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Moving Beyond ‘Carbon Neutral’ to ‘Carbon Healthy’

While many companies today attract attention and acclaim when they announce they have achieved carbon neutrality, I’d argue that we are misleading ourselves when we define this as success. The question we need to ask ourselves is this: is carbon neutrality really the ultimate goal?

On the road to environmental sustainability, we need to rethink the “carbon neutrality” mantra and move beyond that to “carbon healthy.” I like to compare it to going on a diet – a carbon emissions diet.

Imagine that a lifetime of habits have led you to become overweight and unhealthy. It’s not enough to aim for neutrality – in this case simply maintaining your current weight – because in order to improve your life expectancy and quality of life, you need to actually reduce your weight and reverse the damage that’s accumulated over time. Similarly, it’s not enough for our planet to remain carbon neutral by buying carbon offsets – we need to reduce overall carbon emissions. We need to measure our current environmental footprint – our carbon health – and then take steps to improve it.

Carbon neutrality has become the rallying cry for the industry, and while companies are doing a great job of patting themselves on the back for offsetting carbon emissions and planting trees, let’s not forget the fundamental issue here: we continue to deplete our natural resources and increase carbon emissions and it’s astounding how little is really being done to fix that. Instead, “carbon healthy” – a state where an organization is doing everything they can to just not offset carbon emissions, but reduce them for the long term by decreasing energy consumption or replacing carbon emitting energy sources with green energy – needs to be the focus.

Perhaps one of the reasons many of us cleave to the idea of carbon neutrality is that it’s easier to buy credits and plant trees than it is to actually drive reductions by making changes within our businesses.

According to a recent Economist Intelligence Unit survey of over 1,200 executives, 55% of the world’s leading companies have set policies to reduce energy consumption, yet only half this number (27%) have upgraded IT systems to improve performance.

In the same survey, 52% of respondents rated “establishing meaningful benchmarks or key performance indicators to measure performance against” as a challenge or major challenge.

Further, 45% rated “developing tools to monitor sustainability performance” equally challenging. The result is that fewer than 20% reported having measurably reduced carbon emissions. If we have no way of tracking our calories in and calories out- it’s no wonder we’re struggling to stay neutral, nevermind getting all the way to healthy.
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We need scales to tell us our weight and a system to track our intake and output. One area where we can start doing that now is with our real estate. Buildings account for 48% of carbon emissions, and with current technologies we can measure the exact carbon footprint of our buildings – how they’re doing on the environmental diet – and then monitor our progress so we can become carbon healthy.

Achieving true carbon health requires a comprehensive strategy, and buildings need to be a core component for any sizable organization. The fact that most companies today lack an infrastructure for measuring the exact energy output and carbon footprint for their buildings reflects a larger problem – you can’t reduce what you can’t measure or manage.

In fact, a recent TRIRIGA survey of more than 150 real estate and environmental professionals found that most organizations use inadequate technology such as Microsoft Excel – or have no system at all – to measure and manage the environmental impact of their real estate portfolio. This approach is insufficient to manage the massive volume of data required to measure and improve your carbon health.

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A lack of tools hinders organizations’ ability to effectively measure and manage their environmental impact and provide transparent reporting to a variety of stakeholders (regulators, investors, shareholders, NGOs, etc). As a consequence, organizations are unable to successfully drive the reductions in emissions needed to make a lasting impact beyond carbon neutrality. If we commit – as we should – to the more ambitious goal of carbon health, we need to do a better job of setting ourselves up for success.

If you really wanted to lose weight, not simply stop gaining, you’d arm yourself with a good scale, a diet regimen, and some way of tracking your intake and activities that would reveal potential pitfalls in your plan or that you have achieved your goal weight. Succeeding in our carbon diet is no different: organizations must ensure success by implementing tools and systems to accurately measure carbon footprint, set carbon health goals, manage operations and progress against a carbon healthy regimen and identify opportunities for improvements to reduce – not just neutralize – carbon emissions.

George Ahn is the president and CEO of TRIRIGA Inc., which provides integrated workplace management solutions. The company’s TREES software helps businesses measure, manage and reduce the environmental impact of their real estate portfolios.

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