Willmott Dixon: In 2022, we must move from talk to action on net-zero and the just transition

EXCLUSIVE: Willmott Dixon's chief sustainability officer Julia Barrett is urging peers to frame the recent COP26 talks and the growing corporate net-zero movement as "the end of the beginning", with the bulk of the delivery - the most important aspect - still to come.

Willmott Dixon: In 2022, we must move from talk to action on net-zero and the just transition

Willmott Dixon published its net-zero targets a little over a year ago

Contractor Willmott Dixon announced an updated sustainability strategy back in September 2020, attracting media coverage and attention from stakeholders with new commitments to a net-zero supply chain by 2040 and net-zero operations by 2030. These emissions goals were underpinned by what were described as the most ambitious science-based targets in the construction sector: a 100% reduction, without offsetting, for direct emissions, and a 55% reduction in indirect (Scope 3) emissions, by 2030.

Reflecting on progress more than a year on, the firm’s chief sustainability officer Julia Barrett tells edie: “It was very timely, I think, to launch then. We were just starting with our countdown to COP26 and we had about 1,600 people watching our launch webinar. This was unprecedented and goes to show what the appetite for sustainability was like at that point.”

Indeed, the corporate movement towards net-zero target setting has been growing exponentially since the UK became the first major economy to legislate for net-zero in 2019, in line with increased commitments from nations and states. Net-Zero Tracker’s stocktake last month revealed that the share of revenues from listed firms with net-zero targets of some kind has increased almost four-fold within a year.

Barrett, speaking to edie ahead of her appearance at the Sustainability Leaders Forum (scroll down for details), explains how Willmott Dixon was able to avoid some of the common pitfalls with business net-zero strategies, like a broad over-reliance on offsetting, a failure to address indirect emissions and failing to link social and environmental outcomes.

She tells of how it took more than two years to develop the strategy, which has helped to future-proof goals in spite of changes in policy and legislation, investor demands and technology improvements. On the policy side of things, the UK Government published a whopping 21 net-zero related documents in the space of 72 hours in the week beginning 18 October 2021. This was in addition to the Future Homes Standard and Future Buildings Standard, which had already been confirmed and will also have a bearing on Willmott Dixon’s approach.

“We didn’t quite predict the future, but, because of the research, engagement and listening work with a wide range of our stakeholders and with leaders in the industry and beyond, we set targets that have proven to be the right ones,” Barrett says.

“When writing strategies, it’s important to take the time to look forward, to seek input, to listen and engage with others. You can’t just set targets for the sake of it, or for the sake of having stronger numbers than competitors.”

On the just transition specifically, she adds: “Covid-19, Brexit, energy prices… however bad we thought things had been in the run-up to launching the strategy, it’s since been proven, time and time again, that those who are least able to respond to life’s challenges – local or global – are the ones who need the greatest level of help.”

Aside from reducing the environmental impact of operations and the supply chain, the new strategy – called ‘Now of Never’ – sets out social sustainability promises, too. There are plans to design buildings that improve the wellbeing of those using them, to upskill in the net-zero transition and to leave positive legacies in local communities.

Decade of delivery

As well as thoroughly engaging stakeholders throughout strategy development, Barrett urged her peers not to view developing and publishing goals as the end of a journey.

This point has been raised time and again in recent months, with nations under fire at COP26 for failing to align the world with the Paris Agreement’s temperature pathways. Rich countries were also accused of failing to move from talk to action on international climate finance and loss and damage commitments. The UN itself has called the 2020s the ‘decade of delivery’ for climate and the broader Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda. This same scrutiny, Barrett believes, is starting to be levelled at companies more often, amid growing public awareness of the climate crisis.

She explains: “The most important part of the strategy is not launching it – that is the end of the beginning. Delivery has to be the most important part.

“Yes, leadership involves setting well-informed strategies based on knowledge of where you are and where you want to be. But delivering against them, being very open, honest and transparent throughout, is key.

“We heard this from COP26. In a way, that summit was the end of the beginning. The most important thing we can do through to Egypt [in November 2022]… is to move from talking about and setting new Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to delivery. There were some superb pacts announced in Glasgow, but that is all they are until they are delivered.”

Barrett added that, although taking time to properly develop targets will increase the chances of delivery, “perfect should not be the enemy of good”. In other words, organisations waiting until they have a solution for every tonne of emissions before going beyond incremental change are likely to fall behind what is scientifically necessary and demanded by key stakeholders.

“If you set a big, hairy, audacious goal and really go for it, and fall slightly short, you’ll still have likely made it further than if you hadn’t tried,” she says, noting that her firm’s first sustainability strategy delivered a 57% reduction in construction waste intensity against a 60% target.

At edie’s Sustainability Leaders Award this year, Barrett took home the Sustainability Leader of the Year award. The judges were impressed with her thorough and bold approach in developing the ‘Now or Never’ strategy.

Aside from the points already mentioned, Barrett encouraged those developing new sustainability targets to:

  • Properly baseline current performance, in terms of cost as well as energy/carbon/waste
  • Go for low-hanging fruit in the first instance, but also consider the longer-term view in terms of science, regulation and the changing definition of leadership in your sector
  • Properly engage the board with this longer-term vision, so sustainability becomes part of the culture and “owned” by everyone, rather than a siloed add-on imposed from the top down

Register now for edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum 2022

edie’s biggest event of the year is returning as a live, in-person event for 2022. The dates have been moved from early February to March, to ensure collaboration and celebration can take place in person. 

The Sustainability Leaders Forum will now take place on 8 and 9 March 2022, and will unite hundreds of professionals for inspiring keynotes, dynamic panel discussions, interactive workshops and facilitated networking. There will also be digital tickets.

Taking place at London’s Business Design Centre, the event will feature more than 60 speakers, including experts from Natural England, the Green Finance Institute, the World Economic Forum and the Centre for Climate Repair. We’re planning our most diverse and inspirational programme yet.

Click here for full information and to book your pass.

Julia Barrett from Willmott Dixon will be appearing at 1.30pm on 8 March for a workshop on effective sustainability communications and engagement. She will be joined by experts from Merlin Entertainments and Say Do.

Sarah George

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