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Nine top tips for developing and delivering a net-zero strategy

While the coronavirus outbreak is undeniably top-of-mind at present, mid-to-long-term planning for decarbonisation remains crucial in light of the global climate crisis – and, on a national basis, the UK Government’s 2050 net-zero target. Here, edie rounds up nine top tips for organisations looking to develop and deliver net-zero strategies during this crucial decade.

The webinar provided practical insights and fresh guidance on delivering deep decarbonisation and accelerating climate action

The webinar provided practical insights and fresh guidance on delivering deep decarbonisation and accelerating climate action

The 2020s have been dubbed the “decade of deliverance” for sustainability for a myriad of reasons. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), for example, reach their deadline in 2030, while the IPCC has repeatedly warned that the coming years are the most crucial for action to cap the global temperature increase in line with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C trajectory. Even half a degree beyond this would significantly worsen the social and economic – as well as environmental – impacts, the Committee has shown.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic will doubtless have moved the 1.5C or net-zero discussion down the list of priorities, as businesses mobilise to safeguard their financial futures, policymakers develop emergency response plans and citizens stay at home.

But once the immediate Covid-19 crisis abates, the world’s biggest environmental problems – including greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – will remain to be solved, so ensuring that momentum is not lost is crucial.

To that end, edie last week hosted an exclusive webinar entitled ‘Pathways to net-zero: decarbonising your business in the 2020s’. Hosted in association with Inspired Energy and now available on-demand, the 90-minute session saw expert speakers from Morgan Sindall and Childbase Partnership provide best-practice case studies, practical advice and thematic considerations on developing – and implementing – ambitious and achievable net-zero strategies.

— WATCH THE WEBINAR HERE —

Here, edie rounds up nine of the speakers’ key takeaways.

1) You can’t have a good plan without good data

In a survey of webinar registrants, edie found that more than seven in ten are employed by an organisation that does not yet have a net-zero target and strategy.

Those looking to take the first steps on their net-zero journey, all three speakers concurred, should begin by collecting accurate data on the total emissions footprint of their organisation across all three scopes. Without this information, it was agreed, targets are essentially meaningless – you cannot assess whether they are attainable or ambitious, or track progress towards them.

But as important as the overall data, it was agreed, is information about where energy use and emissions occur – and when. The “where” will help inform where the most action is needed, while, as Inspired Energy’s director of public service and policy Georgina Penfold explained, the “when” can help businesses reduce costs and assist in the development of a renewables-ready grid by investing in flexible energy systems.

2) Seeking third-party assistance is sensible

When asked to give a brief run-through of how his business decided on a 2030 deadline for net-zero, Childbase Partnership’s (CBP) health, safety and environment director Mark Bird emphasised the importance of third-party footprint accreditation and support.

CBP worked with The Planet Mark to accredit its initial emissions footprint data, Bird explained. The Planet Mark then helped CBP shift its original 2045 deadline forward by providing practical support.

Working with third parties for verification will be particularly useful for smaller organisations without the resources or in-house expertise of many corporates, Inspired Energy’s Penfold added – not only in overcoming the initial practicalities of development and implementation, but by providing contacts that can be revisited.

3) Develop timelines of delivery, not just targets…

“A target is not, in and of itself, going to change actions,” Morgan Sindall’s head of sustainability and social value Louise Townsend said, summarising the frustrations many businesses have put towards the UK Government for its lack of short-to-mid-term, sector-specific roadmaps.

To that end, the speakers emphasised the importance of developing roadmaps with clear, time-bound and costed delivery plans for each key step in reaching net-zero.

Such roadmaps should take into account factors such as upcoming policy changes, technology and infrastructure forecast and other business budgets and priorities, CBP’s Bird explained. CBP has a roadmap with project-specific deliverables through to 2028 and broad deliverables through to 2030, which was shown in full during the session.

4) …But at the same time, interim targets do have their uses

For the Q&A portion of the webinar, many listeners told edie that they were struggling to engage colleagues with the Government’s 2050 deadline, as it is so far away.

The speakers agreed that setting more ambitious targets in the first instance – as many businesses and local authorities have – can go some way to galvanising engagement, and that interim targets to complement them can further “apply the pressure”.

Morgan Sindall’s Townsend summarised: “…2050 sounds inaccessible and for most people working now… does not feel urgent enough.”

Inspired Energy’s Penfold added: “Ten years is not outside the realms of business planning, but it’s still far off enough that we can build in time to take really positive action. If a target is too close, we know we can’t mobilise ourselves quickly enough – so it loses impetus for a completely different reason.”

5) Approach offsetting with caution

A discussion around net-zero would not be complete without mention of offsetting, which, while necessary for businesses operating in sectors where no technological solutions exist at scale, has many pitfalls – including the risk of double-counting, or of projects bearing unintended consequences.

As representatives from the likes of PMI, ITV and International Airlines Group and have in recent months, CBP’s Bird urged approaches which place offsetting as the final part of a broader strategy that prioritises reductions.

“[Residual emissions] are inescapable and we’re hoping that, by 2030, there will be more opportunities that are conclusive and robust,” he said. “I’m conscious that offsetting can be seen as a bit of a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card.”

6) Adapting to context is key

While publicly unveiling a net-zero strategy does bind you to the expectations of external stakeholders, speakers emphasised the importance of regularly assessing targets in line with internal progress, policy changes and market shifts.

CBP, after moving its net-zero target to 2030, still describes its strategy as “a moveable feast”, with Bird repeatedly emphasising that if an earlier date is possible, the firm will strive to meet it.

Morgan Sindall’s Townsend, meanwhile, said the beauty of ambitious targets is that they can be pushed back if necessary while still enabling organisations to go further and faster than national governments.

7) When it comes to supply chains, balance ambition and pragmatism

Scope 3 (indirect) emissions are, for the average business, five-and-a-half times greater than those generated by their direct operations. Therefore, including them in your net-zero strategy will not only give the framework credibility among stakeholders, but ensure you are adequately responding to the global challenges at hand.

All speakers emphasised the importance of collaborating with suppliers “as soon as possible” in strategy development, in order to drive decarbonisation across the value chain. But CBP’s Bird and Morgan Sindall’s Townsend also told of how this process is likely to take longer than you expect, given that suppliers may need to collect their own data, and probably have other priorities.

In order to overcome this challenge, Bird urged readers to begin with their largest suppliers by spend, while Townsend emphasised the importance of bringing suppliers along on the journey rather than bluntly ending contracts. This, she explained, maximises additional emissions reductions rather than passing the responsibility to someone else.

8) Don’t let jargon put you off

During the Q&A portion of the webinar, speakers were asked how small businesses can either comply with or go above and beyond national net-zero requirements when they may lack in-house sustainability expertise.

CBP’s Bird highlighted the importance of taking a different approach to corporates, starting with finding free or affordable resources which help to “demystify” jargon and identify changes which can be made easily and affordably.  

The other speakers concurred, highlighting The Planet Mark, Supply Chain Sustainability School and edie’s library of downloadable reports and jargon definitions as appropriate resources. Openly approaching leading corporates or SMEs for easy-to-digest advice, and investing in a consultancy if possible, were also recommended.

9) Don’t stop at carbon – build a broader sustainability story

Setting strategies and targets which cover not only energy and emissions but social sustainability, resources and nature can bring a multitude of benefits, Morgan Sindall’s Townsend summarised, from stakeholder engagement, to avoiding unintended consequences, to getting ahead of broader green legislation.

She explained how her firm “embeds” not only the requirements of its carbon strategy, but strategies around air quality, biodiversity and water use, throughout all projects.

Inspired Energy’s Penfold praised this model, arguing that amid rising public awareness of sustainability issues, having a “holistic story” could well prove a key differentiator.

— WATCH THE WEBINAR HERE —

edie Staff

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