Could disengaged operations managers undermine the private sector’s net-zero efforts?

The survey results indicate that an entirely 'top-down' approach to net-zero is unlikely to be effective

The survey was conducted by ESG software provider Sphera, which polled 300 operations managers across a range of high-emission sectors in the UK, the US and Germany. Sectors covered include energy, construction, manufacturing, chemicals, metals and mining.

The results, published today (25 January), shine a light on key gaps between net-zero ambitions and actions by businesses.

Of the businesses represented by the survey, a significant minority of 40% have set a net-zero strategy and made this available publicly. A further 45% have set a net-zero strategy but not yet made this public, or are in the process of finalizing their strategies.

Promisingly, almost half (43%) of the businesses have significantly increased their sustainability budget to achieve these strategies, by at least 20%. Just one-fifth of the businesses have either made no budget increase or decreased this budget.

Yet the majority of the operations managers polled (59%) report that there has been no significant changes to the daily operational practices of their business in the name of decarbonisation.

The survey findings indicate that this lack of change may be due to challenges embedding net-zero-related changes into financial planning, training and operational protocols. Operations managers put this down to their employers adopting a ‘top-down’ approach.

The vast majority of those surveyed (95%) say their business has a set-up in which accountability for delivering net-zero lies solely or primarily with C-suite executives and/or the board of directors. This can leave those in less senior roles unaware of how they need to contribute. Six in ten of the operations managers said they would not rank employee engagement with their organisation’s sustainability strategy or initiatives very highly.

Four in 10 of those surveyed said they personally receive “little or no encouragement” to contribute suggestions on improving the environmental sustainability of business operations.

Many of those surveyed said they would like to have not only more opportunities to shape strategy, but a chance to push senior management to set more ambitious targets and more credible plans to deliver them. One-third said they are “highly supportive” of “radical” change to reach net-zero.

Sphera’s chief executive and president Paul Marushka said: “With high levels of personal and professional commitment to sustainability, operations managers have emerged as the secret weapon for businesses in the fight for more sustainable operations.

“Yet many companies are experiencing a gap between carbon pledges and operational practices because of limited involvement by operations managers. Our report finds that operations managers have the influence and desire to help drive decarbonization across business operations, supplier and partner networks. Now, what they need are the data, software and best practices to do so.”

Going beyond net-zero ‘quick wins’

Earlier this month, a new report from Engie Impact revealed that 75% of large businesses believe they have already achieved the “quick wins” on the road to net-zero.

That report found that while 98% of firms had made “some sort of progress”, many were still barely beyond the strategy-setting and public communications stage. Those that had driven down emissions had largely done so in Scope 1 (direct) and Scope 2 (power-related) sources, which are easier to address than Scope 3 (indirect) emissions but typically account for a far lower proportion of emissions overall.

To get beyond these initial steps, the report set out six key challenge areas to overcome. These were:

  • Maintaining long-term focus and belief
  • Establishing good governance and accountability systems
  • Aligning the expectations of senior executives and other staff
  • Increasing executive accountability
  • Using innovative ‘enablers’ like green finance models, data software and internal carbon pricing
  • Collaborating to tackle Scope 3 emissions

You can read edie’s full coverage of the Engie Impact report here.

Promisingly, the new Sphera survey results reveal that almost three-quarters (73%) of the businesses covered are already exploring or implementing measures to address Scope 3 emissions. More than four in ten of the operations managers participating in that survey said they are already in sustainability-related discussions with suppliers directly.

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