What is carbon net zero and why should you care?

What is Carbon Net Zero & why should you care? You should!

Net Zero Carbon is the new ethical frontier that all of us ( government, consumers, business ) will have to comply with over the next decade. Why? Well, partly because the UK has signed up to be net zero carbon by 2050. More importantly, because consumers are expecting the companies they choose to buy from to act responsibly in a world in which we live, and our children will later inherit. Similar to earlier matters such as ethical sourcing, diversity & provenance, net zero carbon is becoming a brand level requirement.

The UK was the first major economy to pass laws to end contribution to global warming – Net Zero Carbon. The target will require the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, compared with the previous target of at least 80% reduction from 1990 levels.

What exactly is Net Zero Carbon?

The Carbon trust describes it as ‘an ambition in need of a definition’; it is a work in progress. The Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) offers the best current working definition of Net Zero Carbon (see inset) but everyone from the UN Climate Action Summit to the We Mean Business Coalition has a different view on this debate. Ultimately it will come down to business to implement. So, in practise it means getting carbon emissions out of your value chain. Even if you outsource production to places that use ‘dirty’ energy that does not get you off the hook.

SBTi defines net zero for a company as…

‘Achieving a state in which the activities within the value chain of a company result in no net impact on the climate from greenhouse gas emissions. This is achieved by reducing value chain greenhouse gas emissions, in line with 1.5°C pathways, and by balancing the impact of any remaining greenhouse gas emissions with an appropriate amount of carbon removals’.

What are the pathways to achieving Net Zero Carbon?

There are three:

  1. Reduce carbon emissions by, for example, moving from fossil to renewable energy.
  2. Use less energy by using it more efficiently.
  3. Offset carbon produced by doing things that take CO2 out of the atmosphere e.g. plant a forest, grow a living roof.

Everyone agrees that reduction is better than removal, i.e. produce less greenhouse gas rather than offset it. The reason for offset being an option is that some industry sectors, aviation for example, will find it really hard to reduce emissions so need another ‘green’ option. Here’s a simple model to give you a steer on the best lead strategy for reducing or removing CO2. It is an indicative rather than definitive guide but helps to position the options. Incidentally, do not treat these as mutually exclusive. As an example, energy efficient systems are probably good in all scenarios.

There’s always a but…

In this case the conundrum is that in decarbonising by, say, moving from oil fired to wind & solar you could actually push up energy bills. The point is that net zero carbon needs a multi-faceted approach; reduce consumption, change ‘dirty’ to ‘clean’ plant & systems and offset where necessary.

Is there any good news in this?

Yes. Reducing energy by eliminating wastage and implementing more efficient means of heat, light & power use is not just good for the environment, it is good, very good actually, for the P&L. In three of the four boxes above, everything except offset, reducing consumption by using less energy to create the same output as you currently do either by investing in energy efficiency or by reducing unnecessary demand, has a positive hit on the P&L as much as it does on greenhouse gas emissions.

The lesson here is that it is not possible to address a net zero carbon agenda unless you have an energy efficiency agenda. Reducing emissions by increasing energy bills would be a dereliction of duty, so how do you do it?

If it does not get measured it won’t get done

Nothing new in that. Energy monitoring systems have been around for a while, but they have not really been fully embraced by UK plc. Estimates are that only 7% of UK firms have an active energy monitoring and management system in place. Most boards are fixated on managing the cost of energy down via tariff negotiations but too few see managing demand in the same light. That is an opportunity and putting a cutting -edge system into the firm’s energy management infrastructure is fully compatible with insourcing day to day energy management or outsourcing it to an FM provider. Conversely, not managing a reduction in demand by behaviour change and technological improvement is simply incompatible with any net zero carbon agenda.

Knowledge = Cash

Energy monitoring systems have moved from simple rules based, binary systems to AI based learning systems. The best of them not only analyse consumption data, they turn that data into recommendations and instructions that are set up to go straight to the FM outsource firm or the internal resource for each anomaly found, whilst simultaneously storing and curating consumption and emission data across the estate for use in investment appraisal, project validation and performance improvement. And they are not expensive. No capex is required as AI replaces the need for hardware with payback usually in the first year of implementation and fees around 5-10% of savings identified. Getting a 21st century monitoring platform in place is step 1 to implementing a Net Zero Carbon initiative. The journey of a thousand leagues begins with a single footstep.

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