Outerspace – Proudly a net zero studio

18th October 2021

Outerspace goes Carbon Net Zero

For a number of years now Outerspace has been working with Green Small Business to develop and implement an action plan aimed at reducing our impact on the planet. Our plans have explored everything from the paper we use to how we travel.  But one thing we never did, until now, is measure our actual Carbon Footprint.

This article will give you a very brief overview of Carbon Footprinting and provide you with a transparent overview of what and how we measured ours.  We hope that this transparency will do two things. Firstly it will allow you to see that we were thorough in our measurements and our status of ‘Carbon Net Zero’ is a truthful one. Secondly, it will be useful to you if you also want to begin to measure your business’s Carbon Footprint.

Before we start to explain how we measured, we felt it was important to explain what it is we were measuring and some of the terminology.

What is Carbon?

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is the most common Greenhouse gas. It is generated by burning fossil fuels (coal, gas, oil, petrol, diesel) in our daily living and working activities. For the past 100 years or so the balance in the Earth’s atmosphere has started to shift, with more CO2 being added to the atmosphere than being taken away. The extra CO2 adds towards global warming which, in turn, leads to climate change.

However, in the context of ‘Carbon Footprinting’ we are not only talking about CO2. There are many other greenhouse gasses, including nitrous oxide and methane. These gases all add to global warming in different ways so when we measure our Carbon Footprint we are actually measuring the gasses our actions emit.  Whilst ‘Carbon’ is used to simplify the term we are, in reality, measuring our carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)

What is Carbon Footprinting?

To put it simply a carbon footprint measures the total greenhouse gas emissions (CO2e) caused directly and indirectly by a person, organisation, event or product. Once you have measured your emissions output you will know your ‘Carbon Footprint’ upon the planet.

Carbon Neutral v’s Carbon Net Zero

The terminology used in measuring Carbon is often confusing but, in a nutshell, ‘Carbon Neutral’ refers to a person or organisation who have measured their footprint and invested in carbon offsetting projects to offset an equivalent amount of carbon. It is possible to be carbon neutral whilst doing nothing about reducing your carbon emissions. And because carbon offsetting is relatively cheap at the moment, that can be a tempting option.

Carbon Net Zero or simply ‘Net Zero’ is subtly different, but the difference is important. A commitment to Net Zero implies action to reduce carbon emissions, with offsetting only being used for the emissions that can’t be eliminated. A business or any other entity with a genuine commitment to net zero must have a clear and achievable action plan for reducing their carbon footprint.

Carbon Net Zero refers to a person or organisation who has reduced their footprint down as far as is practically possible.  They then offset the remaining emissions.

The difference is a subtle but important one.  Offsetting alone is not enough to make a different to our planet.  Reducing emissions to as low as possible is of paramount importance and companies who simply offset, whilst still pumping large quantities of CO2e into our atmosphere cannot claim to be Carbon Net Zero.

Outerspace is extraordinarily proud to be able to say we are Carbon Net Zero. Here’s how we did it and the decisions we took along the way.

Measuring your Carbon Footprint

When we started out on this journey, we found this blog by Green Small Business extraordinarily helpful.  It provides you with a step-by-step guide of what the different Scopes of emissions are and links to papers explaining how to carry out certain measurements. We also set up a number of meetings with Tim from Green Small Business, who patiently talked us through the process, helped with some measurements and then discussed how we could best offset the emissions we are unable to reduce.

We would recommend you read this blog thoroughly if you wish to measure your business but we’ve also provided some very brief guidance below so you can see what it is we measured.

What are the different scopes when measuring your Carbon Footprint?

When measuring your Carbon Footprint there are three scopes, or levels, that you can measure.

Scope 1 refers to emissions that are under your direct control, such as company vehicles or gases being emitted by on site heat generation (e.g. gas boilers) etc.

Scope 2 refers to a company’s indirect emissions from electricity use. The emissions created in the generation of electricity are not under your control and are not on site however you use the electricity which produces these emissions; therefore you are indirectly contributing towards them.

Scope 3 refers to the measuring of all the other emissions caused by a company’s activities such as waste generation, energy usage when employees are working from home, travelling on transport not owned by the company (e.g. private cars, planes, trains etc.) or distribution of products etc.

What Outerspace measured and how

When measuring our Carbon Footprint, we measured in a way which was as comprehensive as possible whilst also being manageable and repeatable on an annual basis. Our measurements included Scope 1 (gas boiler) and Scope 2 emissions (electricity), and Scope 3 emissions from waste, staff commuting, home working and business travel.  We don’t have any company cars and we don’t produce and ship products, so this made our measurements relatively simple in comparison to some other companies.

For our base line we took the COVID-19 pandemic into account.  Measuring our energy emissions from 2020/2021 would have been disingenuous, as many of our activities slowed down or stopped. So, for energy usage and business travel we took the measurements from 2019/2020 as these would give a true reflection of our emissions in a ‘normal’ year.

Outerspace work from a Grade 2 listed Boathouse, we share this space with a medium sized Architectural company and micro companies/single person companies who rent the desk space.

Energy usage (Scope 2 & 3)

For Scope 1 we are lucky in that the floor we work on has its own boiler and meter, we therefore gathered all the bills for the year and noted the KwH gas usage over this period.  We then divided the final number by the number of desks on our floor and multiplied it by the number of desks Outerspace have to arrive at our final figure for gas usage.

For Scope 2 we were measuring our emissions from electricity use. As with the gas we are lucky to have our own electricity meter on the floor, so we were able to follow the same procedure to ascertain our share of the usage. However, electricity was slightly more complicated than gas as we also use the server at the building where we work, and this is based downstairs in a small airconditioned room (the only air conditioning in the whole building). To calculate our share of the downstairs energy usage we looked up the electricity use of the server, divided this amount by everyone in The Boathouse who uses it (both upstairs and downstairs) and then multiplied this by the number of Outerspace users.  We then did the same with the air conditioning energy usage before adding both these amounts to our upstairs electricity use to arrive at the final figure.

As Outerspace don’t own a building, don’t have company cars, and don’t produce and transport goods what we could measure within Scopes 1 and 2 was fairly limited.

Scope 3

Scope 3 gave us more opportunity to measure our emissions. In this scope we measured waste, staff commuting, home working and business travel.

Waste

Waste was fairly simple and carried on along the same lines as our measurements for gas and electricity. The waste at The Boathouse is shared amongst all tenants.  We therefore obtained our waste contract to ascertain how much we paid to be taken each year.  We then assumed the worst-case scenario of reaching the maximum amount, divided this by the number of tenants and multiplied it by the number of people at Outerspace.  We had three different types of waste to calculate: landfill, paper recycling and glass/plastic recycling.

Staff commuting

For staff commuting we asked each member of our team how they get to work.  Of the 11 members in our team 9 of us ‘self-power’ our commutes, arriving either on foot or by bike.  This left two who used public transport.  We broke down each commute into the different elements and then used Google Maps to calculate the exact distance of each element. We then calculated how many days each person was in the office each week (we work flexibly with out team being offered the opportunity to work from home two days a week if they wish to), and multiplied this by the total distance on each mode of transport to arrive at a yearly figure for bus, train or tube distances travelled.

Work travel

Our work travel calculations were, like our energy calculations, taken from 2019/2020 due to the pandemic preventing travel for much of the last year. To calculate our work travel emissions, we pulled all our expenses records for the year.  As we are London based the travel costs details were simple travel cards and we did not have the full details of where a person travelled to or by what mode (bus/train/tube). We therefore had to take a pragmatic ‘best fit’ approach to measuring.  We looked up the average cost per mile for each mode of transport and took the average, which was 41p. We then divided the total yearly cost by 41 to arrive at a figure for number of miles travelled. Whilst not perfect this form of measuring is a form which we can replicate year on year (adjusting for average cost of travel) and will allow us to measure in a consistent way as we move forward.

Working from home

Our final calculations were home working and to do this we referred to this white paper.  This was by far the most complicated calculation we faced and, after much shouting at spreadsheets, we sought out Tim from Green Small Business who helped us.  In essence we needed to calculate how many days people worked from home per year and then calculate their energy usage.  For electricity we multiplied number of days worked from home per year by 8.5 to account for the hours in a working day (including lunch), to arrive at a figure of hours worked from home per year. We then calculated the electrical emissions for lighting and workstations (all the figures you need to do this are in the white paper) to arrive at a total KwH usage of electricity per year.

Gas was far more complicated.  In the UK we heat our homes, on average, for only six months of the year.  We therefore needed to take the number of hours worked from home and halve them.  But we also had to consider that gas usage in the home is often shared by more than one person and that households often time gas to come on before they return from work in order to arrive at a heated home, we therefore had to apply an incremental gas consumption calculation of 66.7% so that we were not taking responsibility for 100% of the gas or double counting with other companies.  All the calculations are in the white paper that we have linked to previously, but it does take some time to get your head around it all!

Emissions we are unable to measure

Finally, we needed to account for the emission we cause but are unable to measure.  Every time we send an e-mail or join a Zoom call a server somewhere uses electricity but measuring this on annual basis would be too complex. There are also embodied emissions in the furniture and equipment we use – again, very challenging for us, as a small business, to measure. Tim recommended we add around 40% on to our final calculations to account for these emissions. We decided, given the current low cost of offsetting to add a full 100% ‘buffer’ to our calculations.

Carbon Zero or Carbon neutral

After we’d completed all our calculations, we sat down with Tim to go through everything, and he agreed with us that our opportunities to reduce your carbon footprint are now limited:

  • We rent our building and do not control how it is powered and heated (although this is certainly a conversation we will have)
  • More generally we have had an environmental action plan in place for more than five years now, and the actions taken will have reduced the carbon footprint of the business over this time even if we did not actively measure this reduction; we manage our business travel carefully, using only public transport and we have a policy on homeworking to reduce staff commuting.

Whilst we will continue to do what we can to reduce emissions, the opportunities are very limited. We therefore decided that rather than set a future target date for net zero, we would commit to it now. We will invest in robust and responsible carbon offsetting projects to offset the small amount of emissions we are accountable for. Doing so will not compromise our ability to take ongoing action to further reduce our own emissions.

Offsetting

When it came to offsetting, we again turned to Green Small Business for help and were pointed in the direction of this Climate Care Calculator.  Not only does this calculator do much of the math’s for you in relation to converting emissions to Tonnes of CO2e, but it also then directs the offset payments to certified causes that are both measurable and  independently verified by an internationally-recognised carbon standards.

Our learnings

The first, and most important learning to come from this exercise is ‘just do it’.  When we started out on our journey of measuring our Carbon Footprint it felt somewhat overwhelming, but everyone must start somewhere and, even if you can’t measure all scopes your first time, making the move towards measuring and reducing or offsetting is a start.

Our second learning was to record all assumptions! Any figures we used in relation to average cost of travel, server power usage, hours in a day etc. must be recorded.  Then, when you come to do this exercise again you will know what the figures mean and won’t have to duplicate all that initial hard work.

Our third learning is that Carbon Footprinting is not an exact science and that it is not comprehensive. Our footprint does not include a lot of scope 3 (indirect) emissions associated with the products and services you buy and use (banking, software, hardware, food & drink etc) so it’s important to include a buffer in your offsetting to account for this.  Not to do so would have been ‘green washing’.

Our fourth learning is that offsetting is ridiculously cheap.  We paid just over £8.50 per Tonne of CO2e to offset our emissions. Through our discussions with Tim we learned that this will need to increase over the coming years to truly reflect the costs of offsetting.  This is why we were able to add a buffer of 100% this year, but we fully recognise that in years to come, as prices rise, we may only add the recommended amount of 40%.  For now we see the extra payment as our own little extra bit to helping the planet whilst we can.

Our final, and possibly most important learning, is that as a company our emissions are low, however the biggest role we can play in relation to carbon is in the influence we have over the schemes we design. The carbon footprint of these schemes is orders of magnitude bigger than the footprint of Outerspace. The construction industry accounts for 38% of all global energy related CO2e emissions. Therefore, THE key priority for us in the years ahead will be on ensuring that we maximise our influence over the design of schemes both to reduce their carbon footprint AND to respond to the impacts of climate change (particularly the increased incidence of extreme weather events). We have already started building knowledge and understanding amongst our team of ‘green’ products, SuDS, Urban Greening, Circular Economy etc. and developing policies and systems for ensuring such considerations are a key factor in our design approach. We are currently working on these policies and will make them public once completed.

Measuring our footprint has been an interesting journey and a one filled with learning.  We were pleasantly surprised by how low our emissions were and super proud that all our past efforts had paid off.  We wish we’d measured earlier so that we could have seen the real time reductions but we’re glad we’ve done it now and so very proud to call ourselves Carbon Net Zero.

 

Written by Kate Kershaw, Practice Manager