Dissecting the challenge: How Sky is approaching its net-zero target

EXCLUSIVE: Sky is facing the daunting task of engaging with 11,000 companies and 24 million customers as part of its new commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030. The group's head of responsible business Fiona Ball outlines how Sky is "dissecting" this target to manage the transformation.

Dissecting the challenge: How Sky is approaching its net-zero target

Sky will target a 50% absolute reduction in emissions by 2030

On 4 February, Sky announced its new commitment to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2030 through strategies to make its products more energy efficient, its film and TV more sustainable and by engaging consumers and the value chain to “go zero”.

The commitment, unveiled via a four-page wrap-around front cover on the London Evening Standard amongst more traditional media methods, will see its entire fleet of 5,000 vehicles transition to zero emissions by 2030. Other initiatives include making the technology products Sky offers and launches more efficient, while TV and film recorded by the broadcaster will also be covered under the net-zero carbon ambition.

Importantly, the ambition features a 50% absolute reduction in emissions by 2030, which will be verified by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) as aligned to the highest pathway of the Paris Agreement.

It’s quite a step change. For Sky’s head of responsible business and Sky Ocean Rescue Fiona Ball, discussions on the target have been around 18 months in the making, but engaging with the value chain to be able to extend the net-zero aspiration has taken much longer.

“Sky is a young and innovative company and we’ve set really bold targets before,” Ball tells edie, alluding to the company’s decision to remove all single-use plastics from its products, operations and supply chain by 2020. “We wanted to make sure [net-zero] was right for us, and that it was credible. There are ways you can get there faster than others, but for us, it had to be credible and backed up with the science.

“Before we could have any kind of idea on our target, we really had to engage with the supply chain and the product area of our business. We’ve written to all key suppliers because we want to work with them to set net-zero targets. You won’t achieve anything by walking away from people, every business needs to take a leadership position on this.”

Value chain approach

Ball notes that the net-zero target is unlike anything the business has set before. Businesses tend to focus on “incremental targets”, she notes, but a successful approach to this ambition would be to “dissect the challenge into pieces that are manageable”.

One of the pieces that has been a primary focus for Ball is embedding the targets across the company. Back in October, Sky’s chief executive Jeremy Darroch hinted that the company was exploring a net-zero target and work has been done since then to formalise the target and get that much-needed buy-in from the board.

Darroch is a WWF ambassador and his involvement and passion in Sky’s sustainability work have helped embed previous strategies across the business, but Ball notes that one major piece of work currently underway is to “embed the target into the culture of the business”.

That work entails making every worker aware of the target and the role they can play in helping to deliver it. Engaging with those who have direct touchpoints with suppliers and external organisations is going to be key to the success of Sky’s net-zero target.

Ball revealed that Sky has been measuring emissions across the value chain for the past five years, with data publicly available. Sky engages with more than 11,000 companies across its entire value chain and their emissions account for 34% of the total value chain carbon footprint.

Sky has already recorded a 55% reduction in carbon intensity and a 39% reduction in business travel emissions, but engaging with key suppliers provides a new opportunity to accelerate action against the net-zero commitment.

Out of the 11,000 companies that Sky works with, 300 account for 80% of the value chain emissions, many of which focusing on the product supply chain. Ball claimed that Sky has “really strong partnerships” with those companies, which should enable radical cuts in carbon emissions. Factories in China, for example, have already halved their energy use.

Role of offsets

The emissions reductions recorded by factories is a testament to Sky’s focus on absolute reductions.

Since the UK enshrined the national net-zero target into law, more companies have publicly set net-zero targets. In some cases, these more ambitious targets have seen businesses rely more heavily on offsetting to badge themselves as carbon neutral, often at the expense of tangible emissions reductions.

Sky became the world’s first carbon-neutral entertainment company in 2006 and offsets have played a part. The new net-zero strategy references offsetting as yet unavoidable carbon emissions and Sky will invest in and plant trees, mangroves and seagrass to offset.

Already, Sky’s Ocean Rescue arm has partnered with WWF on a new project aimed at restoring carbon-sequestering seagrass habitats in west Wales. More broadly, the Sky Rainforest Rescue campaign has saved one billion trees in Brazil which, according to Sky, absorbed 3.7m tonnes of carbon – 50 times the amount the broadcaster emitted through its direct business operations in 2017.

Ball explains that offsetting will have a part to play, but that Sky will focus on investing in restoration for carbon sequestration purposes.

“There will be some unavoidable emissions that we will offset,” Ball adds. “The key difference I think, is that any offsetting you do has to be around absorption of carbon in the atmosphere, which is around nature restoration. It’s a really important part of any sort of climate neutralisation and a healthy planet.

“So this won’t be your normal offsetting, which could be voluntary offsets in turbines or biomass. It is around investing and restoring nature.”

Part of the absolute reductions will focus on Sky’s building and facilities and its transport fleet. Sky is exploring how to add renewables to some buildings, both from procurement contracts and onsite installations. New studios, like Sky Studios Elstree, will also help deliver net-zero TV and film emissions due to the sustainability features added to those buildings.

For fleets, the transition to electric or hydrogen is underway, with Sky’s shuttle buses set to be replaced for low-emission variants this year.

In March 2018, Sky announced a £25m “anchor commitment” and the launch of Sky Ocean Ventures. This impact investment fund aims to foster innovation by investing in entrepreneurs and start-ups that can showcase scalable alternatives. Ball hints that the investment initiative may soon extend to “broader climate issues” to assist with the net-zero ambition.

Customer engagement

The final piece of Sky’s net-zero puzzle is a big one. Businesses have been attempting to engage with consumers to deliver sustainable behaviour change for years, with differing levels of success.

Sky will attempt to engage its 24 million customers and “excite them” about the role they can play in creating a net-zero carbon world and used the #GoZero during the launch of the net-zero strategy to kickstart the engagement process.

Fortunately, the broadcaster can lean on previous successful engagement campaigns to assist with this task.

Consumers donated £9m to the Sky Rainforest Rescue campaign, for example, while as of January 2019 more than 33.5 million people had interacted with the Sky Ocean Rescue initiative across its core markets, with more than a million people engaging with Sky’s #PassOnPlastic campaign on Twitter.

Ball notes that renewables, the built environment, vehicles, food and nature are the five areas that Sky will attempt to influence customer behaviours to help combat climate change.

The 18 months it took to set Sky’s net-zero target has energised the company, but transforming the business and its value chain over the next decade will require hard work, with Ball claiming that Sky is up for the challenge.

“It’s really difficult to put your head above the parapet on these things,” she adds. “But it’s also really important that we get businesses to feel that we can make this move to get that ripple effect… It’s a bit of a leap of faith, but we’ve had some real positivity in the response.”

Matt Mace

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