By Felix Briaud (with Maël Capitaine and Houda Maimouni), Urbanomy

During recent projects carried out by Urbanomy, we noticed that our customers have high hopes for the growing subject of avoided emissions.

Should avoided emissions be measured? If so, what methodology should be adopted? And what words should be chosen to talk about them?

These are just some of the questions that a working group formed at the beginning of the summer at Urbanomy, specifically dedicated to the subject of avoided emissions, has tackled.

Calculation methods are often complex. They also depend on a reference situation - necessarily a fictitious one - which can be used to compare with the solution put in place. A solution that will precisely allow emissions to be avoided.

Just what are avoided emissions?

As defined by the ADEME, the French Agency for Environment and Energy Management, "emissions avoided by an organisation concern the reductions in emissions achieved by its activities, products and/or services, when these reductions occur outside its scope of activity. They are assessed in regard to a reference scenario".
In other words, this refers solely to the decarbonisation of an entity's ecosystem, i.e. "pillar B" of the recommendations set out by the Net Zero Initiative - a project led by consulting company Carbone 4 (see illustration below). Therefore, we are not talking about direct or indirect emissions due to the value chain of a given activity.

The other two pillars of the Net Zero Initiative are precisely the reduction of one's own greenhouse gas emissions (pillar A) and the contribution through the financing of CO₂ storage capacities (pillar C), i.e. the removal of the CO₂ contained in the atmosphere through the development of "carbon sinks" - such as forests, for example.


Net Zero Initiative dashboard

Explore the Net Zero Initiative framework

Three scopes: that's all there is to it

You don't need to look very hard: a simple query on a search engine will provide you with numerous examples of this "scope 4" designation for avoided emissions. Unfortunately, it has become widely accepted. In addition to scopes 1, 2 and 3, the idea of a fourth scope has therefore gained ground.
But what are scopes 1, 2 and 3, and what are they used for? A brief explanation seems necessary.
  • Scope 1 covers greenhouse gas emissions directly linked to the manufacturing of a product. For example, to make paper, a company uses biomass, in this case wood: this emission is counted as part of Scope 1.
  • Scope 2 covers indirect emissions linked to energy consumption. During its manufacturing, this same paper required electricity to be supplied to factories. When this electricity was consumed, it did not generate greenhouse gas emissions; however, the production of this electricity did generate greenhouse gas emissions, which are included in Scope 2.
  • Scope 3 covers all the other indirect greenhouse gas emissions that occur during the life cycle of a product, either upstream or downstream. The extraction of the raw materials needed to make paper, for example, generates emissions, as do the distribution of the finished product, its use and recycling.
Why should greenhouse gas emissions be classified into different categories or "scopes"?
Well, to clearly identify the different sources of emissions for a company, a local authority or simply an individual when carrying out a carbon footprint. Classifying them in this manner makes it easier to encourage them to be reduced, by making it possible to track the progress of a particular indicator.

So what exactly is the problem with 'scope 4'?

There is a high risk that this name could be counter-productive.
First of all, such a name implies putting this potential "scope 4" on the same level as scopes 1, 2 and 3, which have precise outlines.

The first three scopes have in fact been defined by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHG). However, the GHG has never officially included a fourth scope within its approach; the bodies behind the protocol have simply raised the possibility of such a development. But that was ten years ago, and to date it has not materialised - presumably due to more than chance.

Be kind, rewind, in other words: avoided emissions should, in our view, be considered separately.

Let's also avoid a superfluous fourth scope and get back to basics. First and foremost: the reduction of direct and indirect emissions linked to one's own activity.

The priority is still the reduction of our own greenhouse gas emissions

These are three of the main conclusions of the Urbanomy working group:
  • reassert that the main objective in terms of decarbonisation is to reduce our own footprints (in terms of scopes 1, 2 and 3, which you now know inside out)
  • one should refuse to claim "avoided emissions" without being transparent about its own emissions. This means revealing whether direct or indirect emissions are falling, rising or even stagnating
  • never deduct the avoided emissions calculated from one's own carbon footprint. As we said earlier, we believe that this aspect should be considered separately, and should not be used to cleverly hide the darker sides of one's business

So are avoided emissions just for show?

In the course of our work, we came across the following example from a climate report:

Net climate impact of Vinted's marketplace

This graphic representation, taken from the climate report by Vinted, a player in the second-hand clothing sector, explains, based on transactions carried out in 2021, that this company's activity generated around 295,000 tonnes of CO₂ (9,011 + 282,471 + 3,478 = 294,960).
At the same time, a calculation of avoided emissions shows a result of 747,551 tonnes of CO₂ saved, all thanks to the fact that its customers specifically chose second-hand clothes over new ones.

By deducting the nearly 295,000 tonnes of CO₂ due to its activity from the nearly 748,000 tonnes of emissions avoided, this company therefore claims that its "net impact" on the climate is negative, in this case by nearly 453,000 tonnes.

While the methodology used in this climate report is perfectly acceptable, this graph is a bold statement, to put it mildly. It amounts to suggesting that if this company did not exist, the planet would have to bear an additional 453,000 tonnes of CO₂ equivalent.

This is obviously completely whimsical and the main thing to remember here is that this company's activity emits around 295,000 tonnes (or 295 kilotonnes) of greenhouse gases.

See you in the next episode

The length and density of this article, at this point, tells us to reserve further insights for a second part. We shall explore further positions taken by our consultancy as well as other aspects relating to good communication on the subject of avoided emissions.
Stay tuned 😉
Photo Félix Briaud
About the author

Felix Briaud

Felix is Urbanomy's communication, marketing&CSR manager.
A journalist for ten years, he drifted towards data applied to digital advertising. Only recently did he convince himself, by joining the practice, to align his professional life with his personal beliefs about the environment.
Aside from that, Felix is mad about music - particularly that from the 1950s to the 1970s. In this area as in others, he is a bottomless source of fun facts and would happily share a couple with you.