Have you been asked about your “net-zero journey” yet? What goals you’ve set, how you’re planning to get there? Maybe a client or customer has enquired or you’ve been asked to outline your targets in a tender document or when seeking investment? Or maybe no-one’s raised this with you yet and you think you’re off the hook? There’s a reasonable chance you might be trying to avoid the question in the hope that it will go away, simply because you have no idea what any of it means or where to start.

Journeys that take us to unfamiliar places that we don’t know and never asked to go to, can be scary, but what if I told you that your net-zero journey needn’t be that frightening at all and that it is likely to bring you benefits and opportunities?

As the UK government has committed us to reach net zero by 2050, this is something we all need to get our heads around. So, no matter what sector your business is in or if it’s small, medium or large, it’s time to make sure you understand net zero and what it means for your business.

What exactly is net zero anyway?

Net zero is the term used for achieving a balance between all the greenhouse gas emissions we (as humans) put into the atmosphere and those we take out.

Why does achieving net zero matter?

Since the industrial revolution, we have hugely increased the emissions we put into the atmosphere, leading to global warming and a range of other conditions that we know as climate change. These emissions come from burning fossil fuels, agriculture, industry, transport, heating or cooling our homes and running our businesses. Back in 2009, world leaders recognised the need for us to limit those emissions to stop the planet warming to a degree that would be catastrophic for humans, animals and plants. They signed the Paris Agreement to commit to limit global warming to 1.5c above pre-industrial levels by 2050. In 2022, we’re already at 1.1c towards that limit, so there’s no time to waste.

What do we need to do?

We need to take stock of everything we do that produces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and so contributes to climate change. We need to measure that impact, make changes to reduce those emissions and when we can’t reduce any more, seek to support offsetting or sequestration projects that will store or absorb the excess carbon and help bring us back to a neutral state again. A best practice standard was set for this last year by the Science-Based Targets initiative.

I understand that none of this sounds simple and depending on your sector and industry, it may indeed be complex to get to grips with what emissions your company produces. That said, this is something we’ve all got to do and the sooner you get started, the sooner you can reap the benefits.

What if I told you that there are practical steps you can take to get your journey underway? Aside from the six steps I’ve outlined below, Business in the Community (BITC) has a more in-depth toolkit that’s worth a look and can help you take action through 10 steps in 10 weeks. Here’s a link to a jargon buster for some of the common terms that may not be familiar to you.

Step 1: Understand your emissions

Like anything in business, until you know how much you’re emitting, it’s difficult to do anything about it. Measuring emissions starts with categorising them into three categories called scopes. Scope 1 is emissions from facilities you own, so gas or oil used for heating, fuel used in business-owned vehicles or leaks from refrigeration or air conditioning for example. These are known as your direct emissions. Scope 2 emissions are indirect and come purely from purchased electricity for heating, cooling or steam.

These two are reasonably straightforward and you can get the information you need to measure these emissions from utility bills, fuel bills, and taking meter readings at your premises for example. These are also the two areas where it is easiest to reduce your emissions, but we’ll get to that later.

Scope 3 emissions are a little more complex and these sit completely outside your control. Also indirect, scope 3 emissions come from all the activities your business undertakes in order to produce its product or deliver its service. These are both upstream (purchasing and delivery of materials and supplies for example) and downstream (getting your products to market and their use by customers). Usually, scope 3 emissions will account for the majority of your company’s carbon footprint.

Start by identifying the sources of scope 1 and 2 emissions for now and when you have that in hand, move on to look at scope 3.

Step 2: Make a commitment 

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the goal of getting to ‘net zero,’ particularly if you’re in a small business that has limited resources and expertise in this area, but try to take things one step at a time and make small changes to start with. It all adds up. Once you’ve identified the sources of scope 1 and 2 emissions, think about what you can do to reduce those emissions and make a commitment.

Can you change any company-owned vehicles to electric, hybrid or maybe HVO to reduce emissions from your fleet? What about your electricity supplier? Are you on a renewable tariff? More of an investment, but a good longer-term option may be to investigate solar panels to help generate some of your own renewable electricity. Can you move from oil or gas to electric heating?

Many of these options could save you money in the longer term as well as reducing your emissions and helping you on your net-zero journey.

Your commitment may be to get to net zero in scopes 1 and 2 by 2030 or 2035 for example and across all scopes by 2045 or 2050, allowing yourself time to have discussions with customers and suppliers and them more time to make their own reductions.

Step 3: Bring your team along with you

The journey to net zero is one in which every part of your business has a role to play, so think about how you’ll engage people across different departments and consider setting up a ‘net-zero taskforce’ with champions from all areas of the business. If you’re too small an organisation for that to be feasible, ensuring that there’s a senior champion for your goal and someone who’s great at getting things done is the place to start.

Consider whether education would help to raise awareness and get people fired up. BITC offers accredited Carbon Literacy Training for companies of all sizes and this can be a great way to ensure your team understands the problem and is motivated and inspired to address it.

Step 4: Start talking to suppliers and customers

Depending on what sector you’re in, your clients or customers may already be asking you about your GHG emissions, or you may face questions in tenders. For your customers, your scope 1 and 2 emissions are part of their scope 3 and likewise, for you to get a full handle on your scope 3, you’ll need to reach out to your suppliers and others in your value chain to know what their scope 1 and 2 emissions are and what they’re doing to reduce them.

If your customers have made their own net-zero commitments at this stage, get ready for them to pass on targets to you, as they’ll need you to help them get there. Be prepared to help and support your own suppliers, particularly the smaller companies who may not have started their own journey yet.

In any case, the sooner you start to have conversations on this and ask questions, the faster others will join you on this journey.

Step 5: Set up your systems and get measuring

You’ve identified the sources of scope 1 and 2 emissions now and you should know where to get the data to measure these. Now set up systems for gathering that data – probably spreadsheets, but if you’re a larger or more complex business you might want to go a step further and invest in software that can help with this. SustainIQ is a local company that was set up to help companies measure, monitor and report on all aspects of their sustainability, including their emissions and it may be worth exploring what they can offer or looking to other potential providers of software solutions and support if you’re only interested in net zero for now.

Your measurements and approach should be in line with the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which is the best-practice standard for measuring emissions used by companies and countries across the world. You’ll find the latest conversion factors you need to do your calculations on the Gov.UK website.

If you don’t have the in-house expertise or time for this, it’s worth appointing someone to work with you on your net-zero goals. They should be able to help you identify emissions sources, measure your impact, develop an action plan and get your journey well and truly underway.

Step 6: Identify how you’ll offset and report on your efforts

Once you’ve made all the reductions you can, you’ll achieve the final step in your net zero journey by investing in projects to ‘offset’ or store the remaining carbon. It’s important to research this step carefully to be sure that you’re investing in credible projects that will truly help to make a difference.

You may also consider investing in some nature-based solutions as part of your own efforts, by installing a green roof on your office or planting trees and shrubs in your grounds for example, but it’s unlikely that these would be sufficient to get you to net zero. Check out this link to learn more about offsetting and the types of projects available.

Finally, report your progress – not just your achievements, but your targets and how you’ve fared against them. Sharing your journey with others helps to inspire and demonstrates the kind of transparency and openness that stakeholders increasingly demand.

If you’d like to learn more and discuss what help you might need, do get in touch for a chat. If what you need is beyond my expertise, I can refer you to a more suitable source of support. Get in touch at gillian@giraffeassociates.com.

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