The race to net zero

As pressure mounts for businesses to set net-zero targets, Lucy Kirkup from ClimatePartner explains why they should be at the top of every CEO’s to-do list

Imagine a bathtub. By plugging the drain and turning on the taps, you’ll be able to run the water to your desired level. But if the taps were broken, the tub would overflow. If the drain was unplugged, and the taps were running to expel the exact amount of water to ensure the level remained at a constant balance, the tub would be at net zero. 

Bringing this analogy to reality, humans are the taps, the water is carbon dioxide (CO₂) and the tub is the earth’s atmosphere. We need to find and execute solutions to ensure that we are not emitting too many carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Although we cannot stop all carbon emissions, we can implement frameworks to create a balance, through carbon sequestration. Achieving this balance is key to the survival of our planet, and all the species that inhabit it.


Understanding the target

Net zero is essentially when a company or country looks to reduce its emissions as much as technically and financially possible, by offsetting residual emissions through removal technologies, such as afforestation or carbon capture.

The definitions of net zero and carbon neutral can often seem hard to differentiate, but Lucy Kirkup, Commercial Sustainability Manager at ClimatePartner, assures us that the difference can easily be distinguished. She says: “Net zero is when a company only emits what is completely necessary — because there are obviously unavoidable emissions when you run any sort of business.

“Carbon neutrality, on the other hand, is when a company has measured its emissions to receive its total footprint, to understand how many tonnes of CO₂ it has previously emitted. By utilising a variety of projects, it can then work to offset these emissions, for example by investing in wind energy or afforestation.” 

Another way to understand the difference is to see carbon neutrality as something that companies can achieve today, whereas net zero is a long-term goal. ClimatePartner works with companies that are already carbon neutral, and helps them create a roadmap to achieve their net-zero goals.


Credit: Getty Images

The value of zero

In 2021, world leaders met at COP26 to discuss the Paris Climate Agreement, which unites all nations to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects. One of the key goals of the Paris Climate Agreement is to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, but based on current policies, we’re on a trajectory towards 2.7°C. Net zero is imperative for mitigating this.

The earth is heating up quickly, and essentially, the hotter things get, the harder it will be for all living things to thrive. If company leaders continue to turn a blind eye, we can expect more extreme weather, such as hurricanes, storms, floods and wildfires, as well as the rise of sea levels, within the next few decades. People in poorer regions of the world will also be hit the worst. 

“In Bangladesh, for example, there's a lot of crops that have been completely wiped out by floods. Humans will also see an impact on food supply, as there will be less [crop yield]. So, we are potentially looking at a food crisis where prices soar — particularly for meat and dairy products,” Lucy says. “In terms of plants and animals, if the temperature rises above 2°C, the geographic range of vertebrates will decline by 8%, plants by 16% and insects by 18%.”


Benefiting business

If the idea of living in a dystopian world doesn't hammer home the importance of net-zero targets, then hopefully businesses can get behind the profitability benefits. Strong sustainability credentials offer a competitive edge, as more consumers are seeking cleaner and greener lifestyles through their product choices. In a recent survey, Deloitte shared that 45% of consumers purchase locally-sourced products where possible, 61% limit their single-use plastic use, and 34% choose brands with strong sustainability values and practices. 

Many countries, including the UK and US, have goals to achieve net zero no later than 2050. As we draw closer to the target, prices for energy sourced from fossil fuels will continue to rise, which will eat into a business’s bottom line if action is not taken. 

Large companies receive a great amount of pressure to reduce their climate impacts, yet every business — no matter the size — has a responsibility to work towards a net-zero target. Having a clear goal helps companies keep track of their progress — so rather than aiming to reduce emissions year on year, a detailed plan will help position the target as a long-term strategy. 

Credit: Getty Images

“Companies of all sizes should have net-zero goals in mind,” says Lucy, “and although some companies are ahead of the curve with their targets, others are lagging behind. At ClimatePartner, we help companies plan short-term steps to progress, to help net zero seem like an attainable goal. In fact, roughly 60% of the companies we work with are SMEs.” 

Net zero has become a buzzword word for companies trying to strengthen their eco credentials, yet this can often resort to greenwashing — the process of using false or misinformation to wrongly enhance sustainability impact. To avoid this, CEOs and senior company leaders should ensure their net-zero targets are third-party audited, while demonstrating complete transparency. 

Becoming net zero can seem like a daunting task for businesses that haven’t started their journey yet, but Lucy lends a few words of advice: “Net zero is not an easy target to attain, so it needs to be taken seriously. I would also recommend working with third parties and networking as much as possible, as we all need to help and support each other. 

“Of course, it’s also important to utilise new technologies and solutions. There are definitely a lot of quick wins for companies, such as switching to renewable energy, but some aspects are a lot harder to solve, such as decarbonising products and finding more sustainable suppliers.”


Future targets 

By setting net-zero targets, CEOs will leverage the current benefits of their sustainability credentials, as environmental, social, and governance (ESG) becomes more important to investors, and more sustainable products will gain the attention of consumers. 

“Businesses need to prioritise their approaches, by setting clear targets sooner rather than later,” Lucy says. “For all of us at ClimatePartner, we’d like to encourage companies to begin their journeys to net zero. It can seem overwhelming at first, but once the first steps are taken and a plan is in place, the target gets much clearer.”


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