The Guardian reported the pledge by one of the UK’s largest supermarkets to go carbon neutral by 2040, but the headline doesn’t tell the full story. This is how the Guardian reported the announcement:

Sainsbury’s has pledged to spend £1bn to become a carbon-neutral business by 2040, 10 years ahead of the government’s target for a net-zero economy.

The supermarket chain said the 20-year programme would include cutting its carbon emissions, food waste, plastic packaging and water usage, while increasing recycling, promoting healthy and sustainable eating, and ensuring that its operations are net positive for biodiversity.

I went to the Sainsbury web site for the details. And having done so I appreciated that Sainsbury has unwittingly provided me with the case study I wanted for sustainable cost accounting. 

I stress that I, of course, welcome the announcements from Sainsbury’s. But equally, everything that is wrong with the way we are currently letting corporations account for the impact of climate change on their operations is embodied in this announcement. The explanation for this is complex and extensive, but let me concentrate on one, absolutely vital issue.

What Sainsbury are doing is saying that they will eliminate their Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emission. As they explain in their own press release, there are at present three recognised types of emission that can be measured. They are:

Scope 1 – All Direct Emissions from the activities of a business. Including fuel combustion on site such as gas boilers, fleet vehicles and air-conditioning leaks.
Scope 2 – Indirect Emissions from electricity purchased and used by the business.
Scope 3 – All Other Indirect Emissions from activities of the business, including those that they do not own or control. This covers emissions generated from purchased goods and services, travel and commuting, end of life treatment of sold products and use of sold products.

And Sainsbury explicitly says that:

The [planned] investment will enable the business to fulfil Scope one and Scope two emissions, putting the business on course for Net Zero a decade ahead of the UK government’s deadlines.

Sainsbury’s are explicitly ignoring scope 3 emissions. Those are the emissions that they enable within the products that they sell which includes large quantities of products that create significant quantities of emissions, from petrol and diesel to barbecues, and a great deal else. What Sainsbury’s are not saying is how they will address the control of these emissions. The assumption is that someone else is responsible for them. The blame is shifted onto the consumer.

Sainsbury’s cannot say they will be carbon neutral by simply ignoring the consequences of its own actions. Doing so is, in fact, is a caricature of the denial implicit in the whole climate crisis to date, where it has always been pretended that emissions are an externality and someone else’s problem. They’re not. And in this case Scope 3 emissions are Sainsbury’s concern. Their claim that they will be net-zero carbon is not true unless they take them into account.

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