Please also see an article by K.Boehmer and A.Cherp introducing
ISO GHG standards: An Emerging Global Standard, published in Carbon Finance (Dec. 2003)
An ISO Greenhouse Gas Standard
Opportunity or Barrier to Sustainable Development?

A powerful new player quietly stepped into the international climate change arena in June 2002, when the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) began to develop a new international standard for measurement, verification and reporting of greenhouse gas emissions. Citizens and organizations concerned about climate change should watch the ISO carefully to see how its new standard develops and what role it will play in national and international policies related to climate change. Moreover, there is an unprecedented opportunity right now for citizens' groups and other stakeholders to influence ISO and take part in its climate change work. This leaflet explains potential implications of ISO's work on standards related to greenhouse gas emissions. (For additional information on ISO and standardization generally, please see ECOLOGIA's information sheet "Standards and Sustainability".)

What is the International Organization for Standardization?

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is an international body that develops corporate standards to facilitate international trade. Industries around the world follow ISO standards in order to ensure that their products are compatible and interchangeable. These standards ensure that Italian and Canadian nuts and bolts match one another, and that a computer maker can buy compatible chips from Taiwan, New Zealand or Malaysia. ISO standards govern virtually every product you buy - from computers, to cars, to building materials and tools.

ISO membership consists of 143 national standards bodies, such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Norwegian General Standardizing Body (NAS). These bodies sound like government agencies, but many are not. Many ISO member bodies - especially from developed countries -- are industry associations that largely act independently of their national governments.

What does standardization have to do with climate change?

A new ISO working group met in South Africa in June 2002 to begin developing a very different kind of standard - one for measuring, reporting and verifying companies' greenhouse gas emissions. This committee grew out of a two-year ISO process of following international climate change negotiations to see whether agreements like the Kyoto Protocol will necessitate any new international standards. The Kyoto Protocol sets targets for countries' greenhouse gas emissions and creates a number of international mechanisms through which countries can exchange their emissions rights or get credit for emissions reductions. ISO determined that companies and governments will want a common standard for quantifying corporate greenhouse gas emissions in order to facilitate these emissions exchanges and to implement domestic policies to move countries toward their Kyoto targets.

ISO is not the first organization to work on a standard for quantifying companies' greenhouse gas emissions. A number of countries have established national greenhouse gas emissions inventory standards, and independent entities such as the World Resources Institute and the European Federation of Accountants are also developing them. However, because of ISO's powerful, international reach within the business community, its new standard-setting process could eclipse similar efforts by governments, public interest groups and industry associations. If it follows the path of other ISO standards, the ISO greenhouse gas standard will be incorporated into climate change laws in many countries, and will become a component of "best practice" for industry.

Will an ISO greenhouse gas standard help ameliorate climate change?

Policy-makers, both within nations and in international negotiations, expect to rely heavily on emissions trading schemes to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere. For emissions trading to work, companies and governments will need a shared way of measuring, reporting and verifying greenhouse gas emissions; in other words, they will need exactly the sort of standard ISO has proposed to create. Because ISO has experience with creating international standards, because it has participants from standards bodies in many countries, and because it has authority and name-recognition with businesses around the world, ISO may be in a good position to create such a standard.

On the other hand, the creation of a greenhouse gas measurement standard may require skills and knowledge that ISO does not currently have. For example, some people suggest that the greenhouse gas standard under discussion will in effect be a carbon accounting standard, and ISO does not set accounting standards, the International Accounting Standards Board does.

Moreover, ISO has a mixed record on environmental issues. ISO began developing its ISO 14001 standard on environmental management systems in response to the 1992 Earth Summit's call for sustainable industrial development. Industry-dominated negotiations within ISO, however, simplified the standard and shifted its focus away from sustainable development. As a result, ISO 14001 certification does not explicitly require companies to improve their environmental performance, meet legal environmental requirements or publish their environmental record. It merely requires them to set up a system that should, if well-designed and implemented in good faith, improve environmental performance.

The ambiguities in ISO 14001 make it possible for companies to use ISO 14001 certification to "greenwash" corporate activities. They can hold up their certification as evidence that they are "good actors" in the environmental realm, when in fact certification does not directly reflect a company's environmental performance. This has led critics to question whether ISO 14001 has done the environmental good it intended. If ISO's new greenhouse gas standard follows the route of ISO 14001, it is unlikely to be an effective standard upon which to base successful climate change policies.

How can you influence ISO work on climate change?

Fortunately, ISO is showing signs that its greenhouse gas standard will not necessarily follow the path of ISO 14001. The ISO group developing the new standard has expressed a strong interest in engaging developing country representatives and public interest groups in the standard's creation. To that end, the group developing the greenhouse gas standard has established a sub-group to facilitate stakeholder involvement, co-chaired by German Institute for Standardization and ECOLOGIA, an international environmental organization that has been involved with ISO for five years. This sub-group will be working over the coming year to create mechanisms for involving a diverse group of stakeholders and to identify key perspectives and expertise needed for creation of the greenhouse gas standard. For an update on the development of that sub-group and an NGO perspective on its work, please contact Heather McGray at ECOLOGIA (

If your organization has no prior experience with ISO and is interested in participating in developing standards related to greenhouse gas emissions, you may find it useful to explore "A Guide for NGO Participation in ISO/TC 207" (.pdf-format). It provides information about two existing methods for engaging with ISO's work:

  1. Organizations can take part in discussions about the standard within their national standards body. ISO requires national standards bodies to take into account all relevant national interests when they develop a position on a standard, though they each do this in different ways. Contact information for national standards bodies is available at
  2. International organizations can obtain "liaison status" to the ISO groups working on the greenhouse gas standard. Liaison status gives organizations the right to participate in ISO meetings and discussions at the international level, though they cannot vote. A formal liaison status application can be obtained at the ISO Central Secretariat (e-mail:

This information has been prepared by ECOLOGIA, an international non-profit organization that promotes public participation in environmental decisions. August, 2002.
Last modified by: H. McGray on 29-Nov-02

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