Why sustainability is important for businesses – but planting a tree isn’t the answer…

By Neil Bradbrook, MD, Ahead Business Consulting

As the dust settles on COP26, which rather predictably failed to fulfil hopes and promises, the obvious question is: what next?

Pandemics excepted, COPs normally take place every year. COP26 was important – not because Scotland was hosting, but because it is five COPs on from Paris, where it was agreed to limit the rise in global temperatures to two degrees. Glasgow should have been the Action Plan; the ‘How’.

There are still widely varying views on sustainability and what, if anything, individuals and business owners can do. Some believe the issue is not as bad as it’s painted; many ask what is the point if China and Russia refuse to play ball; others want to do something, but don’t know what; many are simply confused.

I’m not surprised – it is confusing. There are so many different terminologies: carbon neutral, carbon removal, carbon offset, net zero, to name but a few. They all mean different things but mostly what we hear about in the press is about businesses planting trees.

So, let’s clear that one up.  Planting trees is not the answer.

Obviously, it’s not a bad thing to plant more trees, but we produce far too much carbon for trees to be the solution. I won’t bore you with the maths, but to offset the carbon from UK households alone (ignoring businesses entirely), we would have to completely forest an area larger than Wales – and that’s assuming it had no trees already.

Across the planet, there is physically not enough space to plant the number of trees required to offset the carbon we produce.

On what, then, should we focus?

The key term is Net Zero. Offsetting carbon cannot solve the problem. The only solution is REDUCTION. The principle of Net Zero is to reduce carbon output first, aiming for at least a 90% reduction – then offsetting can be used for the last 10%. Businesses which boast about planting trees now are just indulging in PR spin, which is rightly denounced as “greenwashing”.

It is also reasonable to ask why businesses should care. And if the fact that sustainability is vital for the planet is not reason enough, here is another incentive: how about staying in business?

I am not being melodramatic. This is fact. The UK has already signed up to Net Zero by 2050 and, legally, every business must do the same.

That probably still feels like a long way off, so how about 2023 instead?  While COP26 may not have fulfilled all aspirations, a very significant announcement was made by Westminster just before the start of the conference, stating that all large businesses and public organisations must have a plan for Net Zero by 2023.

You may think that you are not a large business. But you probably do business with large businesses and public bodies – or, if not, you are likely to be a supplier to someone else who does – and true measurement runs end to end, including the full supply chain up and downstream.

This means that, if you want to be part of the supply chain, you must have a plan yourself.  And, by the way, most companies need to start planning a year before the deadline date – so if you haven’t got this in hand by the end of next year, your business probably won’t survive very long.

To make it real, Tesco already announced this step in October. If a business does not have a plan, and is not measuring and showing improvement, then it will no longer be accepted as a Tesco supplier from next year.

The next question, then is what we can and should do. And the first step in effecting change is to measure and understand the problem. This means you need to calculate your carbon output, and there are three scopes of measurement:

Scope 1.                 The actual carbon a business burns, such as gas usage for premises and vehicle fuel.

Scope 2.                 Indirect Carbon such as electricity usage, although if you use 100% renewable electricity this counts as zero.

Scope 3.                 Everything else upstream and downstream such as business travel or transportation of goods. Every item has a carbon value from its production.  This means EVERYTHING.

If every single business measured everything, then suddenly it would become a lot easier.   Expect regulation in the not-too-distant future which demands that every single item lists its carbon rating – just as we have the traffic light system on food today.

Once you know how big your carbon footprint is, and what is driving it, you can take action to reduce it. Next, set a target and a plan. Make it achievable but realistic. As this becomes more prevalent, both consumers and businesses will only want to deal with those taking action, so don’t leave this to the last minute.

Keep tracking and keep taking actions to reduce. Once you get down to the last 10%, then, certainly, go and plant some trees.

Here are three quick wins – and one challenge.

1.               Switch your electricity to 100% renewable guaranteed. It may cost a bit more, but you will immediately score zero on Scope 2. The challenge is that only 10% of our electricity production is from renewables. We can’t control that, but more demand will drive change.

2.               As your fleet of vehicles comes up for renewal, consider switching to electric.

3.               Consider business travel – do you really need to take that flight? Implement a policy which makes remote connections the default, and travel the exception.

In summary, don’t wait around – start your plan now. Don’t worry about what China is doing – focus on whatyou can do.  

Do it for the planet. Do it for your children. But do it for yourselves – if you don’t embrace Net Zero, you will be out of business in less than three years.