Why we need more transparent assumptions in environmental reporting
Have you ever heard the saying
“when you assume it makes an ass out of u and me”?
It’s cliche but a useful reminder that assumptions can lead to misunderstandings.
- I assumed they already knew…
- I assumed it wouldn’t matter…
- I assumed this is what you wanted…
- I assumed that it would be the same as last year…
- I assumed that because I heard about it from an authoritative figure, it was the best approach…
- I assumed that because everyone else is doing it, it would be OK…
- I assumed that because it worked over here, that it would work over there…
All these examples of unstated assumptions might lead to someone feeling like an ass. But that needn’t be the case. Assumptions are in fact incredibly useful. They are necessary for running complex equations, conducting science, making decisions, and creating common understanding. The key difference in their utility comes from actually stating the assumptions or providing clarifying questions. When that happens, the assumption can create space for awareness, access, connectivity, and… changing the assumption. Together, this reduces the room for error and misunderstanding begins to evaporate and activities can be placed in their proper context. Stated and transparent assumptions invite thoughtful consideration to intended actions, creating a positive feedback loop that leads to deeper levels of evaluation and alignment on the actions themselves. Stated and transparent assumptions also clarify your foundation and your operating principles.
Strategic Work is Frustrated by Lack of Stated Assumptions
Much of our work at Carbon A List is supporting clients and partners navigating and establishing new programs and pathways to achieve climate action. To oversimplify how we think about strategy, it is a process to go from Business as Usual (BAU) to a desired future state with greater, positive ecological impact. This strategy work is both invigorating and frustrating. It’s invigorating to be at the forefront of supporting companies with significant footprints and influence, organizations with far reach over farmers, and explosive start-ups who are earnestly positioning themselves to make change in the land sector. It’s frustrating because there is no one playbook or consistent approach to follow and there are myriad hurdles that are out of our, or our client’s control to achieve any action in the first place.
We can’t expect those voluntary and compliance efforts seeking environmental reporting data to be consistent in how they seek reporting for environmental data. It may be that there never will be one consistent approach to documenting progress against climate action or approach to estimate, quantify, and report on climate impact. But there is one thing all companies, organizations, cities and countries can do today who touch climate as they devise strategies to make more progress more quickly: state more assumptions in your public documentation. This is the foundation for being able to widely communicate to broader audiences for inclusivity and consensus.
Stating Assumptions Bolsters Standards
As organizations, cities, and countries create claims and commitments related to climate action plans, the need to state assumptions is becoming increasingly apparent. It’s hard to read or understand many of these plans with any degree of consistency or replicability. Much is opaque and requires reading between the lines and understanding programs and standards and knowledge of what has happened in backroom deals. The programs and standards themselves have inconsistent or lacking assumptions that are hard to sift through to even begin to compare apples to apples. It often takes a deep subject matter expertise, network, and political savvy to understand what constitutes quality or meaningful climate action and what constitutes a greenwash. Indeed, climate action plans run the gamut. Words like carbon neutral, climate neutral, carbon negative, green, regenerative, holistic, soil health, and sustainable lose their power because it’s hard to know common definitions, program elements, or quantification approaches. The ISO-14001 Standard for Environmental Management systems (EMS) is an example of a standard that uses a positive feedback loop in the five step process below.
The continuous feedback loop opens the door for these words to regain meaning, but must be done with clarity on assumptions.
Stating Assumptions Provides Greater Transparency
Stating assumptions will provide greater transparency into how claims were formed, increase confidence in approaches used to meet targets, invite more critical thought to solutions potentially surfacing better ideas, elucidate potential linkages, and shed light on what is possible and what isn’t. To be clear, I am not calling for divulging trade secrets and sensitive information through more transparent assumptions. The act of finding out what assumptions to publicly state may even inform internal assumptions that create both a competitive advantage from greater clarity on operations along with progress toward a climate goal goal. Creating assumptions makes opportunities to methodically test them and incorporate them into commitments and policies. It’s both an art and a science and there is no one correct way to do this. But if this article has got you thinking about how you can get better at stating assumptions here are some questions to mull over in your process:
- What are the conditions that are constant?
- What are the conditions that are changing?
- What actors are involved?
- How do you expect these actors to behave or interact?
- How do you define BAU?
- What assumptions are made for BAU and future states?
- What can and can’t you control over BAU?
- How will technology change? Incrementally and disruptively?
- What assumptions hold under disruption or disaster?
- How does risk shift when moving from BAU to a future state?
- What dependencies does the desired future state rely on?
- What elements are in and out of bounds?
- What is true about the system in which you operate?
- What activities do you have confidence in creating an intended outcome?
- What is the source of information you need to track?
- At what resolution is this information?
- How does it relate to core activities?
- What are the tools needed?
- How do we know what success looks like?
- How do your plans relate to your principles and values?
- How do your plans relate to policy and regulation?
- What do you assume about geopolitical forces?
- What are your assumptions on diversity, equity, and inclusion?
- How do your plans consider reputation?
These questions may not have immediate answers, or may not have answers that go into public documents, but hopefully they help prime the pump for finding deeper and more meaningful goals and strategies that result in more transparency for environmental reporting. If you get stuck, or need an outside opinion, we’re here to help. Happy assuming!