Debate: Does GHG software help teach users GHG management?
Fundamentally, our field—GHG management—is dedicated to decelerating anthropogenic climate change. The media tends to focus climate action coverage on sensational events such as protests, elections, extreme weather, report launches, or UN meetings. Unsurprisingly, this coverage overlooks progress, taking place every day through the efforts of individuals engaged in subtle and often slow change in their places of work. Some key aspects of this work unglamorously occur behind a computer and are grounded on methodical data collection, analytical rigor, and openness to critique and improvement – critical elements in GHG management.
One industry helping to catalyze change is Information Technology. We have come a long way from the days of emailing excel sheets between one another and scanning the internet for emission factors. The GHG software that is available to GHG practitioners today evolved considerably. While we have great strides to still make, IT is helping us mature the field and enabling companies to embed carbon management into their organizations in a business-accessible way. To this end, we recently had an interesting conversation at the Institute, surrounding this question: ‘Does GHG software teach users GHG management?’
Two debating camps quickly formed.
The first camp argues that GHG software is a “black box” to users and, as such, does not increase understanding of GHG issues. Some users may develop an understanding of calculation inputs and parameters, but software doesn’t cultivate a critical understanding of fundamental issues like boundary selection, scopes, emission factor representativeness, uncertainty, and quality management. Actual calculations and reporting become over-simplified. This over-simplification of the analytical process makes it more difficult for companies to gain a true understanding of how activities affect their inventory as well as the uncertainties and “blind spots” in their data. If GHG management is viewed as simply a data entry task and delegated to junior personnel with limited understanding and influence over company decisions, then companies are short-circuiting the strategic and tactical use of GHG emissions information. Instead companies are just focusing on the superficial task of filling out and submitting their CDP or other forms so they can get on with “real work.”
The second camp countered that GHG software frees up users’ time from time-consuming tasks (such as excel configuration, data entry, error checking) and enables staff to more intimately understand their GHG emissions, thanks to the more granular data a GHG software can manage, and begin to actively manage their emissions through scenario planning, emissions mitigation investment analysis, and performance tracking. In other words, it frees up time to focus on what really matters about GHG emissions – ways to reduce them.
Of course both camps are right. The question is which camp describes the majority of companies and which one only reflects the outliers? It is not GHG software per-se that hinders or boosts user-understanding of GHG emissions and their drivers. Rather, that responsibility falls on the personnel using the software.
GHG software can be a powerful tool that users can leverage to gain insight about GHG emissions and emission reduction opportunities. Software users, however, face the concrete risk of becoming subservient to the software and to embed all its limitations in their GHG management inventories and practices, without realizing what these limitations are.
What can users do to avoid this technology pitfall? Not unlike any other day-to-day application, users shouldn’t go in blind. One avoidance measure (warning subtle sales pitch) is to provide your GHG analysts with rigorous GHG training so they can think more deeply about core carbon accounting assumptions and integrate that with the idiosyncrasies of your organization. It can actually be useful, especially for recent hires, to do part of your GHG work the hard way, using pen and paper and excel. You also want to make sure you understand and trust your GHG software and provider. Make sure you do your homework when selecting a software, preferentially select software from reputable providers that have had their product vetted by trusted third parties.
If the success of companies of the future hinge on the ability to address climate change internally, GHG software will certainly be a tool that will help more get there.