A little tweak to the broken carbon dashboard


This is a project idea I have been stewing for a little while. I aim to make it happen in 2013…..

The broken dashboard

Over the past ten years it has become an almost universal requirement for major global companies to measure and report on their carbon emissions. Data has mounted up, awards have been made and rankings drawn up to sort the leaders from the laggards.

The quality of the data and its coverage is improving steadily.  But there is precious little sign that all this transparency is making a difference.  The most recent estimates are that to avoid climate change beyond 2°C, the emission intensity of the global economy needs to decrease by 5.1% a year, through energy efficiency, renewable energy and economically viable carbon sequestration. Over the past ten years the rate has stood at around 0.7%.

For carbon emission transparency to be effective it needs to support trillions of dollars of investment to shift out of ‘brown’ and into ‘green’ industries and solutions. Every investment decision drives the global economy either closer or further away from the carbon precipice, but the dashboard to show the direction of motion is broken.

There is now increasing focus not just on compiling more and better data, but on  doing smarter ‘climate maths’ to make information meaningful to investors and for the public debate. The most recent examples of this are the Carbon Tracker initiative, and Bill McKibben’s ‘Do the Math’ tour.

Making corporate carbon emissions data meaningful

A few companies (to date BT, Autodesk and EMC) have already adopted a way to report emissions in the context of a global carbon budget. Based on the ‘Climate Stabilisation Index’ approach developed by Jorgen Randers and Chris Tuppen, these companies are relating the proportion of the global emission budget they use up each year to the proportion of global value creation they provide (using Earnings Before Interest, Tax, Depreciation and Amortization (EBITDA) as the financial denominator).

Autodesk graph

Autodesk’s graph showing how companies’ emission pathways compare with global ‘required by science’ goals.

This methodology is widely praised for tying individual company emission data to the global challenge and to economic performance. However it has not been widely adopted, because companies say it is too hard to compile and interpret. Arguably a stronger barrier beyond these technical concerns is that it does not produce a comfortable answer for the most carbon dependent industries and carbon inefficient companies. It is notable that the three companies that have taken up the idea are ICT solutions providers; an industry with inherently low carbon intensity in relation to value creation.

The idea

In fact the technical difficulties of calculating and communicating carbon stabilisation intensity measures are not insurmountable. Autodesk has published its methodology as an open source model and a call to action for other companies to assess their performance and report in this way.

The underlying data to calculate comparable emission intensity pathways for other companies and industries is in the public doman, but largely lock into paper and pdf carbon disclosure reports rather than an accessible data stream. If this data was converted into a machine readable format it could be combined with with financial data to create live charts which put company and investor performance into context using this methodology.

The idea of this experiment, then is to unlock carbon emission data and create a rich interactive visualisation which enables users to put it into context. It might look something like this first visualisation I produced, but with the ability to drill down by company or sector and view the pathway of emission intensity increase or decrease over time.

The ultimate goal of this experiment is to support the adoption of a common methodology for assessing emissions-in-context so that GHG emission figures, so carefully collected, are not ‘zombie data’ but is used by investors analysts, business managers, media and activists to bring climate compatibility into assessments of investment performance.

I will be looking for collaborators, so do get in touch!

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