Miranda Mair Speaks About The Role of Data in Carbon Accounting

Miranda Mair on the Carbon Accounting & Management podcast, discussing the role of data in carbon accounting" alt=""/>

Miranda Mair - Senior Carbon Advisor at ENGIE Impact

Miranda Mair - Senior Carbon Advisor at ENGIE Impact" from Carbon Accounting and Management

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Miranda Mair on Carbon Accounting & Management podcast, exploring data-driven approaches to carbon accounting.

With the precision of a seasoned analyst and the passion of a true environmental advocate, Miranda Mair is a senior carbon analyst at Carbon Intelligence. She skillfully blends scientific rigor with effective communication.

With over a decade of experience as an Air Quality Scientist, Miranda aids clients in reporting and improving air quality, compliance, and other ESG-related topics. She’s here to shed light on how organizations can collect and enhance data quality over time and derive value from their greenhouse gas inventories.

Miranda Mair joins Carbon Accounting & Management Podcast to discuss:

  1. Transparency and accuracy of carbon accounting
  2. Challenges arising from the re-baselining of carbon data
  3. Benefits of having an inventory management plan for carbon accounting
  4. Key sources of information that carbon accountants should rely on to stay informed about regulation changes and industry standards
  5. Potential ancillary benefits of conducting thorough carbon inventories

Here is a summary of the discussion from the podcast.

Hi Miranda, thanks for joining us! Please share a bit about your work, your role, and your expertise.

Sure, Chris, thanks for having me. My name is Miranda Mair. I’m currently a Senior Carbon Analyst for Engie Impact. I’ve worked as an Air Quality Scientist for the past ten years. I hold a B.S. in Atmospheric Sciences and have extensive experience with air pollution, including criteria pollutants through permitting work. Recently, I’ve shifted towards sustainability, focusing on carbon inventories and carbon accounting, which is a passion of mine. That’s why I’ve moved in this direction with my career, and I’m excited to talk about it today.

Excellent. How has your background as a meteorologist informed your work and led you to where you are now? I’ve noticed that many analysts in the carbon field come from diverse backgrounds.

We are a very diverse group. It is interesting to work with a team of about 20 at Engie Impact. Each has a unique origin story. Mine, of course, is as a humble meteorologist. This background helps me translate complex information into digestible content. As a meteorologist, I condensed the intricate dynamics of the atmosphere into a concise forecast. This skill of distilling complex topics is crucial in my current work communicating science and climate change, particularly in carbon inventory. Carbon accounting is where it all begins.

One of the challenges in this field is making complex data digestible for the C-suite and operational levels. Your insights will be extremely valuable. Data quality is a key area of your expertise. How should an organization approach its data quality when conducting their inventory? What strategies ensure data quality, considering the constraints on resources for data collection?

In my career, I strive to meet clients where they are, understanding that data sets can always be refined, more data can be collected, and there are always new insights to discover. The most important thing is to dive in. It’s difficult to identify gaps until you begin collecting data.

Key Points:

  • Start Collecting Data: It’s essential to dive in and start collecting data to understand your organization’s weak spots.
  • Ask Questions: Engage with subject matter experts and stakeholders to gather available information and understand constraints.
  • Articulate Constraints: Communicate clearly with C-suite stakeholders or consultants about current data and seek advice for improvement.
  • Continuous Improvement: Recognize that carbon accounting and data quality improvement are ongoing processes that evolve year over year.

My biggest advice for clients are:

  • Don’t be paralyzed by analysis.
  • Begin by asking questions about available data and constraints.
  • Engage with stakeholders to understand data quality.
  • Focus on continuous improvement and evolution in data quality.

How do you approach setting organizational boundaries? The Greenhouse Gas Protocol offers methodologies, but there can be some gray areas within them. Organizations often struggle with deciding how many Scope 3 emissions to include. They don’t always know what they need until they collect data and realize the gaps. How do you guide clients through this? What’s your approach or strategy?

That’s exactly what I would advise. Often, our conversations with clients involve gathering as much information as possible. It can be uncomfortable sometimes when clients ask if they need to analyze every aspect of their supply chain for carbon emissions occurrence or every Scope 3 category. This can be overwhelming for those new to carbon accounting. However, it is best practice to start broad. You may find that something you thought was material is not, or you may uncover unexpected significant emission sources. Starting with all 15 Scope 3 categories and then narrowing it down is easier, especially when planning, budgeting, and allocating resources for a carbon inventory.  It is more challenging to realize partway through that additional categories or data are needed. Therefore, start big and work your way down.

Considering who within an organization should conduct the inventory, I’ve seen it done by various teams, such as the engineering, operations, or finance teams.
In your experience, is there an ideal department for this role, or does it depend? What skill set should this person have? If an organization is just starting, who should lead the inventory?

From a Scope 1 and 2 perspective, someone directly tied to operations is ideal. Someone who can gather data like fuel or electricity usage is also ideal. Often, this falls to the finance group because they track financials rigorously, which is essential since carbon is currency. However, finance shouldn’t be the only department involved. Including stakeholders from engineering or operations can provide insights into specific emission sources, such as manufacturing processes. Ideally, the lead could be from operations or finance, but involving a diverse group ensures all data sources and emission points are considered. It would be beneficial to have someone manage this full-time, especially if conducting inventories quarterly or monthly, to keep track of utility data and ensure accuracy. Allocating sufficient resources for this effort is important.

This raises an important point about allocating resources for this effort. With the new law in California and the SEC regulations, some organizations might see this as a mandatory task and aim to invest minimally. However, it’s crucial to highlight the value beyond just knowing the carbon footprint. Have you seen organizations benefit from these carbon inventories in ways beyond just understanding their carbon footprint?

Absolutely. A carbon inventory can often highlight hotspots in energy usage and identify inefficiencies.
Energy efficiency might not seem as exciting as other decarbonization strategies, but it is one of the most tangible and easiest areas for organizations to focus on. The carbon inventory can help pinpoint areas where resources are not used effectively. This may indicate parts of your infrastructure that need a refresh or retrofit, often resulting in cost savings. Saving energy means purchasing less, leading to cost reductions. These savings can incentivize conducting a proper carbon footprint analysis, offering opportunities to cut costs through energy efficiency.

Exactly. There are many ancillary benefits and business intelligence to be derived from this process. Data is only as good as the input and analysis. What methodologies do you think are effective for organizations starting this process?

When thinking about a strategy for decarbonization, it is important to understand how the carbon inventory was assembled to improve the numbers. For example, if you use a simple cost estimation approach for Scope 3 emissions (dollars spent equals an equivalent amount of CO2e), it may be the only data available for that category. However, setting a reduction target based on this method means reducing your spending in that category, which is not ideal if your business is expanding. Instead, you could obtain additional data from your top suppliers and assess the carbon impact of those products or purchases. With better data, you can make more informed choices to reduce carbon impacts.

Another example is employee commuting emissions and remote work, particularly work-from-home. For accurate calculations, it’s important to understand what employees use at home. Industry averages may not suffice. Providing energy efficiency tools, such as monitors or LED light bulbs, can refine these calculations and help make progress in reducing emissions. You need to know the source of your data and ensure the process is transparent, allowing for targeted reductions based on insights gleaned from the data. Understanding employees’ home setups and providing energy efficiency tools, like LED light bulbs, can refine calculations and achieve progress in this area.

This leads to the conversation about target reductions. Sometimes, organizations set targets without fully understanding their emission sources. They might decide to set a target, conduct a carbon inventory, and hope to achieve it. It often makes sense to start with the data and then set a target. You’ve seen this from two different approaches. Can you discuss these strategies, their pros and cons, and which one you prefer?

Organizations can approach a strategy for emission reduction differently when developing one.

  • Strategy First:
    • Set targets (e.g., reduce Scope 3 emissions by a specific percentage or metric tons of CO2e) before data collection.
    • Pros: Clear initial goals, guided efforts.
    • Cons: May require additional data collection, potentially unrealistic targets.
  • Data First:
    • Gather all available data (e.g., business travel mileage, actual flight distances) before setting targets.
    • Pros: Informed and precise targets, identify low-hanging fruit.
    • Cons: Requires extensive initial data collection without a predefined strategy.

    Organizations often balance both approaches. Adapting and refining strategies based on data quality and analysis capabilities is necessary. Understanding what is realistic and what may be unrealistic is essential throughout the process.

    This highlights the art of carbon accounting. While traditional accounting involves fixed numbers, carbon accounting requires a nuanced approach.
    The Greenhouse Gas Institute emphasizes TAC: transparency, accuracy, completeness, comparability, and consistency. Consistency is pivotal for comparing inventories year over year. However, improvements in methodology and data collection can affect this consistency. How do you address this challenge when guiding organizations to build and improve their inventories year over year while ensuring comparability with previous data?

    When you start making changes to your methodology year over year, it’s true that you aim for greater accuracy and data quality. However, this can lead to difficulties in tracking trends due to different methodologies. Methodology is crucial.

    • Inflection Point: There may come a point where you feel confident in your improved calculation methods. This might be the time to re-baseline by applying new methodologies to previous years’ data.
    • Normalization: Normalizing data allows for year-over-year comparison and trend tracking.
    • Significant Changes: If there have been significant changes in data quality or sources, past data may not fit into the new framework.
    • Re-baselining Guidelines: Follow guidelines regarding the percentage of changes for re-baselining efforts. Assess if it’s worth revisiting and adjusting past inventory numbers to inform strategy.

    Balancing improvements in data quality with the need for consistency in reporting can be challenging and varies by organization.

    Many organizations struggle with switching methodologies and the major improvements they observe. They often wonder how to present this to stakeholders without appearing to manipulate outcomes. When considering re-baselining and conducting inventories year after year, what best practices do you recommend for data collection and creating these inventories?

    Chris, you are describing an inventory management plan, one of the best tools in our arsenal as carbon accountants. It allows us to accurately recreate last year’s inventory, provided it was done well. Inventory management plans are like recipe books for calculating your inventory.

    Key elements to include in an inventory management plan:

    • Data Sources: Identify where your data is coming from.
    • Data Types: Specify the types of data, including units and contact information for providers.
    • Systems: Indicate the systems from which data is pulled.
    • Assumptions: Note any assumptions present in the data set.
    • Emission Factors: Include sources and publication years of emission factors (e.g., US EPA, DEFRA).

    A well-written inventory management plan highlights areas for improvement, such as moving from a spend basis to a distance basis for certain categories. Starting from an inventory management plan is a best practice and should be actively maintained with your inventory.

    Awesome. That was exactly where I wanted to go, so I appreciate you heading down that path with me.
    Now, we’ll move to the closing questions. These are meant to be simple, easy answers that provide resources for our listeners. First, are there any newsletters, websites, or other online resources you’d recommend for folks in the industry to follow or subscribe to?

    I need to compile a list of those. I don’t subscribe to many specific newsletters, but I keep up with general news alerts about the industry, particularly regarding carbon regulation. Staying informed about potential regulatory obligations is important with the upcoming SEC rule changes and the new California rule. Keeping up with the regulatory obligations helps guide our clients in developing their inventories. Another important source is information directly from organizations like the CDP. We support many clients with CDP disclosures, so it’s helpful to understand any changes in their methodologies or reporting structures.  Additionally, keeping up with the GHG Protocol is crucial. There have been comment periods and revisions, and staying informed is essential since it forms the foundation of all our carbon inventory and accounting work. These are my top three sources.

    Are there any data sources that you tend to lean on for mission factors that folks might want to investigate?

    The standby is always the US EPA. They have fantastic climate change leadership and are the hub for GHG emission factors. Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is another source we use for emission factors. Like Ecochain, Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) databases are becoming increasingly important. These databases help us move beyond just a spend basis from the US EEIO tables and provide better data on specific products. This, in turn, allows us to help our clients drive change in their supply chains.

    Have you come across any interesting ways in which an organization has engaged its stakeholders to buy into its carbon reduction initiatives?

    One key aspect is effective communication, which involves educating people on why this is important. There have been successes with local green teams in large organizations, empowering employees to manage their carbon impacts. Like a waste reduction week, contests can also engage staff with trivia and creative solutions. These initiatives can serve as incubators, revealing strategies that can be applied on a larger scale. Understanding daily actions at the ground level helps translate efforts across the entire organization.

    What would it be if our guests were to take one thing away from our conversation today?

    Carbon is currency, and you need good accountants to manage it. While carbon software can be useful, but more complex situations often require consultants and carbon advisors. It’s similar to doing taxes: most people can handle simple tax returns, but hiring a good tax accountant is essential for more complex situations. Just as you wouldn’t use TurboTax for corporate taxes, having professional guidance in carbon accounting is valuable. It helps uncover areas for improvement, streamlines the process, and ensures repeatability year over year.

    What would it be if our guests were to take one thing away from our conversation today?

    Well, you can find me on LinkedIn if you just search Miranda Mair. Look us up on Google—Engie Impact. Our site can provide info on several topics, from strategy to software to even help with decarbonization and energy transition. Do check us out.