Emissions reduction: Spurred into action

2nd October 2020

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Stuart McQuillan

COVID-19 has catalysed emissions reduction efforts under the environmental sector's Pledge to Net Zero. Catherine Early reports

As the impacts of COVID-19 spread, fears grew that the momentum on tackling climate change would be lost. However, businesses in the environmental sector are finding it has given them an opportunity to accelerate action they were already considering as part of their Pledge to Net Zero.

Launched in November 2019, the pledge aims to galvanise action in the environmental services sector and make it a leader in the transition to a low-carbon economy. It commits organisations to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 2.5%, in line with what climate scientists have said is needed to keep temperature rises well below 2°C, as agreed by governments under the Paris Agreement. Targets must cover at least buildings and travel by UK teams.

The pledge is underpinned by the approach approved by the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTI), a mechanism by which companies can develop and officially validate targets. While offsets can be used for residual emissions, they must not count towards organisations' 2.5% reduction targets. Each year, signatories must publicly report their progress and publish thought leadership sharing best practice.

Showing leadership

The pledge is led by IEMA, the Society for the Environment, the Association for Consultancy and Engineering, the Environmental Industries Commission, and consultancies AECOM and WSP. More than 50 companies of all sizes have signed up.

The environmental services sector is playing catch-up on the issue, acknowledges Ryan Burrows, AECOM's sustainability and safety, health and environment manager. “By the time the pledge got under way, there were similar movements in existence. Some companies in the sector had made progress on reducing emissions, but others thought of it as something they talked about to clients but didn't do themselves. It's important that we show leadership – if we show we're doing the work ourselves, it has more legitimacy when we talk to clients about it.“

“It's important that we show leadership –if we show we're doing the work ourselves, it has more legitimacy when we talk to clients about it“

Joe Hague, quality and environment manager at Land Use Consultants (LUC), says that clients are increasingly asking the business about its response to the climate emergency. “Specific questions are starting to come through in tenders. Thankfully, we already had an answer – it could have caught us on the hop if we hadn't already signed up to the pledge, we would have had to get our house in order more quickly. I'd imagine that will redouble, particularly from local authorities, but also the private sector.“

Accelerated responses

Surveys have revealed mixed responses from businesses in terms of whether the pandemic will maintain their drive to make operations more sustainable or cause them to backtrack. A poll of 200 UK-based businesses carried out by cloud finance firm Ivalua revealed that 60% either decreased their investment in initiatives as a result of COVID-19, or were planning to, while the Climate Group found that 97% of employers were sticking to existing goals.

Signatories to the pledge report that emissions reductions from operations changes due to COVID-19 have accelerated measures they were already considering. Along with the obvious cuts associated with working from home and holding meetings online, they foresee that these benefits could have a much deeper impact if they become mainstream working practices.

Natalie Cropp, sustainability director at Tony Gee and Partners, says that the pandemic has led the engineering consultancy to become “pretty much paper-free“. “Working from home has pushed us to work more digitally across all parts of the business in terms of drawing mark-ups and approving invoices and purchases.“

The practice had already initiated a procedure for marking up drawings digitally, following suggestions from a student competition a couple of years ago, Cropp explains. It was starting to gain momentum, but since COVID-19 people have had to get used to it, and feedback has been positive. “It's an example of one of the things that we had already begun, but COVID has kick-started a much bigger effect.“

The pandemic forced LUC to accelerate plans to roll out video-conferencing to client work, rather than just using it internally, says Hague. “The pandemic has shown us what is possible if we have to force ourselves to reduce movement – it is still possible to run a business and keep society going. It's only now that we're starting to get the breathing space to see what lessons we can learn from this, and what adaptations we could build in the long-term while still having a fruitful working society.“

The firm has calculated that if its operations carry on in a similar way for the rest of the year, it will reach emissions reductions it had not expected to achieve till 2035. “But would you want to be in a situation where you couldn't travel at all?“ he asks. “It's a tricky one.“ While COVID-19 has started to have real policy change effects within the business, the jury is out on which parts will be locked in longer term, he adds.

Difficult calculations

Pledge signatories are also asking about how to account for home working emissions. Data for office emissions is already tricky to collect because many businesses rent their space, rather than owning it. “Energy use is controlled by our landlords – we're trying to ask them for green tariffs but we can't do much more, other than moving elsewhere,“ says AECOM's Burrows.

The firm is working out how to account for home working emissions. Offices can be more efficient than homes, as that is what they are designed for; much depends on how staff travel to work. Home working can be beneficial if it replaces a long commute by car, but not if replaces a short commute on foot or bike, Burrows points out. It is hard to find best practice guidance on this issue, so he thinks companies will deal with it in different ways.

Tony Gee is in a similar position, Cropp reports. It surveyed staff about their work set-ups and energy supplies, and plans to extrapolate that data to estimate emissions. “You can't use people's energy meters, as they'll be used for things other than working, but it's the best way that we've got at the moment.“ Nick Blyth, policy and engagement lead at IEMA, says that organisations need to work out what is fair when calculating emissions for the post-COVID-19 situation. “There are some core principles, and one is to be transparent about what you're doing and how you're communicating it.“

IEMA is aiming to restrict emissions in line with what is required to keep warming below 1.5°C, says Blyth. Its emissions baseline is 2019, when some home working occurred but it was not mainstream. However, the practice might become more permanent for IEMA's team of 35, he says.

“If we can make some of those changes stick, that'll be interesting. A lot of organisations will have been looking to bring in new ways of doing things over a five-year period, but COVID-19 is forcing them to bring that forward and suddenly they're doing it now, the year after the baseline was set. We can either all go back to the office and the emissions associated with that, or come up with a new approach to capture these gains. Hundreds of organisations will be thinking about that.“

Catherine Early is a freelance journalist.

Picture credit: Getty Images

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