16 Jul 2020

A how-to guide for councils to tackle their carbon footprint

Posted in: Taking Action

A how-to guide for councils to tackle their carbon footprint

The combination of climate change and the current Covid-19 pandemic (and resulting economic downturn) affects all of us. Our councils are not immune and have to navigate complex community, business and physical impacts of both. Focusing on reducing carbon can address both issues. Carbon can be a ‘lens’ for councils to review their operations for efficiencies. Think of carbon as a proxy for expenses – so if you reduce your carbon, you find cost savings. Also, reducing carbon to meet the global 1.5 degrees Celsius target, will also mitigate some physical impacts that councils must prepare for, in comparison to higher temperature rises. And, by working on carbon, councils can show leadership to our communities, businesses and individuals.

Our local authorities are strong advocates for climate action with the Mayors and Chairs declaring an urgent need for action. They are at the forefront of the physical impacts on our communities and have committed to “developing and implementing ambitious action plans that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support resilience within our own councils and for our local communities”.

To reduce carbon you need to be clear on where to focus your energies. The first step for any council is to ensure you have a complete and comprehensive inventory of emissions. Without measuring, how do you manage effectively? We helped the Ministry for the Environment prepare a Quick Guide for Emissions Measurement, check it out.

Putting together your inventory is straightforward. The first steps are to understand your boundary, know your scopes, and pick your timeframe.

Understand your boundaries

There are two lenses to consider when putting together an inventory - the organisational boundary and the reporting boundary. Typically, the organisational boundary is informed by the legal and financial structures of the organization. Ask yourself, are there subsidiary organisations that the council owns? Some councils have quite a diverse portfolio of organisations, so consider any ports, airports, trusts, and other organisations. The council may choose to include or exclude all or part of these based on how much control or ownership they have over the operations.

The operational boundary helps to identify the activities within the chosen organisational boundary, that the council undertakes. For instance, does your council operate waste-water facilities? Does your council manage landfill operations? The Sustainable Business Council make a great point in their Emissions Guide about how this step is key to helping a company better manage the spectrum of GHG risks and opportunities. This step also helps to categorise the emissions into direct or indirect emissions – which leads on to the next step: knowing your scopes.

Know your scopes

Now it’s time to really understand how your emissions sources come together. The scopes help to categorise carbon emissions, which makes it easier to ensure you’re capturing everything. The MfE Quick Guide further describes it, “Emissions sources are categorised by scope to manage risks and impacts of double counting.”

There are three Scopes:

  • Scope 1: Direct emissions from sources that are owned or controlled by the council. For example, the carbon emitted from burning fuel in a council’s boiler to provide energy to their office.
  • Scope 2: Indirect emissions that occur from energy that the council has to purchase. For example, grid supplied electricity for council buildings, purchased heat, and purchased steam.
  • Scope 3: Indirect emissions from council’s activities, but that do not occur from sources that are owned or controlled by the council. For example, air travel by council staff for attending a meeting or conference.

Our Glossary page has more information (under ‘Direct emissions’ and ‘Indirect emissions’).

Pick your time-frame

Carbon is measured over a year and then the emissions are compared year on year to show progress. So, this step is about how you want to manage your workload. Most organisations choose a measurement period that aligns with either their financial year, or the calendar year. This is completely up to each council and may be decided by when you can expect to get the most accurate and up-to-date information.

Once you’ve got your measurement period, then set your base year. Usually this is the first year you start actively measuring – where you get reliable, comprehensive data. But also think about how typical the selected base year is, given that this forms the basis for tracking emissions reductions over time.

Now you’ve done the first steps, it’s helpful to know what other councils are including in their inventories. There are a number of common sources of emissions that councils we work with report on. Then, depending on the council’s activities there are a few other unusual areas they investigate. We’ve put these together to get you started on when pulling together your own inventory.

Common emissions sources

Emissions Sources Scopes 1, 2 and 3

Scope 1: Most of the councils we work with need to account for emissions from diesel, LPG and petrol use. This is either as a stationary fuel, or used in their fleet vehicles. Another common source is some form of refrigerant (like HCFCs), used in their air conditioning systems.

Scope 2: Electricity – this is really a no brainer. Unless your council relies on their own energy supply, the vast majority of councils (if not all) would be in some way dependent on the electricity grid.

Scope 3: For this scope, most of the councils we work report on their emissions associated with air travel and taxis. Separate to this, another  common Scope 3 line-item is emissions from landfilled waste.

Unusual culprits

While there are many similar operations, our councils do undertake a variety of operations. Particularly between city and regional councils. Does your council:

  • Use uncommon energy sources (like lower-carbon biodiesel or wood pellets)
  • Have a Waste-To-Energy plant (this harnesses energy from waste)
  • Need to consider fertilizer use in parks management
  • Community specific services (like composting)
  • Forest carbon holdings (there may be measurement required for sequestration of growth, emissions from land use changes, and to manage the potential liability of the total stock holding.

Those are just a few examples. Looking over your council’s operations will help you to identify all the sources of emissions, so you can start to gather the data associated with them. Also, if you’re in one of the Toitū carbon programmes, your dedicated account manager is always on hand to help.

Toitū carbon programmes

So, now you’ve got the basics, you can get started! Measuring your emissions is the first step to taking real action. Take inspiration from our Toitū carbon programme members like emissions reduction superstar Kāpiti Coast District Council.


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