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What is the Greenhouse Gas Protocol?

Written by Karol Kaczmarek
Published April 27th, 2024
What is the Greenhouse Gas Protocol?
15 min read
Updated June 2nd, 2024
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Note: This article does not cover Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions extensively as they have been detailed in our previous publication, Decoding Carbon Footprints: A Deep Dive into Scope 1, 2, and 3 Emissions. For a comprehensive exploration of these scopes, please refer to the article here.

The Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHG Protocol) is a comprehensive global standardized framework to measure and manage greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from private and public sector operations, value chains, and mitigation actions. It was established in 1998 through a partnership between the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

The GHG Protocol provides tools and standards that help organizations calculate, report, and manage their greenhouse gas emissions. The framework includes several different standards tailored to different types of emissions calculations and reporting needs, such as:

  • Corporate Standard: This is the core standard for measuring and reporting greenhouse gas emissions from all organizational activities across geographic boundaries. It covers direct and indirect emissions sources and provides the principles and requirements for preparing a corporate-level GHG emissions inventory.

  • Scope 3 Standard: This standard provides guidance specifically for calculating and reporting Scope 3 emissions, which are the indirect emissions associated with a company’s operations, including both upstream and downstream emissions. It’s designed to help companies assess emissions from their entire value chain.

  • Product Life Cycle Standard: This standard helps organizations to quantify and report the greenhouse gas emissions associated with individual products throughout their life cycles, from raw material acquisition through production, use, and disposal.

  • Built Environment Standard: Developed for assessing the emissions from building construction and use, this standard is tailored for real estate developers, owners, occupants, and managers.

  • Corporate Value Chain (Scope 3) Accounting and Reporting Standard: This is an extension of the corporate standard that provides a detailed framework for assessing Scope 3 emissions.

  • Guidance for Cities: Provides methodology for cities and local governments to measure and report their greenhouse gas emissions.

These standards are designed to promote economic efficiency and environmental integrity and are widely used by governments and businesses around the world to enhance their sustainability initiatives. They are complemented by a series of other documents and tools that provide additional detail, sector-specific guidance, calculation tools, and reporting frameworks to aid in the effective and consistent accounting of greenhouse gas emissions. The GHG Protocol continues to develop new resources to address evolving needs and sectors, ensuring that its guidance remains comprehensive and applicable across a broad range of contexts and industries.

PRODUCT LIFE CYCLE STANDARD

The Product Life Cycle Standard, officially known as the “Product Life Cycle Accounting and Reporting Standard,” is part of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol suite of tools and standards. It was developed to help organizations measure and report the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the full life cycle of their products. This standard is particularly important for businesses that are looking to understand and reduce the carbon footprint of their products. Overall, the Product Life Cycle Standard is a powerful tool for organizations aiming to reduce their environmental impact and move towards sustainability by providing a detailed framework for assessing and reporting the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the lifecycle of products.

KEY FEATURES OF THE PRODUCT LIFE CYCLE STANDARD:

  1. Comprehensive Coverage: The standard covers all stages of a product’s life cycle, from raw material extraction and acquisition, through manufacturing and processing, to use and end-of-life treatment. This includes transportation at all stages, manufacturing processes, and the end-of-life phase (e.g., disposal, recycling, or recovery).

  2. Cradle-to-Grave Approach: It adopts a cradle-to-grave approach, meaning it assesses the impact of a product from the extraction of raw materials through to its ultimate disposal. This approach helps in identifying key stages where emissions are most significant and where interventions can be most effective.

  3. Module Structure: The standard is modular, allowing organizations to focus on specific stages of the product lifecycle or specific types of impacts. This modular approach can be particularly useful for companies starting their lifecycle assessment (LCA) journey, enabling them to gradually expand their analysis as they grow in capability and capacity.

  4. Alignment with International Standards: It aligns with international norms and methodologies for lifecycle assessment, including the ISO 14040 and 14044 standards, ensuring that the GHG emissions reporting is credible and can be compared across different organizations and industries.

  5. Goal and Scope Definition: The standard requires organizations to clearly define the goal and scope of their product GHG report. This includes defining the functional unit (a quantified description of the service that the product provides, e.g., the cooling provided by an air conditioner over its lifetime), system boundaries (what is included or excluded in the assessment), and the assumptions and methodologies used.

  6. Data Collection and Quality: It emphasizes the importance of data quality and provides guidance on collecting primary data (specific to the product being assessed) and secondary data (generic data, often from databases). It also addresses uncertainty in data and results.

  7. Reporting: The standard provides detailed guidance on how to report emissions, including the format and content of reports. Transparency in reporting methodologies and assumptions is crucial to ensure that the reported data is useful and can lead to actionable insights.

APPLICATIONS AND BENEFITS:

  • Environmental Product Declarations: Companies can use the standard to produce standardized information about the environmental impact of their products, often summarized in an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD).

  • Design and Innovation: Insights from lifecycle assessments can inform product design and innovation, leading to reduced environmental impacts.

  • Supply Chain Management: Understanding the emissions throughout the product lifecycle helps companies identify hotspots and opportunities for emissions reductions in their supply chain.

  • Consumer Information: Provides reliable information that can be communicated to consumers, helping them make informed choices based on the environmental impacts of products.

BUILT ENVIRONMENT STANDARD

The Built Environment Standard of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, officially known as the “GHG Protocol for the Built Environment,” provides a framework specifically designed for measuring and managing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with building construction, operation, and end-of-life phases. This standard is particularly important for stakeholders in the real estate sector, such as developers, owners, property managers, and tenants, who are increasingly focused on understanding and mitigating the environmental impacts of their properties. The Built Environment Standard is a crucial tool for the real estate industry, aligning the sector with global efforts to combat climate change by providing a clear and effective methodology for quantifying and managing the GHG emissions associated with building environments.

KEY FEATURES OF THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT STANDARD:

  1. Scope and Coverage: This standard addresses emissions throughout the lifecycle of buildings, including:

    • Construction Phase: Emissions from the extraction, manufacture, and transportation of building materials, as well as those from construction activities.

    • Operational Phase: Ongoing emissions from energy use in heating, cooling, lighting, and powering buildings. This includes both direct emissions (Scope 1) from onsite fuel combustion and indirect emissions (Scope 2) from purchased electricity.

    • End-of-Life Phase: Emissions associated with demolition and disposal of building materials.

  2. Whole Building Approach: It promotes a whole-building approach, encouraging the consideration of all relevant emission sources within the building’s boundary. This comprehensive approach helps in capturing the full impact of a building’s operation and lifecycle.

  3. Performance Metrics: The standard provides specific guidance on defining performance metrics that are appropriate for the built environment, such as emissions per square meter or per occupant. These metrics help in benchmarking and comparing buildings in terms of their environmental performance.

  4. Data Collection and Management: It emphasizes the importance of robust data collection systems for energy use and GHG emissions. The standard guides stakeholders on how to gather, manage, and analyze data to ensure accuracy and reliability in reporting.

  5. Integration with Certification Schemes: The standard is designed to complement and integrate with existing building certification and rating systems, such as LEED, BREEAM, or the WELL Building Standard, which also consider energy and environmental design elements.

  6. Stakeholder Engagement: Recognizes the importance of engaging all stakeholders involved in the building lifecycle, from architects and builders to tenants and facility managers, ensuring that all parties understand their roles in managing GHG emissions.

  7. Reporting and Verification: Offers guidelines for transparent reporting of GHG emissions and encourages independent verification to enhance credibility and comparability of the data.

APPLICATIONS AND BENEFITS:

  • Design and Construction: Provides developers and architects with insights into how building design choices impact GHG emissions, enabling more sustainable construction practices.

  • Operational Efficiency: Helps building owners and managers identify opportunities for reducing energy consumption and GHG emissions through better operational practices and retrofitting.

  • Regulatory Compliance: Assists stakeholders in meeting local, national, or international regulatory requirements for energy efficiency and emissions reductions.

  • Investment Decisions: Enables investors to assess the sustainability performance of real estate assets, which is increasingly relevant in a market focused on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria.

  • Tenant Attraction and Retention: Buildings with lower GHG emissions and better environmental performance can attract tenants who are increasingly conscious of their own environmental impacts.

CORPORATE VALUE CHAIN (SCOPE 3) ACCOUNTING AND REPORTING STANDARD

The Corporate Value Chain (Scope 3) Accounting and Reporting Standard, an integral part of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, provides organizations with a comprehensive framework to measure and manage emissions from their entire value chain. These emissions, known as Scope 3 emissions, often represent the largest share of an organization’s greenhouse gas footprint and include indirect emissions both upstream and downstream of their operations. The Corporate Value Chain (Scope 3) Standard is a critical tool for companies committed to achieving deep sustainability transformations by addressing their most significant sources of emissions throughout the value chain. This approach not only aids in environmental stewardship but also enhances overall business resilience and competitiveness in a low-carbon future.

KEY FEATURES OF THE SCOPE 3 STANDARD:

  1. Comprehensive Scope: Scope 3 emissions include all indirect emissions not covered in Scope 2. This includes upstream emissions from purchased goods and services, capital goods, waste generated in operations, business travel, employee commuting, leased assets, and transportation and distribution. Downstream activities can include the processing of sold products, use of sold products, end-of-life treatment of sold products, investments, and franchising.

  2. Categorization: The standard categorizes these emissions into 15 distinct categories, providing a structured approach to identifying and quantifying these emissions. This categorization helps companies systematically review each relevant area of their value chain.

  3. Methodological Guidance: It offers detailed methodological guidance for calculating Scope 3 emissions, recommending specific approaches for different categories of emissions. This includes guidance on data collection, choosing emission factors, and accounting for shared emissions.

  4. Allocation of Emissions: The standard provides strategies for allocating emissions in joint products and byproducts, which is crucial for accurately reflecting the emissions associated with different products and services.

  5. Materiality Assessment: Organizations are guided on how to conduct a materiality assessment to identify Scope 3 categories that are significant in terms of size, growth, and potential for reduction. This helps focus efforts on areas where the potential impact on climate goals is greatest.

  6. Double Counting: Offers advice on how to avoid double counting of emissions, which can be a challenge due to the interconnected nature of value chains.

  7. Goal Setting and Reporting: The standard encourages organizations to set reduction targets for their Scope 3 emissions and to publicly report these emissions and their progress towards goals. This reporting is crucial for transparency and accountability.

APPLICATIONS AND BENEFITS:

  • Risk Management: Identifying and managing Scope 3 emissions helps companies anticipate risks associated with regulatory changes, supply chain disruptions, and shifts in consumer preferences towards more sustainable products.

  • Efficiency Improvements: The process of mapping and measuring Scope 3 emissions often reveals inefficiencies and opportunities for cost savings in the supply chain.

  • Stakeholder Engagement: Measuring and reporting Scope 3 emissions enhance engagement with suppliers, customers, and investors, who are increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of their associations and investments.

  • Enhanced Reputation: Companies that actively manage and reduce their Scope 3 emissions can strengthen their brand and increase their competitive advantage by demonstrating leadership in sustainability.

  • Compliance and Competitive Advantage: As regulations around carbon reporting and emissions continue to tighten, having a robust understanding and strategy for managing Scope 3 emissions can provide a competitive edge and ease compliance challenges.

GUIDANCE FOR CITIES

The Guidance for Cities within the Greenhouse Gas Protocol framework provides cities and local governments with methodologies to measure and report their greenhouse gas emissions. This guidance, known as the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories (GPC), is crucial as urban areas are significant contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions and often centers for innovation in sustainability and climate action. The Guidance for Cities is a critical tool for urban leaders aiming to understand and mitigate their environmental impacts. By adopting this standardized approach, cities can play a pivotal role in driving global efforts towards sustainability and climate mitigation.

KEY FEATURES OF THE GUIDANCE FOR CITIES:

  1. Comprehensive Coverage: The GPC covers all geographic and administrative boundaries under a city’s jurisdiction. It provides a standardized framework for accounting and reporting city-wide greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors including stationary energy, transportation, waste, industrial processes, and agriculture, forestry, and other land uses (AFOLU).

  2. Three Scopes of Emissions:

    • Scope 1: All direct GHG emissions from sources within the city boundary.

    • Scope 2: Indirect GHG emissions from the consumption of grid-supplied electricity, heat, steam, and cooling within the city boundary.

    • Scope 3: All other indirect emissions that occur outside the city boundary as a consequence of activities taking place within the city. This can include emissions associated with the production of consumed goods, transportation of goods into and out of the city, and the treatment and disposal of waste generated within the city.

  3. Sector-based and Activity-based Approach: The guidance allows cities to report both sector-based emissions (which categorize emissions by economic sector) and activity-based emissions (which categorize emissions by types of activities, like transportation or residential heating), providing a comprehensive picture of where emissions are generated.

  4. Data Collection and Management: It provides detailed instructions on data collection methodologies, types of data needed, and data sources. This is vital for ensuring the accuracy and completeness of the emissions inventory.

  5. Baseline Emission Inventory: Cities are encouraged to develop a baseline emission inventory, which serves as a reference point for tracking performance and assessing the effectiveness of different climate action strategies over time.

  6. Performance Indicators: The GPC includes the use of performance indicators such as emissions per capita and emissions intensity, which help in comparing and benchmarking against other cities and tracking progress over time.

  7. Reporting and Verification: The guidance emphasizes the importance of transparent reporting and third-party verification to enhance the credibility and comparability of emission inventories.

APPLICATIONS AND BENEFITS:

  • Climate Action Planning: The guidance enables cities to identify the major sources of emissions and to prioritize areas for action, facilitating targeted and effective climate policies.

  • Engagement and Collaboration: By standardizing emission reporting, the guidance fosters greater collaboration and knowledge sharing among cities. Cities can compare their performance, share successful strategies, and work together on regional climate initiatives.

  • Funding and Resources: A robust GHG inventory can help cities access climate finance and other resources. Detailed and verified emissions data can strengthen grant applications and funding proposals for sustainability projects.

  • Public Transparency and Accountability: Regular public reporting of GHG emissions keeps the community informed and engaged, and holds local governments accountable for achieving emissions reduction targets.

  • Policy and Decision Making: Data-driven insights assist policymakers in crafting regulations that effectively address key sources of emissions, enhancing the city’s resilience and sustainability.

ENDNOTES

As we conclude our exploration of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, we recognize it as more than a set of guidelines—it is an evolving tool that reflects our growing understanding of and response to climate change. It serves as a crucial bridge between environmental science and business strategy, offering a language for corporations and cities to not only communicate their impact but also to strategize their contribution towards a more sustainable future. This Protocol has become the bedrock for global emissions measurement and management, setting the stage for transparent and consistent climate action across sectors. While individual commitments to sustainability are invaluable, the collective adherence to such protocols ensures that every effort is synergistic and impactful.

We’ve highlighted the expansive reach of the Protocol, from the granular details of product life cycles to the sweeping strategies of urban development. Yet, the journey doesn’t end here. The path towards true sustainability is iterative and relentless. It calls for continuous engagement, innovation, and, above all, a shared vision. As we move forward, let us carry the insights from the Greenhouse Gas Protocol with us, allowing them to inform and inspire action. For a deeper dive into specific emissions scopes, we invite you to revisit our in-depth analysis, “Decoding Carbon Footprints: A Deep Dive into Scope 1, 2, and 3 Emissions”, which complements the broader picture we’ve painted here. Together, these resources empower us not just to envision but to construct a future that is both environmentally sustainable and economically vibrant.

In the spirit of knowledge sharing and continuous improvement, we welcome your thoughts, experiences, and stories of how the Greenhouse Gas Protocol has shaped your environmental strategies. The dialogue on sustainability is as rich as it is essential, and your voice is a critical part of it. As the sun rises on a new day of industrial activity, like the one depicted in our featured image, it’s a reminder that each dawn brings with it the opportunity for change, for progress, and for a reinvigorated commitment to our planet’s health. May we rise to the occasion.


Karol Kaczmarek
Written by:
Karol Kaczmarek
Co-Founder of Net Zero Compare
Karol is a seasoned entrepreneur and co-founder of A&K Ventures OÜ. With a strong foundation in quantitative economics, he has a proven track record in strategic consulting, real estate, and global business expansion. Karol is dedicated to leveraging innovative technologies and creative business strategies to drive growth and transformation in every venture.