What are scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions?

May 17, 2022

What are scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions?

The basis for a corporate climate action strategy is the calculation of a company’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Understanding the different types of emissions, classified into scopes 1, 2, and 3, is a crucial step towards achieving your climate action goals. This guide will walk you through the fundamentals of scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions.

The international community has long recognised the necessity of reducing emissions to prevent further global warming. With the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, countries agreed for the first time in history on binding targets and measures for combatting climate change. This agreement was the basis for the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol.

What is the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol?

First published in 1998, the GHG Protocol provides a standard framework for measuring and managing greenhouse gas emissions from private and public sector operations.

Formed through a partnership between the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the GHG Protocol created accounting standards, tools, and training to help businesses to measure and manage emissions. Furthermore, it provides guidelines and requirements for companies, enabling them to prepare an emissions inventory – which also includes the calculation of their corporate carbon footprint (CCF).

A CCF describes the total amount of GHG emissions (including carbon emissions) generated by a company’s activities, including direct and indirect emissions. But why is it so important to reduce GHG emissions?

E-book: The complete guide to understanding scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions

This guide will walk you through the fundamentals of scopes 1, 2, and 3.

Tablet brochure scopes 1, 2, 3

How do greenhouse gases affect the climate?

To understand the necessity of reducing GHG emissions, it is important to demonstrate their impact on climate change.

According to the sixth IPCC report, human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests, have warmed the planet “at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2000 years”. Industrialisation has added enormous amounts of GHGs to those naturally occurring in the atmosphere, increasing global warming and driving climate change. For this reason, the Paris Agreement dictates a global responsibility to reduce GHG emissions and to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels by 2050.

There are two important factors to know about the different types of GHGs: their ability to absorb energy, known as radiative efficiency, and their lifetime, meaning how long they linger in the atmosphere. A value known as the global warming potential (GWP) is used to compare the radiative effects of the various GHGs.

The global warming potential of GHGs

Each greenhouse gas has a different global warming impact, as some gases stay in the atmosphere for longer than others. GWP describes the radiative forcing impact (i.e. the degree of warming to the atmosphere) of different GHGs over a certain period of time. Carbon dioxide (CO2) has a GWP of 1, so other GHGs are expressed relative to the impact of CO2.

GWP was developed to allow comparisons of the global warming impacts of different gases. The higher the GWP, the more that a given gas warms the earth compared to CO2 over that period.

For example, while methane (CH4) stays in the atmosphere for approximately 12 years and nitrous oxide (N2O) for around 109 years, CO2 remains in the atmosphere for several thousand years. But even though CO2 remains in the atmosphere for so much longer, measured over 100 years, CH4 is 27.9 times more potent than CO2 in causing global warming, while N2O is 273 times more potent.

Depending on the activities of a business or along the value chain, many different GHGs can be emitted. They are measured in tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e). By calculating their corporate carbon footprint, companies can analyse their impact on climate change. This is also an important step to derive reduction measures.

How to differentiate between scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions

The GHG Protocol Corporate Standard categorises GHG emissions associated with a company’s CCF as scope 1, scope 2, and scope 3 emissions. However, this categorisation does not apply to the product carbon footprint (PCF), which describes the total amount of emissions generated by a product or a service over the different stages of its life cycle.

The concept of scopes comes from project management and refers to all the processes and resources needed to complete a project. According to the GHG Protocol, the main idea behind this categorisation is to “help delineate direct and indirect emission sources”, while also ensuring that “two or more companies will not account for emissions in the same scope”.

1. Scope 1 – direct emissions

Scope 1 emissions include direct emissions from a company’s owned or controlled sources. This includes on-site energy, such as natural gas and fuel, refrigerants, and emissions from combustion in owned or controlled boilers and furnaces, as well as emissions from fleet vehicles (e.g. cars, vans, trucks, helicopters for hospitals). Scope 1 emissions also encompass process emissions that are released during industrial processes and on-site manufacturing (e.g. factory fumes, chemicals).

Unlike the direct emissions that fall under scope 1, the GHG Protocol defines indirect emissions as “a consequence of the activities from the reporting company but occur at sources owned or controlled by another company.” These include scope 2 and scope 3 emissions.

2. Scope 2 emissions – indirect emissions from purchased energy

According to the GHG Protocol, scope 2 emissions represent the largest source of global GHG emissions by accounting for at least a third of them. This mean that assessing and measuring scope 2 emissions present a significant emissions reduction opportunity. But what do these emissions include? Scope 2 emissions include indirect emissions from purchased or acquired energy, like electricity, steam, heat, or cooling, that is generated off-site and consumed by the reporting company. For example, electricity purchased from a utility company is generated offsite, so these are considered indirect emissions.

However, if the reporting company, such as an industrial facility, generates its own energy on-site from owned or controlled sources, the emissions associated with the energy generation are classified as direct scope 1 emissions. The same applies to companies like electricity utilities or suppliers that possess their own energy generation facilities and sell all their power into the local grid. The GHG emissions from these generation facilities are reported as scope 1 emissions.

In summary, scope 2 encompasses indirect emissions associated only with the generation of purchased or acquired energy. However, other upstream emissions associated with the production and processing of upstream fuels, or transmission and distribution of energy within a grid, are tracked in scope 3.

3. Scope 3 – indirect value chain emissions

Scope 3 includes all indirect emissions that occur in the value chain of a reporting company. To make a clear distinction between the scope 2 and scope 3 categories, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes scope 3 emissions as “the result of activities from assets not owned or controlled by the reporting organization, but that the organization indirectly impacts in its value chain.” Even though these emissions are out of the control of the reporting company, they can represent the largest portion of its GHG emissions inventory.

Based on the financial transactions of the reporting company, the GHG Protocol divides scope 3 emissions into upstream and downstream emissions:

Upstream emissions encompass the indirect greenhouse gas emissions within a company’s value chain related to purchased or acquired goods (tangible products) and services (intangible products) and generated from cradle to gate.

Downstream emissions include the indirect greenhouse emissions within a company’s value chain related to sold goods and services and emitted after they leave the company’s ownership or control.

E-book: The complete guide to understanding scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions

This guide will walk you through the fundamentals of scopes 1, 2, and 3.

Tablet brochure scopes 1, 2, 3

What the GHG Protocol requires companies to do

The GHG Protocol requires that companies account for and report all scope 1 and scope 2 emissions. However, accounting for scope 3 emissions is also part of an effective climate action strategy. Identifying and accurately calculating GHG emissions, especially those that occur in the value chain and therefore out of a company’s direct control, can be very challenging. It is often a complex and detailed task because of the numerous parties and processes involved.

ClimatePartner supports you with the calculation of carbon footprints, setting reduction targets, and reducing your scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions. Experienced climate action experts are available to advise you, and with the ClimatePartner Network Platform, you can collect and analyse data from your suppliers. Our solution ClimatePartner certified offers a new level in climate action, including mandatory reduction of emissions and transparent communication of your climate action engagement.


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