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Sustainability at WRI: Recommitting to Walking the Talk

At WRI, we pride ourselves in being a mission-driven organization that defines success as bringing about positive outcomes in the world. But what about our own operations? Along with the work we do externally to achieve our mission, we have a responsibility to ensure that our own actions are the best reflection of the changes we want to see in the world.

WRI’s History of Sustainability

We recognized the need to “walk the talk” back in 1999, when we became the first NGO to complete a greenhouse gas (GHG) emission inventory and set a net-zero reduction target. At that time we also relocated to a green office, striving to incorporate our values directly into our physical surroundings. In 2010, we took a step back to reflect on the past 11 years. Sure, we had helped similar organizations do their own GHG inventories, partnered with our landlord to install a green roof on our building, achieved LEED gold certification for our interior space, and met our own net-zero GHG target each year through the purchase of carbon offsets. But despite these efforts, our yearly emissions were steadily increasing—in part because we were doubling in size. We knew that the catastrophic effects of climate change are mitigated through absolute emission reductions, not through relative reductions that cut emissions on a per-capita basis but still allow for absolute emission increases due to growth. As other companies and organizations were achieving absolute reductions, the truth was that we were no longer setting an example of leadership, but rather sliding toward “business as usual” by relying solely on the purchase of offsets to meet our target.

Then and there, WRI leadership knew it was time to make a change. We ended our net-zero commitment and instead, reinvested the money we were spending on offsets into hiring an internal sustainability manager—me! As someone who was already working with the Greenhouse Gas Protocol team, I was eager to jump into the role and put our own standards and tools into practice. In February 2011, I began devoting half of my time at WRI to reinvigorating our walk-the-talk culture through the Sustainability Initiative.

Reducing Our Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The first thing to do was establish new GHG reduction targets, but what were our largest emissions sources? GHG accounting best practices no longer look only at emission sources within a company’s operations, so we used the GHG Protocol’s new Corporate Value Chain (Scope 3) Accounting and Reporting Standard to get a complete snapshot of our impact. The Scope 3 Standard provides requirements and guidance on calculating the full value chain of an organization’s emissions, from energy used on-site to the goods and services purchased and sold.

Like many organizations that use the Scope 3 Standard, I was surprised by our largest emission contributions. We had been calculating business travel impacts for a while and knew they, along with our electricity use, would be considerable. But what surprised us was the significant impact purchased goods and services had, constituting approximately 60 percent of our total carbon footprint. Most of this included purchased services like information technology support and the work we do with partner organizations. While we calculated most of our Scope 3 inventory using average data and rough estimates, it was an extremely valuable exercise to ensure that we focused our reduction efforts in the right places. Over time, we plan to improve data quality and reduce uncertainty. More information on how we calculated our full corporate inventory is available in our 2010 inventory report, published today.

Completing our 2010 GHG inventory allowed us to set three reduction targets from a 2010 baseline: a 20-percent reduction in emissions from business travel; a 50-percent reduction in emissions from purchased electricity; and a 20-percent reduction in Scope 3 emissions, with a focus on purchased goods and services. Our goal is to achieve these reductions by 2020.

The Road Ahead

Do we know exactly how we’re going to accomplish these goals? Not really, although we do have a few ideas. However, what we absolutely know is that without reducing our value chain’s GHG emissions, we cannot help prevent climate change’s new and unpredictable risks to our ecosystems.

WRI isn’t going to shrink, either: By 2020 we plan to grow as an organization in order to achieve even more world-changing outcomes, which makes reaching these targets even more challenging. WRI’s Sustainability Initiative will identify innovative ways to meet our reduction targets while increasing our positive impact on the world. Some of these ideas will come from engagement with other NGOs and like-minded organizations through a group we formed called the Sustainability Mangers’ Round Table. Others will come from projects within WRI, like the Next Practice Collaborative, which challenges companies and organizations to go beyond best practice and pioneer new, innovative approaches to achieving success in a zero-carbon, climate-resilient economy. Even more will come from WRI staff, the real champions of sustainability. Without buy-in, support, and enthusiasm from our president down to our newest intern, we will not achieve our goals. Moving forward, we will expand the initiative beyond reducing greenhouse gases to ensure that our sustainability actions support all of WRI’s programmatic goals.

With the public announcement of our GHG reduction targets, we are asking for your help and support. We plan to document our path toward reducing emissions – the strategies that worked and the ones that didn’t – in an effort to help others cut their own emissions. In that spirit, if you have a successful strategy to reduce your organizational (or personal) footprint, we encourage you to tell us about it by leaving a comment below. At the bare minimum, just having you know about our targets will motivate us to achieve them. We look forward to “walking the talk” with you.

Please visit our Sustainability Initiative website for a copy of the 2010 inventory report, previous reports, and to learn about updates on our progress.

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