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Climate Terms and Tools

Facilities face many challenges related to climate change, including reducing emissions, adapting to new conditions, and increasing resilience. This page serves as a primer for building personnel who are new to the topic or looking for additional resources.


Understanding climate change's unique vocabulary is the first step. The definitions below have been compiled by federal experts in the field.




Greenhouse Gas Accounting

There are a variety of GHG accounting protocols available for reporting emissions, such as the World Resources Institute (WRI) and World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) GHG Protocol Corporate Standardnon government site opens in new window.

For federal agencies, see the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) GHG Guidanceopens in new window and the Federal Comprehensive Annual Energy Reporting Requirementsopens in new window from the Department of Energy's Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP).

Emission Scope

For accounting purposes, GHGs are divided into 3 standard categories, or "scopes":

  • Scope 1 Direct (Onsite) Emissions
    • Stationary fuel combustion – boilers, emergency generators, on-site heat and power production
    • Mobile combustion – vehicles and mobile equipment
    • Fugitive emissions – refrigerants, on-site landfills and wastewater treatment, electrical equipment/switchgears
    • Process emissions – cement production
  • Scope 2 Indirect Emissions
    • Electricity – U.S. EPA eGRIDopens in new window provides emission factors to convert electric energy purchases into GHG emissions
    • Purchased steam, hot water, and chilled water – depends on provider fuel use
    • Combined Heat and Power
  • Scope 3 Indirect Emissions
    • Transmission and Distribution (T&D) – losses from off-site purchases of electricity, steam, hot water, and chilled water
    • Business travel – ground transportation and air travel
    • Commuter travel
    • Contracted wastewater – wastewater treatment plants and septic
    • Contracted waste – landfill emissions and incineration
Graphic showing Scope 1, 2, and 3 emission examples that match the text above.
Types of Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Source: U.S. EPAopens in new window
How to Calculate Emissions
Step 1: Calculate the emissions from each GHG
Activity x Emission Factor (Tons GHG/activity unit) = Emissions (Tons GHG)

Activities such as burning fossil fuels release several types of gases into the atmosphere. The amount of each gas released per unit of the activity (e.g., ton of coal burned) is referred to as an "emission factor". These can be calculated from direct measurement, measured carbon or energy content of the fuel, or based on the chemical formula. See the EPA GHG Emission Factors Hubopens in new window for an "easy-to-use set of default emission factors".

Step 2: Calculate CO2 equivalents (CO2e) for each GHG and sum overall emissions
Emissions x Global Warming Potential (GWP) = Total Emissions (Tons CO2e)

Each protocol will have recommended factors for global warming potential in order to convert all emissions into a single unit (CO2e) that can be summed across all GHG. The table below includes several common values.


For further information, see the following federal government resources:

For information on federal government GHG emissions, see the Department of Energy's Federal Facility Reporting Requirements and Performance Dataopens in new window and these datasets from the Comprehensive Annual Energy Data and Sustainability Performance report:

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Related Topics

Climate Change

Climate change refers to significant and lasting alteration of climatic patterns (e.g., temperature, precipitation, wind). It may result from: natural factors, such as changes in the sun's intensity or slow changes in the Earth's orbit around the sun; natural processes within the climate system (e.g. changes in ocean circulation); and human activities that change the atmosphere's composition (e.g., through burning fossil fuels) and the land surface (e.g., deforestation, reforestation, urbanization, desertification). During the 20th century, human activities released large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gasses into the atmosphere, resulting in an increase in the rate of climate change.

EPA | Climate Changeopens in new window

Share non government site opens in new window