Upstream transportation and distribution (Scope 3 Category 4)

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Upstream transportation and distribution, categorised under Scope 3 Category 4, refer to the emissions resulting from the transport and distribution of purchased goods, raw materials, and other essential inputs for an organisation's operations.

Scope 3 Category 4, as defined by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, encompasses emissions from the transportation and distribution of products purchased by a company within the reporting year from its tier 1 suppliers to its operations, excluding those owned or operated by the company. This includes emissions from third-party logistics and distribution services, covering both inbound and outbound logistics, as well as transportation between the company's facilities.

It captures emissions from various modes of transport—air, rail, road, and marine—as well as storage emissions in warehouses and distribution centres. These emissions are considered upstream as they arise from purchased services and products before reaching the company, differentiating them from direct emissions (Scope 1) and indirect emissions from purchased energy (Scope 2).

In today's globalised economy, the movement of goods across borders is more critical than ever, playing a key role in shaping business operations and strategies. However, this increased connectivity comes at a significant environmental cost, primarily through the emissions associated with upstream transportation and distribution. Recognised under the umbrella of Scope 3 Category 4 emissions, these activities represent a crucial area for companies focused on improving their environmental sustainability measures. 

This article explores the critical nature of upstream distribution and transportation emissions, underscoring their impact on global supply chains and highlighting strategies for businesses to mitigate their environmental footprint while navigating the complexities of modern commerce.

What are upstream transportation and distribution emissions (Scope 3 Category 4)?

Scope 3 emissions encompass all indirect emissions within a company's value chain, as defined by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHGp). Specifically, upstream transportation and distribution, categorised under Scope 3 Category 4, refer to the emissions resulting from the transport and distribution of purchased goods, raw materials, and other essential inputs for an organisation's operations. This category includes emissions from:

  • Transportation: Refers to the movement of goods from the point of origin to the company’s premises. This can include shipping via air, sea, rail, or road.
  • Third-party logistics: Often, companies outsource transportation to third-party providers. Emissions from these activities also fall into this category.
  • Warehousing and storage: Temporary holding of goods before they are used in the production process also contributes to the emissions count.

Notably, this category excludes outbound logistics activities, which are accounted for in Category 9 of Scope 3 emissions, emphasising the comprehensive approach to categorising indirect emissions in Scope 1, 2, and 3 as per Greenhouse Gas Protocol guidelines.

Implications for businesses

Understanding and managing upstream transportation and distribution emissions extends beyond mere compliance with environmental regulations, it touches on operational efficiency and competitive advantage in the market. For businesses, meticulously calculating these emissions brings several key benefits:

  • Enhanced supply chain transparency: By thoroughly analysing upstream emissions, companies gain deeper insights into their supply chain operations, facilitating more informed decision-making and strategy development.
  • Strengthened stakeholder relationships: Demonstrating a commitment to sustainability can significantly improve relations with customers, investors, and partners who prioritise environmental responsibility.
  • Cost-reduction opportunities: Identifying and implementing more efficient logistic solutions can lead to substantial cost savings, optimising both financial performance and environmental impact.

Moreover, the increasing awareness among consumers and investors regarding the environmental impacts of their choices is shaping market dynamics. This trend underscores the importance of incorporating sustainability into business models to meet evolving expectations and secure a competitive edge.

The complexity of upstream transportation and distribution requires a comprehensive approach to effectively integrate it into a company's sustainability framework. This includes calculating emissions, understanding their significance across industries, and implementing strategic measures to mitigate their carbon footprint. The subsequent sections will delve into methods for calculating these emissions, their critical role in specific sectors, and potential strategies for reduction, highlighting the pivotal role of upstream emissions management in achieving sustainability objectives.

How can companies calculate upstream transportation and distribution emissions?

Calculating upstream transportation and distribution emissions is a crucial part of corporate carbon accounting. The process requires a systematic approach to collect data and accurately represent the emissions associated with the transportation and warehousing of materials before they arrive at a company's premises. Here's an outline of how companies can approach this calculation:

Data collection

The first step is gathering relevant data, which includes:

  • Quantities of goods transported.
  • Modes of transportation used (air, sea, rail, road).
  • Distances travelled.
  • Energy use data if available.

Emission factors

Using the data collected, companies can apply emission factors coefficients that quantify the emissions produced per unit of activity. The emission factors vary by transportation mode and can be sourced from organisations such as the International Energy Agency (IEA) or the Greenhouse Gas Protocol.

Carbon accounting calculation methods

There are primarily two methods for calculating the upstream transportation and distribution emissions:

  1. The spend-based method:
  • Based on the financial expenditure on transportation and distribution services.
  • Useful when detailed activity data is unavailable.
  • Less accurate, as it needs to consider the specifics of transportation activities.
  1. The activity-based method:
  • Uses specific data on amounts and modes of transport.
  • Enables a more accurate calculation, reflecting the actual emissions.
  • Requires more detailed data collection but results in more meaningful insights.

Companies can use software tools and carbon accounting platforms to automate these calculations, ensuring consistency and accuracy.

Challenges and best practices

Calculating upstream transportation and distribution emissions comes with challenges, including data availability and quality. Companies frequently encounter difficulties obtaining detailed transportation data from third-party logistics providers. Best practices to overcome such challenges include:

  • Establishing partnerships with suppliers to improve data sharing.
  • Using estimates and industry averages when specific data is unattainable.
  • Continuously improving data collection methods over time.

By effectively calculating these emissions, companies can better understand their carbon footprint, set reduction targets, and take steps to decarbonise their operations. This process is not just about compliance—it's a strategic move towards sustainability, operational efficiency, and positioning the company as a responsible business leader.

For what industries are Scope 3 Category 4 emissions essential?

Managing upstream transportation and distribution emissions is particularly relevant across various sectors, each with unique supply chains and operational models that make these emissions a significant portion of their carbon footprint. Measuring and reducing these emissions is critical for:

Manufacturing and retail

  • The high volume of goods movement.
  • Global supply chains with extensive transportation requirements.
  • Often depend on just-in-time delivery systems which can increase transportation frequency.

Food and beverage

  • Perishable goods necessitate faster and often more emission-intensive transport modes.
  • Cold chain logistics for temperature-sensitive products add a layer of complexity and emissions.

Energy and resources

  • Large, heavy, and sometimes hazardous materials require special handling and transportation means.
  • The movement of raw materials from extraction points to processing facilities can span vast distances.


  • Stringent controls over transportation conditions to maintain product integrity result in specific, and sometimes less carbon-efficient, logistic solutions.
  • High-value, time-sensitive products are frequently moved by air, which has higher emissions factors compared to other modes of transport.


  • Bulky and heavy materials like steel, cement, and lumber.
  • They are typically sourced from various locations, leading to significant upstream transportation emissions.   


  • Extensive global supply chains, from the production of raw materials to the delivery of finished goods, often span multiple countries.
  •  The rapid turnover of collections in fast fashion amplifies the need for efficient, yet often emission-intensive, logistics solutions.

In these sectors, upstream transportation and distribution can account for a sizable percentage of overall GHG emissions. It's not just about the volume of goods transported, it's also the distance travelled and the modes of transportation used that can significantly increase these emissions.

Strategically reducing transportation emissions can have a considerable positive impact environmentally and economically. Optimisation of transport routes, switching to less carbon-intensive transport modes, and local sourcing are some of the strategies these industries can implement to lower their Scope 3 Category 4 emissions. Sustainability leaders within these industries recognise the value in decoupling business growth from environmental impact, turning sustainability into a competitive edge.

How can companies reduce upstream transportation and distribution emissions?

Reducing emissions from upstream transportation and distribution is essential for companies looking to achieve their sustainability goals. Here are several strategies to consider:

Optimise supply chain logistics

  • Centralise logistics planning to increase efficiency and reduce unnecessary transportation.
  • Implement route optimisation software to minimise the distance travelled and avoid congestion delays.

Collaborate with suppliers

  • Engage with suppliers to find joint solutions for reducing transportation emissions.
  • Encourage suppliers to use more sustainable transportation modes or fuels.

Shift to greener transportation options

  • Increase the use of rail or sea freight, which typically produces fewer emissions per tonne-kilometre compared to road or air.
  • Explore opportunities for using electric or alternative-fuel vehicles in the logistics chain.

Increase load efficiency

  • Improve packaging to reduce size and weight, maximising the capacity of each transport load.
  • Utilise shared transportation services where possible to ensure vehicles are fully loaded.

Encourage local sourcing

  • Reduce the distance goods need to travel by sourcing materials from closer suppliers.
  • Support local economies by fostering relationships with local producers.

Invest in carbon insetting 

  • Instead of relying solely on external carbon offset projects, companies can adopt carbon insetting practices.
  • This approach involves making investments in sustainable practices within their supply chain or in the communities they operate. By doing so, businesses can directly mitigate their distribution and transportation emissions through initiatives that enhance sustainability in their operational ecosystem.

By implementing these measures, companies not only contribute to the fight against climate change but also often realise economic benefits from increased efficiency and potentially lower costs in their supply chain. Embracing sustainable practices is a win-win for businesses and the planet.

Summary: Scope 3 Category 4

Tackling upstream transportation and distribution emissions is a vital, though challenging, aspect of corporate environmental efforts. By gaining a clear understanding of Scope 3 Category 4 emissions, accurately measuring them, and recognising their significance across different industries, businesses can strategically reduce their environmental impact. This process offers companies the opportunity to innovate, enhance efficiency, and affirm their dedication to environmental stewardship.

In conclusion, there are many routes to effectively reducing these emissions, each marking progress towards broader climate objectives. Companies that adeptly manage this aspect of their operations not only contribute to global sustainability goals but also stand to lead in the realm of environmental responsibility.

To embark on this journey, companies are encouraged to start measuring and reducing their Scope 3 emissions with Plan A, leveraging our tools and expertise to achieve meaningful environmental impact reductions.

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