Leadership   //   October 6, 2021

‘Involve your people’: How businesses are moving toward net zero

The recent IPCC report on climate change made for grim reading, with United Nations secretary-general António Guterres describing the report as a “code red for humanity.” There is still time to act but immediate and widespread action needs to be taken — and that includes by businesses, who can also play a major role in minimizing the climate emergency. 

Nearly a third of the U.K.’s largest businesses including AstraZeneca, BT Group and Sainsbury’s have pledged to eliminate their contribution to carbon emissions by 2050, according to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. The U.K. government, which pledged in 2019 to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, is pushing more businesses to commit to net zero emissions by 2050 and has set up the UK Business Climate Hub, where companies can find practical tools, resources and advice to understand their emissions and develop a plan to tackle them.

“Every business — no matter their size or industry — has a role to play in limiting global warming,” said María Mendiluce, CEO of the We Mean Business Coalition, a founding partner of the small and medium business Climate Hub. “It’s time for every business to get on board. Every step to limit carbon emissions taken by companies large and small will have a collective role in bringing us to net zero.”

Many businesses are downsizing their office footprints and/or redesigning their workspaces to reflect the more flexible, hybrid-working models so popular as a result of the pandemic. And some are seizing the change to ramp up their efforts to be more eco-conscious in the process.

So where should businesses start? 

IT company Data Solutions hired a climate consultant to measure its carbon footprint and commissioned annual carbon monitoring reports. “One of the biggest issues for any business thinking of taking their business carbon neutral or net zero is knowing where to start,” said Data Solutions managing director Michael O’Hara. “There is a wall of information out there about what we all should and should not be doing, this can be very confusing and even stop businesses from taking action.”

Depending on your business, one of the most effective ways to tackle your carbon emissions is reducing the environmental footprint of your office buildings or warehouse. For example, ensure walls and roofs are properly insulated. Switch from a gas boiler to a low carbon alternative, such as a heat pump or generate your own renewable energy by installing solar panels.

At Data Solutions, the company has replaced its gas burning office heating system with a more efficient heat pump system, replaced all lighting in its offices with LED lights, and installed solar panels on the office roof. “This now provides 12% of our energy needs via this renewable source,” said O’Hara.

Business travel can be a large source of carbon emissions, says Jaise Kuriakose, a lecturer in climate change at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester in the U.K. “There needs to be clear guidance and policy on travel. Some travel can be avoided by video or reduced by other means [such as train].”

Bailie Group, a group of agencies and consultancies including communications agency Loop, has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2050 and halve emissions by 2030. It has introduced changes to encourage more eco travel choices including secure bicycle parking and improved shower facilities, installation of charging points for electric vehicles, and season ticket loans for public transport.

“We are in the process of eliminating our fleet of company cars altogether although we may keep a couple of delivery vans, but these will be electric,” said Philip Walter, COO at Bailie Group, which worked with sustainability certification organization Planet Mark to set yearly targets. The company has also installed two electric vehicle charging points at its Cheltenham offices and is planning for two at its Leeds offices in the U.K.

“When we do use public or private transport, we monitor the environmental impact through CO2 emissions reports — for train travel this is provided via a third-party company, and with car travel we work this out in-house using a calculation based on mileage and the vehicle type,” said Walter.

Data Solutions has decided to reduce business travel across the organization, according to O’Hara.

“This pandemic has shown us that we can work successfully and productively work from home using technologies. In pre-COVID times when business travel accounted for 40% of our total CO2 emissions, we would regularly travel back and forth across the U.K. and Ireland to meet our partners, as well as numerous trips throughout the] EU [European Union] and U.S.” Now the company forecasts a 50% reduction in its business travel emissions in 2022 compared to 2019 levels.

Another way to reduce emissions is by digging into your company pensions funds. “Companies should look at divesting away from fossil fuel companies,” said Kuriakose. Each year the average U.K pension finances an average of 23 tonnes of CO2 emissions through the businesses it invests in, which is the equivalent of burning 1,100 coal fires annually, according to Cushon.

Other ways to cut company emissions is to reduce packaging — look at recycled or compostable options — analyze your supply chain emissions (which can be responsible for much more than your own direct emissions), and install a system to control heating and air conditioning. 

Of course, one of the challenges is the hit on the company’s profits — going green is likely to prove expensive. “The investments we have made to reduce our carbon emissions are significant and some like our solar panels and LED lights will take 10 years plus to get a financial ROI,” admitted O’Hara. “However, there is no point in working hard to maximize our salaries and business profits if we end up on a planet that none of us can live on.”

One important factor Kuriakose raises is educating staff on climate change and reducing carbon emissions. “All departments from procurement to HR need to be carbon literate and aware of the impact,” he said. “For example, if a procurement manager knows all the details he or she will know to be careful in reducing emissions rather than just looking at lowering costs.”

This echoes Walter’s advice for businesses. “Involve your people, because a lot of the actions that are needed will require the support of everyone around you. As we seek to reduce further, it may mean limiting heating to 21 degrees [Celsius, 69.8 Fahrenheit], for example – and decisions such as these must be made with the buy-in of the team, otherwise they may lead to discontent.”

As you start making changes, Mendiluc also recommends shouting about it outside your circle. “Raise your voice,” she said. “Bolster your impact by encouraging other small and medium-sized businesses to get involved. The collective voice of business is vital to give policy makers the confidence they need to accelerate climate action.”