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Understanding Our Carbon Footprint: Avoiding Shortcuts to a Carbon Neutral Claim

Last Updated on November 28, 2022

Did you know that you can claim to be carbon neutral and have no positive impact on reducing greenhouse gases in the environment? We didn’t either until we started digging into our carbon footprint in 2020 in pursuit of making that claim.

To put it bluntly, there are many shortcuts in the carbon neutral claim game, and we wanted to share what we’ve learned, to highlight the intricacies—and, unfortunately, some of the “greenwashing” that exists—involved when companies seek the carbon-neutral claim.

Below, we’ll dig into some of the key questions we’ve asked during this process and what we’ve learned.

Which Emissions Are Included in the Carbon-Neutral Claim?

When a company claims carbon neutrality, take note of which emissions they include in their claim. There are several different carbon-neutral certifications, and each has different requirements. For example, the Carbon Trust Carbon Neutral Certification requires scope 1 and 2 emissions. The Climate Neutral Certification, on the other hand, requires scope 1 and 2 and about half of scope 3 categories. Check our second post in this series for more information on the different scopes.

For many companies, including ButcherBox, more than 90% of emissions come from scope 3 emissions. These also happen to be the most difficult to measure. Consider our supply chain for a moment. For us, scope 3 emissions begin at the farm level with all emissions associated with raising livestock (methane emitted by cattle, crops grown for feed, etc.). From there, many of the “stops” in the supply chain have their own associated emissions, many undertaken by third-party operators—the transportation and delivery of our products, for instance. There is a lot to factor in!

Our carbon footprint from scope 1 and 2 is extremely small. Our only scope 1 and 2 emissions come from operating our dry ice facility and office buildings. By our rough calculations, our scope 1 and 2 emissions represent 1% of our emissions. If gaining a carbon neutral claim was our priority, we could pursue the Carbon Trust Carbon Neutral Certification. It’s an easy certification to gain but doesn’t reflect 99% of our emissions.

Our goal is to limit our impact and, for us, “carbon-neutrality” doesn’t go far enough. We wanted to find a more meaningful pathway forward.

Is the Company Purchasing Good Renewable Energy Credits?

An effective way to reduce emissions is to invest in renewable sources such as wind and solar. The most environmentally impactful investment is in the installation of on-site renewable energy.

Unfortunately, because we do not own our own buildings, this is not an option for us currently. Seeking out an alternative, we also explored options with the energy provider of one of our dry ice facilities. It turns out that they generate renewable energy from wind and solar as part of their portfolio. Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to direct renewable energy to our buildings—which is common. Instead, our provider offers RECs (renewable energy credits).

RECs provide the accounting, tracking, and ownership of renewable energy generation to a company. Our energy provider was selling its wind energy at approximately $4 per 1MWh(megawatt-hour). Purchasing RECs would enable us to claim that our energy usage was coming from renewable energy sources. We would pay for it alongside our regular energy bill. However, the energy provider was unable to share what happens to the money paid for RECs. This put up a red flag for us since it didn’t guarantee that the money was going towards renewable energy projects.

It seemed that the primary purpose of RECs is to help companies achieve a carbon-neutral claim. For us, this didn’t seem to be the right path to achieving the positive environmental impact we seek.

As we learned about RECs, we found several resources that confirmed our suspicion. Most RECs are problematic because they typically don’t result in new investments into renewable energy projects. It’s also easy to get away with double counting. Purchasing a REC via an independent third party can prevent double-counting issues. However, research suggests that most RECs are used for marketing purposes rather than environmental impact.

What Types of Carbon Offsets Is the Company Purchasing?

It is rare for companies to eliminate all carbon or capture enough carbon to offset their emissions. Most—whether actually trying to do the right thing or just for “green” marketing purposes—rely on carbon offsets or credits to achieve their carbon-neutral claims.

From our research, purchasing offsets can distract from the real solutions to climate change. It can allow companies to continue with unsustainable behavior. For example, an airline may buy enough carbon offsets to cover their carbon emissions, allowing them to market themselves as environmentally friendly while not reducing their actual emissions.

Unfortunately, like RECs, there are a lot of bad carbon offsets available for purchase. This means that the offsets don’t deliver on the emission reductions that are promised.

There are four key principles for creating a reliable offset: Additionality, permanence, double-counting, and leakage.

One of the most common carbon credits purchased comes from tree planting or preventing deforestation; both are worthy causes, but accurate measurement of how much carbon is captured by these methods is up for debate. With trees, the principles of additionality—does the project lead to additional reductions in greenhouse gasses—and permanence—are the gasses permanently sequestered—come into question. Specifically, in this example, questions arise around the actual accounting of the impact of tree planting and preservation as well as what happens if trees are cut down later or part of a forest fire.

There is also a concern about cheap carbon offsets. There are some carbon offsets that tend to be less expensive, let’s say between $1-3 per ton of carbon. Unfortunately, many of these inexpensive offsets, while they may be impactful in reducing gasses, incentivize companies to buy carbon neutrality claims without changing their behavior.

In the final post of this series, we’ll break down how ButcherBox has taken what it has learned and is now approaching carbon neutrality.

Evadne Cokeh is ButcherBox's VP of Social and Environmental Responsibility. She is working to develop the company's social and environmental responsibility strategy and is the Chair of ButcherBox's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee.

Jessica Hall is a Procurement Specialist at ButcherBox. She holds an MS in Agriculture, Food and the Environment from Tufts University.