First steps: What must businesses focus on now to deliver a net-zero UK by 2050?
According to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the UK's delivery against its 2050 net-zero target will require "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society" - but where, exactly, should the business response start?
That was the key discussion point for a panel of energy experts at edie’s SPARK 2.0 event in Birmingham late last week.
Hosted in a bid to collaboratively spark ideas and innovations to accelerate the business path to net-zero, the one-day event for members of edie’s Energy Leaders Club began with a rousing keynote speech from the REA’s chief executive Nina Skorupska and continued with a panel discussion featuring expert representatives from TechUK, the Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE), the Energy Institute and the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (LowCVP).
With individual businesses, trade bodies and green think-tanks alike having all criticised the Government for failing to lay out sector-specific short-term and medium-term roadmaps for reaching net-zero by mid-century, members of the panel were asked to summarise the areas they believe businesses need to be focusing in on now – with or without policy support.
Here are there five key “focus areas” for businesses of all sizes and sectors, whether they’re aiming for net-zero in line with the Government’s deadline or striving to meet a more ambitious timescale.
Road transport – particularly light-duty vehicles
As expected, LowCVP’s policy & operations director Jonathan Murray began the debate by highlighting the urgency of decarbonising what is currently the UK’s most-emitting sector: transport. The sector overtook power as the most-emitting sector in 2016, with key barriers to decarbonisation on roads including the upfront cost of electric vehicles (EVs), range anxiety and a lack of supporting investment in infrastructure.
Amidst this challenging backdrop, Murray urged businesses to focus on decarbonising their light-duty vehicles by 2025 “ideally” and 2030 “at the latest”, arguing that this sub-sector is “a sweet spot for policy and technology, where most of the progress has been focused”.
While admitting that “the Department for Transport hasn’t figured out how net-zero fits into its strategy” and that the body currently has “a plan for a plan”, businesses across the automotive sector have helped to bring technologies such as innovative fuels, retrofitting solutions and modern EVs to industrialisation – making them ready for investment.
As for heavier vehicles, Murray believes progress in this space is likely to continue to be slower. Citing the examples of UPS and John Lewis & Partners, he said: “There are some great solutions out there and some fleets that are really leading the way. Those are fantastic, but what we need to do is highlight these champions and use them as best practice examples, to bring that whole industry along. It’s a challenge because fleet managers, traditionally, managed diesel. We’ve got to get off that hook because this will start to set the direction of travel.”
The skills gaps of the present and future
BT is currently running a communications campaign – its biggest in two decades – which states that the jobs people will be taking in ten years’ time are likely to be vastly different from those required today.
That point was echoed by The Energy Institute’s external affairs director Nick Turton, who said: “The sort of roles that are going to be needed for this herculean task [of meeting net-zero] are very different today to what they were ten years ago, and will be very different, again, in ten years’ time.
“Convergence between sectors and the complexity this will require, particularly in terms of data, are going to be fundamental differences.”
In order to prepare for this shift, Turton urged listeners to ensure their organisations are taking a people-focused approach to net-zero, supporting their existing staff with training and constantly horizon-scanning to determine how their future teams could be laid out. He additionally highlighted the importance of “embedding” the spirit of public-led climate activism across all aspects of the business, demonstrating to prospective employees that your organisation sees reaching net-zero as “existentially and reputationally” vital.
Misconceptions and negative perceptions
The REA’s Skorupska also spoke of the importance of a people-focused approach, arguing that businesses should focus on bringing their customers and the general public on the net-zero journey as well as their staff.
She said: “One of our members did a survey of 2,000 members of the UK general public – 73% of whom said ‘the climate emergency is really important, so guess what? We should tackle plastics.’
“That is the only thing which they think, at the moment, will help address net-zero. Only 4% of them were aware about switching to a renewable energy provider.
“We’ve got a lot to do, but businesses have fantastic opportunities in all their different touch-points with the public to help get this message across – that net-zero isn’t a burden, but quite an exciting opportunity.”
Context-specific definitions, partnerships and innovations
TechUK’s associate director for climate, environment and sustainability Susanne Baker echoed Turton’s sentiments around “riding the swell of public interest” in climate issues and agreed with his assertion that this movement seems to be “more permanent” at present than it was when the original Climate Change Act was ratified in 2008. For Baker, this shift is bolstered by the creation of the UK’s post-Brexit climate watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP).
But she also noted that even the best-prepared businesses for this movement are struggling to identify how they could take the “unprecedented” transition to net-zero.
“For the tech sector, the focus in recent years has been around science-based targets,” Baker said. “That has been challenging enough, but net-zero is a whole different kettle of fish, and, to be honest, a lot of our members are still working out what this means for them.”
Baker explained that the majority of the companies which work with TechUK could single-handedly develop a context-specific definition of net-zero, along with a roadmap detailing key partnerships which will need to be forged and innovations which will need to be implemented, within a two-to-three-year window. She emphasised the importance of starting on such a piece of work immediately.
Flexible energy approaches
In line with the REA’s calls to action in its recent ‘Flexible Futures’ report, the Association for Decentralised Energy’s (ADE) senior policy manager Caroline Bragg emphasised the importance of business contributions to the creation of a more flexible energy system being made within the coming years.
She said that network operators are now “actively trying to understand how they get businesses more involved to help it meet system operability challenges” as more renewable generation comes online and as sectors such as transport are electrified, with the operating firm for the National Grid notably targeting net-zero by 2025.
“It’s a really good opportunity for us to set out what we need from the ESO to participate effectively,” Bragg said. “What we also have are the DNOs, who, again, have gone from putting cables in the ground to exploring what a being a DSO means and how they can get business involved to avoid putting cables in the ground.”
Bragg additionally highlighted the importance of continued energy efficiency improvements in any business model for flexible energy, calling for a “patchwork of solutions”.
UK-based organisations already offering flexible energy services or assets include the likes of Asda, Glasgow City Council and a string of SMEs in Cornwall, where the local DSO and the National Grid ESO this month procured flexible green energy from businesses and households simultaneously for the first time.
edie’s Net-Zero November
SPARK 2.0 forms part of edie’s Net-Zero November, a month of content and events to inform and inspire sustainability professionals to push towards net-zero. You can read all our Net-Zero November content here.
Additionally, if you have a net-zero carbon target, or a commitment to set one, that has recently been announced you can add it to our Mission Possible Pledge Wall here.