What Does it Take to Achieve Carbon Neutrality?

Navigating the carbon emissions landscape requires grappling with challenges that include comprehending value chain emissions, adopting new measurement techniques and pioneering reduction strategies. 

After years of exploration and analysis, HKS recently announced that we are now a carbon neutral business. In partnership with sustainability consultants from Omaha, Nebraska-based Verdis Group and Cloverly, a climate action platform headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, we have carefully measured the greenhouse gas emissions produced by our business practices and developed a carbon offset portfolio to help counterbalance the negative effects of our carbon footprint each year.

Carbon neutrality is an important step in our journey to net zero – reducing the net carbon emissions due to our business operations to as close to zero as possible.

Rand Ekman, HKS’ Chief Sustainability Officer; Arnaud Manas, Senior Associate, Verdis Group; and Jason Rubottom, Chief Executive Officer, Cloverly, recently shared why HKS took this path and what other firms can learn from our experience.

Rand Ekman, Chief Sustainability Officer, HKS

Why did HKS decide to become a carbon neutral firm?

To be a good global citizen.

We’re a big firm that has a carbon footprint that matters in the larger context of climate change. We’re recognizing that and being serious about what that means.

We’re shifting our thinking around sustainability in order to look more closely at our own business practices and what we do as part of our industry. We can reduce the negative impact of our carbon footprint when we pay attention to it with rigor and purpose.

What were the biggest challenges in achieving carbon neutral business operations? 

We had to cover a lot of new territory. Determining our carbon footprint was a big challenge. How do you calculate your footprint, using as much rigor as you can, given the data sources you have access to? Learning what should be measured and how to measure it was new to HKS. That was what our consultants, including Verdis Group, helped us figure out.

The other major challenge was learning how to make intelligent decisions around carbon offsets. We needed to learn which offsets we wanted to align with as a company. That’s how we ended up working with Cloverly. They approach the question of offsets with integrity, and they have a lot of data that enabled us to make judgement calls about offsets that aligned with our values and business practices.

What do you think is the most important thing that other firms might learn from HKS’ experience? 

You don’t have to have it all figured out in advance. You just need to start. There are a lot of resources out there in the world, both within architecture and outside our profession, that are ready and willing to help. Drawing on those resources and developing long-term relationships is important. This is an ongoing effort that will play out for many years. Build a strong team.

Arnaud Manas, Senior Associate, Verdis Group

What challenges do companies often face when starting to understand their carbon footprint?

Calculating the baseline footprint and collecting the initial data can be hard, especially because organizations usually don’t have resources allocated to greenhouse gas accounting.

Once we have the numbers, there are a couple issues we often run into as far as understanding them. Emissions related to leased assets and procurements can be confusing. It can be difficult for people to understand that if you lease office space or spend money with a vendor, you’re responsible for the emissions related to that activity.

In addition, companies need to commit to doing the work on an ongoing basis. It’s new work, new data to be collected every year. There are staffing and budget implications for measuring emissions and supporting efforts to reduce them. It’s important to make this work a priority and engage the entire organization.

What’s next on the horizon for greenhouse gas emissions accounting?

The European Union, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and U.S. Federal Sustainability Plan are implementing or have proposed new rules that require businesses to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions. Even if these regulations don’t apply to your organization directly, you may be a vendor of a firm that will need to report this information. Data transparency and determining how to purchase goods and services in a more sustainable way are increasingly important.

Start-ups are racing to develop a software platform for managing emissions data. Artificial Intelligence will likely play a role in this. That’s going to accelerate the greenhouse gas accounting movement.

While they get a better handle on their emissions data, companies are also asked to disclose targets and reduction plans that involve strategies such as more efficient building designs, retrofits of existing buildings, electrification and renewable energy.

Jason Rubottom, Chief Executive Officer, Cloverly

At HKS, we are keenly focused on the intersection of environmental and social impacts. How did you guide HKS in aligning our portfolio with our values?

We helped HKS construct a portfolio of high-quality projects that optimize for both environmental and social impacts, with the data to give the firm confidence in their decisions. These decisions can be complex. We make things easier by providing comprehensive project data and expertise, as an independent party.

The United Nations has identified 17 Sustainable Development Goals that correspond to social impacts, such as clean water and sanitation. These are often referred to as co-benefits. We helped HKS define a set of priorities for their offset portfolio that is unique to their brand, story, core values and supply chain, and we gave the firm information about offset projects with co-benefits that align with these priorities.

Not all carbon credits are created equally. What does quality mean in the offset world?

There are several factors that generally determine the quality of a project and a critical part of the customer journey with HKS, or any account is to take all factors into account in making decisions. 

One is additionality: was the carbon going to be removed from the atmosphere without HKS funding the project? Projects should represent incremental progress – that’s what we mean by additionality. This concept extends to double counting or over-crediting on the estimates of how much carbon is being removed or sequestered or avoided. Another factor is the durability of the removal. This length varies, from less than 50 years to 1,000-plus years, or permanently. Social impacts are also an intrinsic value of quality.  

What role do carbon credits play in the fight against climate change?

Research shows we have to take action now or we won’t come anywhere near the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement international treaty on climate change. There’s already too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and too many unavoidable emissions. If we don’t act now, it will be too late in the year 2050, and potentially even 2030. Decarbonization must remain the priority, but carbon credits represent a critical way to fund necessary carbon removal to help combat unavoidable emissions today.