British business counting pennies, not carbon

It seems that the carbon-conscious consumer really began to make a difference to the products and services sold in the UK last year, says Cisco's green ambassador Richard Roberts.

High street stores are charging for plastic bags to encourage people to bring their own, and electronics manufacturers have reduced the size of packaging to increase the number of products that can be transported in each ship.

Flowers from Kenya are even being promoted for their smaller carbon footprint compared to the Dutch competition…

All this is great, but our Smart Carbon Research has discovered that these marketing messages are masking a missed opportunity for businesses to make more dramatic reductions to their carbon footprint.

At the end of 2009, we polled 250 British business people, investigating their attitudes to impending environmental challenges, and we released our findings this week. Some of our discoveries were heartening – some less so.

Asked what will have the most significant impact on reducing emissions for UK businesses, surprisingly 58 percent replied ‘monitoring and measurement’ – efforts which of course don’t actually have a direct impact on carbon output, despite being crucial as a first step in an environmental strategy.

As such, this response probably gives a good indication of where British businesses are in their carbon strategies – measurement and monitoring is essential for companies to understand what the UK’s target percentage cuts in carbon mean for them.

Renewable energy sources and reduced energy use through efficient IT came after measurement, with 52 percent and 46 percent respectively.

Only a third (34 percent) thought that reducing work travel and commuting would be the most important change to make in order to impact carbon emissions – which probably reflects the current UK legislation’s focus on measuring office-based primary energy usage, excluding the carbon impact of business travel.

One of the findings that resonated most when we presented the findings of the research at The Carbon Conversation event in London this week was the belief among 96 percent of people surveyed that technology can help the UK meet its carbon reduction targets.

67 percent regarded the potential impact of technology as ‘significant’. However, only a third (36 percent) thought that their organisation should definitely invest some of its technology budget in innovative carbon-reducing technologies.

Added to this, cost saving was the most commonly cited motivation for UK companies to improve energy monitoring and management and reduce carbon emissions.

With the Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme (CRC) looming large on the horizon, we also took the opportunity in the research to ask how much people knew about it.

Awareness of the CRC legislation is relatively high, and 62 percent of respondents considered it to be ‘essential’ in reducing the carbon emissions of UK businesses.

However, 44 percent of respondents believe the current legislation does not go far enough, and 40 percent believe that the CRC is ‘very confusing’ and that it will prove ‘difficult to implement and enforce’.

Part of the problem with the current legislation is its singular focus on primary energy use.

Without measuring such major elements of a company’s carbon presence as its third party travel (business flights or shipping), there is little economic motivation at the moment for UK businesses to drive behavioural change (video conference meetings rather than global travel for instance).

This needs to be addressed in future legislation.

Oversimplifying legislation simply limits its potential effectiveness in addressing GHG emissions, and can result in organisations having to invest twice to reach phased targets, if they do not have clear visibility of the end goal.

Our research seems to point to a fundamental tenet: businesses are not responding to environmental imperatives so much as the economical. Where they converge we see action (swiftly followed by marketing telling the world what they have done).

The good news is that a great deal of sustainability solutions do bring cost savings, although with varying speeds of ROI.

It will be critical for those selling solutions that help British business reduce their GHG emissions to ensure they sell with messages that carry financial benefits that resonate, in addition to the environmental.

Richard Roberts is UK and Ireland director, sustainability and the environment, Cisco

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