Emissions Reduction: A Question Of Baselines?


Is it reasonable to ask IT companies to compare their carbon emissions against a 1990 baseline? Green campaigners want to see it, but Peter Judge is not so sure

There’s no doubt now that we need to reduce our carbon emissions to avoid risk to the planet. Since Kyoto countries have agreed targets on how much to reduce their emissions by.

That’s the origin of the UK’s oft-quoted goals of reducing carbon emissions by 34 percent by 2020, and by 50 percent for 2050. IT companies often echo these goals with promises of  their own – alongside their own achievements so far.

But we’ve noticed a discrepancy. While countries always relate their carbon emisisons reductions to 1990 levels, IT companies usually only talk about year-on-year reductions, or at the most set the baseline back two or three years.

For instance, when Dell claimed to have reduced its emissions by 18 percent over the previous year – we asked why it took such a recent figure. Similarly, AMD claimed to have reduced its emissions by 20 percent – but only from a 2006 baseline.

Hewlett-Packard, similarly, claims to have reduced its emissions since 2005. When we asked Klaus Hieronymi, chair of the company’s green board, he defended that baseline, saying the company simply did not have earlier figures: “We couldn’t do it because we don’t have the data.”

Tesco, similarly, has claimed big reductions on its carbon emissions, but, these are compared with 2006 figures. Tesco’s Simon Palinkas made the claims at a press event, immediately following a presentation from Harry Morrison, general manager of the Carbon Trust standard company – in which Morrison detaile global progress towards the Kyoto targets, using the 1990 baselines – so we quizzed  Palinkas.and Morrison on the discrepancy.

“It’s the availability of the data,” said Palinkas,”and also we want to compare like with like.” In 1990, he said, Tesco was a smaller company, and technology was different, for instance with CRTs instead of LCD panels. “going back further would be like looking into a different world.”

Morrison backed him up. While whole countries can aggregate their data and get back to 1990 figures, it’s not fair to expect it of companies, he said: “Business has changed so radically, it doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Even getting three years’ consistent data is difficult.”

The Carbon Trust assesses corporate performance, to award its Carbon Trust Standard, and for this, it always uses data from the past three years, explained Morrison.

Despite this, some companies can do it, apparently. BT, for instance, says it started trying to reduce its energy use in 1992, and it claims to have  reduced its carbon footprint by 58 percent since 1996,

We’re not sure whether companies should be allowed to choose their own baseline – but in the light of this, HP’s work seems better than we thought at first, and AMD seems to be on a par with Tesco. But Dell and others should certainly do better than making year-on-year comparisons.

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