COST OF CARBON: Are companies paying their fair share on emissions?

Country/area: Ireland

Organisation: Noteworthy, The Journal

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 03/05/2021

Credit: Niall Sargent


Niall Sargent is a multimedia investigative reporter with Noteworthy, a community-led investigative journalism platform with The Journal, where he is focused on issues related to climate change, biodiversity, ecosystem services and food production.

He is highly adept at shooting video, taking photos, as well as analysing and visualising data. He is also an expert in Freedom of Information and Access to Information on the Environment requests. 

He was previously the editor of The Green News – an online environmental news website – and was the first ever recipient of the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund Traineeship in Investigative Journalism with the Irish Times where he produced an investigation into ​unsustainable biomass imports​ by Bord na Mona.

He also has research experience with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK and with RTE – EcoEye and RTE Investigates.

He holds an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University London and a Diploma in Online Journalism from Goldsmiths University in London.

Prior to his move into journalism, Niall worked as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst with INTERPOL on projects related to drug smuggling, the trafficking in organs and the illicit online sale of pharmaceuticals.

Throughout his decade of investigative experience, he has been driven to provide the general public with deeply researched and unbiased analysis of important issues hidden from public view, attesting to the highest standards of research powerful enough to establish its message based on cold, hard facts.

Project description:

The two-part COST OF CARBON investigation set out to highlight the companies that are the most serious contributors to Ireland’s emissions problem and what is standing in the way of achieving the cuts in emissions required to tackle the climate crisis. The investigation used data to show how, while many companies are becoming more energy efficient in their operations, the absolute, real world emissions in many of our high-emitting sectors are actually increasing, including the dairy and beef processing sectors, data centres and the pharmaceutical industry – all key and expanding sector of the Irish economy. 

Impact reached:

This work is groundbreaking as, beyond collating the carbon emissions of hundreds of Irish companies, in an Irish media first, it took a deep dive into the substantial gaps in emissions transparency and where improvements are needed in legislation to ensure that our largest companies are forthcoming with precise data and details on their real world emissions.

The series has been well received by researchers, policy experts and activists. The feedback we received from experts in this field showed that our work was important for the academic and research world as the searchable tables compiling the data was innovative and will be valuable in their work. John Sweeney, one of Ireland’s most prominent climate scientists and IPCC author, for example, requested access to our data due to its analytical value.

Paul Price, one of Ireland’s leading climate researcher, told us that the reporting was “excellent” and a first in Ireland. He said that “given there has been so little detailed work on this, it sets a marker that can be followed up.” Graham Caswell, an expert in carbon pricing also told us that the series “will have a long and important tail” and that the searchable tables compiling the data that we found was a “brilliant” innovation.  

Sustainability expert and lecturer Ali Sheridan – who has worked with IKEA – also commended the team for “digging into this issue”, especially as “company carbon disclosures are notoriously hard to find and assess”. 

Several politicians have also picked up on the series including Deputy Paul Murphy of People Before Profit and Senator Lynn Boylan of Sinn Fein – the party’s climate spokesperson in the Seanad. 

Techniques/technologies used:

The in-depth research for this project included sending Freedom of Information and Access to Information on the Environment requests to multiple organisations, collating and analysing years of emissions data, and interviews with scientists, academics, State agencies and campaign groups to piece together the key issues and help explain the key climate issues related to our data findings.

As there is no set database for the details that we were looking for, the use of scraping was not an option, except in some specific cases where data was available on a small grouping of companies listed on the Irish EPA’s website. For this, I used Octoparse and Web Scraper to scrap the data. I also used Tabula to convert emissions data tables within company reports that were in PDF. 

To clean up and analyse the data, I used a combination of Google Sheets, Excel, Open Refine and pivot tables – creating and combining multile speadsheets to create several master databases of all companies for which we collated emissions data. 

To visualise and present the data in a more easily digestable format for a general audience, we used Flourish, taking advantage of the detailed searchable table features to present individual companies data in a comparable and interactive fashion. We also used various graphs and tables available in Flourish to present the key findings based on our data analysis in a clear and crisp fashion. 




What was the hardest part of this project?

The main purpose of this investigation was to find out the companies that are the most serious contributors to Ireland’s emissions problem and what is standing in the way of achieving the cuts in emissions we so badly need. Unfortunately, only a limited number of large publicly listed companies are legally obliged under Irish and EU law to report and publish detailed annual emissions data.

Thus, it took months of research, access to information requests, and detailed discussions with public and private entities to get access to the right data, including:

  • Over a decade of public sector emissions data from Ireland’s energy agency
  • Data on Irish companies in the EU emissions trading scheme system
  • Data sent by companies to the Carbon Disclosure Project
  • Voluntary company data in annual sustainability reports
  • Sectoral emissions and energy data from several state agencies

This took months to pull together, especially as many companies used different metrics to calculate emissions and there was no single website to scrap data from. Just to trawl through reports from one company can take hours, pointing to the difficulties for the public to figure out who are the biggest polluters out there. 

What can others learn from this project?

This work was innovative and shone a light on an area not touched on before by the media, gathering together years of emissions data from companies in various fields to paint a detailed picture for the first time of how different sectors of the economy are responding to the climate crisis. Company carbon disclosures are notoriously hard to find and assess, and, as there has been so little detailed work on this to date, our work sets a marker for any further media reporting on this subject.

Beyond using the data that we compiled in their own work, I think that other journalists can learn from this process in understanding the need to push beyond what information is publicly available on carbon emissions and seek out access to more niche datasets or databases controlled by private entities.

I think other media can also learn from this investigation that compromise, understanding and compassion as vimportant attributes to bring forward in investigations. It took a great deal of negotition and discussion to gain access to several private emissions databases used in this report, as well as months of correspondence and meetings with large multinational companies to explain how I intended to use the data, and to also offer them an opportunity to tell their side of the story. This took a lot of time and effort, and lots of back and forth, but paid off greatly, evidenced in the level of emissions data that companies and other private entities released to us for the investigation, in full knowledge that we were going to create our own database and graphics with the data.

Project links: