Seven top tips for kick-starting your organisation’s net-zero transition

Last year, dozens of 'climate emergency' declarations were made by governments, local authorities, political parties and businesses. But how can sustainability, CSR and energy professionals help their organisations respond to these declarations with ambitious, impactful and long-lasting actions?

Seven top tips for kick-starting your organisation’s net-zero transition

Pictured L-R: ClimateCare CEO Vaughan Lindsay; IFC director Ousseynou Nakoulima; Interface's Erin Meezan; Vattenfall's Annika Ramskold and Futerra's Solitaire Townsend discussing how businesses can respond to the climate emergency. 

That was a key discussion point at day one of edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum, where more than 300 attendees from across the field gathered to gain inspiration and practical advice for solving some of the world’s biggest environmental challenges.

During a panel discussion this morning (4 February), expert speakers from Vattenfall, Interface, the IFC, International Airlines Group (IAG) and Climate Care discussed how businesses can make a coordinated, collective response to the climate emergency.

Panellists discussed the importance of transforming business models if necessary; pushing Governments for ambitious policies that provide long-term clarity; asking for support from the right investors; and considering any unintended social consequences to ensure a just transition.

But these are, ultimately, longer-term measures. With the UK having legislated for net-zero less than a year ago, the top question from the audience was: where should sustainability professionals begin when kick-starting journey towards a big climate target, be that net-zero emissions, net-negative emissions or net-positive impact?

Here, edie rounds up some of the panellists’ key advice on this topic.

1) Be patient

Interface’s chief sustainability officer Erin Meezan told of how peers were often quick to praise Interface’s Carbon Take-Back scheme and seek to replicate it within their own organisation, without recognising the “groundwork”.

The process of conceptualising the scheme, achieving boardroom buy-in, finalising and finally announcing, she explained, took 18 months.

“Planning for the fact this was going to be a long process, planning for inputs to develop processes, and planning leverage around the business opportunity of carbon-negative products, is how we were able to get our CEO to stand up publicly and talk about reversing climate change,” she said.

2) Don’t forget the human element

Part of the reason Interface’s process was so lengthy – but that the scheme is now delivering transformative change for the firm – is because Meezan and her team took a “human” approach to the C-suite, she explained.

She said: “How do we make space for leadership to ask the sustainability questions they think are really dumb? To get past ‘I don’t know’? That is really critical.

“We had a small, very safe-space meeting with our CEO, other senior colleagues and environmental advisors, where we talked about the science of climate and the pathway to solving it. We got so much information about closed-door challenges from our colleagues.”

3) Contextualise your big target(s)…

Vattenfall’s big target is to enable fossil-free living within a generation.

The firm’s vice president of corporate responsibility, Annika Ramskold, explained that this vision was developed with climate science in mind, and in the context of falling costs for low-carbon technologies like wind, solar and batteries. Changing policy was also considered, but Ramskold advised against “acting because you are forced”, which may be perceived as greenwash by customers and a chore by colleagues.

She summarised: “With everything that’s going on in the world pushing us to be carbon neutral or net-positive, you already have a good starting point from which to ask: ‘what will we need to do differently?’”

Interface’s Meezan agreed, emphasising the importance of considering other sustainable business targets in goal-setting.

“It’s helpful to show your leadership team what market peers are doing, not to keep pace, but to identify gaps and how you can fill them meaningfully.”

4) … And back it up with a roadmap

Since setting its net-zero goal last year, the UK Government has come under increasing pressure to outline how it will deliver. Short and medium-term strategies for high-carbon sectors – complete with time-bound numerical targets – are in high demand, particularly as the UK is currently set to miss its fifth carbon budget.

For Meezan, the same is true of boards. She explained how a big, bold target is likely to spur broader and faster action, but that forecasting the shape this action could or should take will make for easier pitching.

“Showing up and talking to your leadership team at the front-end with a process – and showing how that process will ladder up to provide the right level of information – is key,” she said.

Meezan also said that roadmaps or processes should not be developed in isolation, but with inputs from the sustainability team, wider employee base, and external research. This will keep them context-based.

5) Broaden your horizons

IFC director Ousseynou Nakoulima highlighted the uptick in climate awareness and demands from investors over the past year, particularly among pension funds.

He told of how many funds are now looking at 100-year horizons, in contrast to FMCG firms, which may only be concerned with quarterly or annual results.

This shift in perspectives, he said, will make for easier buy-in for projects which prioritise long-term value over short-term profits.

Vattenfall’s Ramskold agreed, but noted that the definition of “mid-term” or “long-term” would vary by business size and sector. Vattenfall, for example, is now looking to a 15-year horizon – longer than when it was founded, but not as long as firms in sectors such as finance or the built environment.

6) Take a multi-pronged approach, complete with partnerships

When asked whether businesses should prioritise shorter-term projects like offsetting or addressing “low-hanging fruit” in terms of energy and material efficiencies; or put all efforts into long-term transformation, Climate Care’s CEO Vaughan Lindsay said this was a false dichotomy. He urged, instead, a three-pronged approach: measure, set long-term reduction targets, and take immediate action.

“We are way past the point of saying ‘should we do this or that’ – we need to do both,” he said.

Vattenfall’s Ramskold agreed, adding that any ambitious approach should drive change not only within the business, but across the value chain.

“Ask which sectors you interact with that need to transform,” she said. “Then, find partners in each and every one of those sectors.”

7) Be prepared to change your business model in the long term

Although the question was around setting goals, panellists concluded that implementing them is likely to be a far lengthier process and require transformational changes to business mindset and model.

Anecdotes were told around re-training procurement, finance, marketing and sales teams to prioritise climate requirements and to deliver a positive, joined-up message. Nakoulima highlighted the need to invest in emerging technologies to deliver truly “game-changing” progress beyond internal operations.

While these activities may initially be seen as a risk, chore or extra cost by boards, Ramskold said these barriers could be overcome by changing where sustainability sits in the business – which can pave the way for a smooth business model shift.

“You need to create a vision of where the business needs to be and is going to be, then you know the business is going to transform. You need to change your business models – ask where others can use your core model, service or product in a net-zero world.”

Sarah George

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