizations.

Once businesses know what their most prominent emissions sources are, they can take steps to reduce them. If one or two facilities produce the most energy-related emissions, they could consider switching those buildings to renewable sources. If transportation is the largest contributor, companies could reassess their travel needs or use electric vehicles in their fleets.

The most common barrier to going green is cost, so businesses may not be able to change everything at once. Instead, they can find the areas that need the most improvement and compare them to those with the most straightforward solutions. The intersection of these categories will provide the ideal place to start.

People should also take forward-thinking approaches to sustainability. That might mean changing construction practices on upcoming company projects. Many construction firms are working hard towards net-zero emissions goals.

Monitor Results and Adapt

Sustainability is often a complicated undertaking. It can be difficult to know how effective some changes will be in practice, so ongoing monitoring and improvement are crucial. Consequently, businesses should use carbon calculators regularly to reassess their footprints.

A carbon calculation the year after implementing new sustainability measures can show how effective they are. If those areas’ emissions dropped, it could signify that similar action could yield positive results in other areas. If they didn’t, then companies can try something else. In either case, ongoing review is critical.

Regular carbon footprint reports can also help organizations benchmark their progress and set new goals. Without this data, goals may be unrealistic or not high enough, leading to marginal improvements or project abandonment from discouraging results. Better goals will fuel more effective action.

Considering some businesses produce more than 700,000 tons of CO2 in a year, achieving net-zero emissions is a long process. One year of action won’t be enough, so ongoing carbon calculation is crucial to guide future improvements.

Carbon Calculators Are a Helpful Sustainability Tool

A carbon calculator by itself won’t reduce a company’s emissions. However, it can be a powerful tool, as it provides the groundwork businesses need to inform effective climate policies.

When businesses understand their impact on the environment, they can take more appropriate steps to reduce it. Carbon calculators are an indispensable part of that process. As various industries go green, these tools will become a standard part of running a business.

Revolutionized is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commision. Learn more here.

Author

Ellie Poverly

Ellie Poverly is a science writer specializing in astronomy and environmental science and is the Associate Editor of Revolutionized. Ellie's love of science stems from reading Richard Dawkins books and her favorite science magazine as a child, where she fell in love with the experiments included in each edition

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