Five key considerations for businesses attempting to reach net-zero emissions
Last week saw edie host a webinar on the UK's 2050 net zero carbon ambitions. Here are five key takeaways from the live question and answer event, which featured Skanska, Nottingham City Council, Business in the Community, and sponsor Ørsted.
Against a backdrop of weekly climate strikes and protests and the UK Government officially passing a net-zero emissions target into law, edie's latest webinar was the perfect time to discuss how businesses can respond to the "climate emergency".
During the discussions, Nottingham City Council’s head of energy services Wayne Bexton, Skanska’s UK carbon management Conor McCone, Business in the Community’s (BITC) environment director Gudrun Cartwright and Orsted Customer Solutions’ UK managing director Ashley Phillips answered audience questions on how businesses can set up strategies and communication platforms to respond to the ongoing declarations of a climate emergency and help drive progress towards the Paris Agreement.
Here, edie summarises the webinar and offers five key takeaways as to how businesses can play their part in responding to the climate emergency.
1) Is net zero by 2050 ambitious enough?
An online poll was sent to the readers at the start of the webinar to gauge whether sustainability professionals thought the 2050 net-zero carbon target recently announced by the UK government was ambitious enough.
The response from listeners was almost 50/50 with 48.2% of the audience believing that it was ambitious enough and 51.8% thinking that it was not.
When quizzed on the issue, the speakers had a range of opinions. Ashley Philips from Ørsted said that net zero would require “huge transformation and investment”.
Phillips said: “We need to set long-term policy and business leaders and government need to work together to set goals.”
Philips also highlighted the investment in the UK offshore wind sector, which had long-term support from the government in terms of development and construction, and as a result, 30% of renewable energy by 2030 could come from this energy stream – showcasing how “if we do it right, we can be more ambitious”.
Conor McCone, carbon manager for construction firm Skanska, which has set its own carbon-neutral goals, believed the 2050 goal was ambitious enough.
“It is extremely ambitious,” he said, “and I know there has been some criticism that it needs to be sooner – but we are talking about a complete societal shift.
“We are going to have to change how we move people around, how we live our lives is going to have to change within 30 years. It is a short amount of time when we are changing the mindset of an entire nation,” he concluded.
McCone also said Skanska’s target was not ‘combative’ for the construction sector, and instead the firm saw it as a collaborative goal. When talking about the supply chain, a key and ambitious plank of Skanska’s target to reach net zero, McCone said in the past the supply chain had been able to “burden shift” and blame each other – but if everyone gets on board, and if the industry reacts well, there is no reason why the 2050 target can’t be bought forward.
Gudrun Cartwright of the BITC said though that the 2050 target could be more ambitious. She said setting more ambitious targets would actually help make it easier in the long term. Also, there had been a lot of discussion about the costs to get to net zero, but no discussion about the costs of climate change mitigation and not driving down carbon. She referenced Greta Thunberg’s comments to politicians, saying “You keep telling us what you think is realistic, rather than what needs to be done,” and also environmentalist Bill McKibben: “The problem is we are negotiating with science, and there is no wriggle room”.
Wayne Bexton of Nottingham City Council agreed with Cartwright, saying that the local authority had set a very ambitious target to become carbon neutral by 2028, in the hope that it could also scaled-up its goals prior to the date. He also said it was about collaboration, and embedding the thinking about net zero into housing and other local authority action.
2) Housing and transport are crucial – but so are building products
Considering that the built environment accounts for around 40% of emissions, any net-zero target will likely require transformation in the sector.
McCone of Skanska said: “We need to get better at building homes with the right glazing and materials from the outset’, but there were other issues, specifically around building products and how they were created. Concrete was crucial – as was steel – and the carbon used to create them, which we don’t have the answer to yet.
He also said that going electric doesn’t solve the issue completely, and incentives for our supply chain are there, but the industry just isn’t there yet.
Speaking about transport and housing, Wayne Bexton said it was a ‘huge issue’. A £6m grant in the city of Nottingham for charging infrastructure and a workplace parking levy in Nottingham hopes to increase its electric vehicle levels, Bexton noted. An electric taxi fleet and tram network were also being looked at by the council, which meant that the local authority did not have to put in place a Clean Air Zone, unlike other cities.
Bexton also referenced a ‘deep’ retrofit model for housing called Energiesprong, which although currently being ‘extremely expensive’, was being put in place with European Regional Development Funds for 150 houses, enabling the council to retrofit 1960s properties into 2050 net zero carbon compliant homes.
3) Sourcing renewables energy easily – can it be done?
With a recent edie report finding that a third of commercial occupiers hadn’t approached landlords about switching to renewable energy and more than two-thirds (69%) said it was challenging to know who to speak to within landlord organisations about energy contracts, with the topic of procuring renewables was a key aspect of the webinar.
Ashley Phillips from Orsted said that we need to ensure that SMEs have access to renewable energy. He also referenced that National Grid has said that a carbon-free grid can be achieved by 2025 – which will open the doors to new technologies. He also said that hydrogen was crucial – and a whole collection of products needed to change in order to achieve net zero.
Orsted was also keen to highlight how the investment will pay back through greater levels of health, mitigating climate change, and ensuring that flooding and other issues will be alleviated as a result of the drive to net zero.
Cartwright from the BITC said there ‘were challenges’ around renewable energy and infrastructure, including incentives. She referenced the VAT increase on battery storage systems as a good example of this problem.
She also said that “we forget to think about behavioural change – and we forget that using less is a big issue too”. She talked about how building fabric can be changed, too, alongside products such as lighting, to reduce energy use. Also, the unintended consequences are very important – for example, the demand for cobalt and other materials being under pressure as a result of the drive to net zero.
4) Will embodied carbon play a role?
Cartwright’s comment about the environmental cost of making certain low-carbon products led to a discussion about embodied carbon. Skanska’s McCone said that embodied carbon was something “People don’t normally look at”. He said that Skanska had looked at procurement data for the last ten years to assess it.
McCone said operational carbon was fine to reduce, but trying to reduce embodied carbon in steel is hard, and getting clients interested in less carbon-intensive materials is important to move this issue forward in the net-zero drive. Lower carbon often also means lower cost and energy, he said, so you are often saving money for clients too – so it can often be a win-win for reducing carbon and financial benefits.
Wayne Bexton said planning policy was a critical piece of it – and also procurement. “Everything we are involved within” looks at carbon issues, he said.
Even the definition of ‘carbon neutral’ needs to be looked at, Bexton said. He gave the example of a ‘scatter’ tool that was about to be launched that allows companies to input data and understand exactly where carbon was coming from.
Ørsted's Phillips said that embodied carbon ‘remains’ a challenge. The firm was working with academics at Oxford University to use less steel and make more carbon efficient manufacturing of products – and it is also looking at progressing hydrogen technology in the manufacture of steel to further reduce it. Also, other carbon reduction techniques could be used, such as using drones and ensuring maintenance ships are on longer trips out at sea to reduce embedded carbon numbers in the creation of the infrastructure, Philips said.
Cartwright said the “low-carbon solution is often the best solution in terms of cost” for businesses. She also mentioned what National Grid had done in terms of tools to ensure embodied carbon was reduced.
5) Carbon Capture and Storage – can we do more?
The webinar came on the day that the government announced funding for new carbon capture and Storage projects, and the issue came up on the webinar.
Philips said ‘there is not going to be one solution’ to solve the issue of carbon capture. He said we ‘still exist in a world where gas is a transition fuel’. ‘Is it the long term answer?” He said, “I don’t know”. But he did say that it could be crucial in the overall journey in time towards a net zero goal overall.
Wayne Bexton said that the collaborative approach was important for CCS. The city of Nottingham was piloting a vehicle-to-grid model, where a battery storage system discharged Nissan Leafs into the grid.
"There is a commercial model there,” he said, “but there is also a carbon angle too. The software is out there, but if we can prove that the technology works at scale, that will be great.”
McCone said carbon capture doesn’t just have to be used in power generation but can also be used in manufacturing – for example, the zero-emissions cement plant in Norway.