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Three Mistakes Corporations make when Reducing Carbon Emissions

The 8020 principle, that of exponential imbalance, is clearly understood when it comes to reducing carbon emission. But weak application of the 80/20 rule means that many organizations are missing out on the largest carbon savings, by making three big mistakes.

The starting point, when reducing carbon emissions, for most companies and governments  is “You can’t manage what you don’t measure”.

However anyone who has spent any time at all trying to collect sustainability data knows how hard it is to get a complete data set. It doesn’t take much time to get data representing 80% of an organization’s footprint. But the final 20% will usually take much longer, and collecting the last 1 to 5% can take as much time as it took to get the first 80%.

I remember over-seeing the preparation of a set of carbon accounts for a large national company with thousands of operations around Australia. Whilst getting data for most of the corporation only took a month or two, getting the final missing data needed in order to have a data set complete enough to comply with national carbon reporting requirements took another six months! Company staff were spending their time on collecting data instead of reducing carbon emissions.

Reducing carbon emissions - data overload
Reducing carbon emissions – data overload

This data, when analysed will then show a similar imbalance. 20% of an organization’s sources of emissions will typically represent between 50% to 95% of emissions.  A handful of sources may represent 50% of emissions. Clearly these are the ones to focus on when it comes to reducing carbon emissions.

Organisations engaged in the delivery of sustainability services will understand this imbalance, as will their customers.

However the analysis, understanding, and application of the 80 20 rule, as I have learnt by making this mistake myself, is more often than not only be at a superficial level. As a result many good opportunities for reducing carbon emissions are lost.

Mistake 1. Resources wasted collecting trivial data

Firstly, the importance of collecting trivial data (typically the last 20%) in order to provide a largely complete data set is over-valued. Data is only valuable where there is a high likelihood that the data can be used to engage in meaningful action. If such action cannot or will not be taken, collecting the data is a waste of time and money. Instead, it is possible using mathematical and statistical techniques, to get accurate total data estimates based on only partial data sets, and avoid the cost and tedium of getting actual data.

Using this approach you can literally cut data collection costs five fold. Money which can then go into reducing carbon emissions by implementing projects and programs that actually cut energy usage.

Overcome the focus on getting complete energy consumption data at all costs by using mathematical and statistical methods, or by using cost as a proxy for environmental impact. Cost data is generally always collected.

Mistake 2. Analysis at the expense of abatement

Secondly, analysis is substituted for actions focused on reducing carbon emissions. By this I mean, if an organisation has 100 units of “resources” – whether in terms of money or staff hours – clearly to get the best sustainable outcomes, most of those resources should be allocated to making the organisation actually more sustainable. For example by installing more energy efficient lighting and improved lighting controls.

Instead, however, a disproportionately large amount of those resources is often allocated to analysis (including data collection). For example, a large proportion of an annual sustainability budget may be allocated to energy audits. At face value this seems reasonable. An energy audit should tell you how to invest your money most effectively to achieve sustainability outcomes in future years. But an energy audit itself doesn’t save energy, its just analysis.

Analysis Paralysis - Reducing Carbon Emissions
Analysis Paralysis – Reducing Carbon Emissions

The problem in many cases, however, with this approach, is that the energy audit is often ignored, wasting money and not achieving any sustainability outcomes.

Overcome this by restricting your budget to 10% to upfront analysis, 10% analysis afterwards (to identify what worked the best), and a full 80% to action – doing things that actually make your organisation more sustainable.

Mistake 3. No extreme focus on actually reducing carbon emissions

Thirdly, that which is truly important, doesn’t get the attention that this importance merits.  It doesn’t take long for most organisations to identify where the really big opportunities are to become more sustainable. But focussing not just most but ALL effort on addressing these big opportunities can be uncomfortable, may not be seen as being “balanced”, and may even be actively opposed if it’s going to ruffle feathers. And as a result too often the projects that achieve huge carbon savings don’t fly.

Overcome this by staying focussed on the big objective – substantially reducing carbon emissions.  Remember the science – go back and review the latest climate change science if necessary – to reinforce the focus on big carbon reduction, not small.

An 8020 approach can enormously improve the efficiency and impact of carbon-abatement efforts. So do it wholeheartedly!

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