Global Impact work with the UN sustainable development goals

2050 Zero-Carbon Targeting – Are You Serious!?

Media channels are regularly burdened with pronouncements from businesses, both large & not so large, proudly broadcasting their plans to be carbon-neutral by a date set comfortably in the future with many targeting 2050 (a year I despise, though only because I am unlikely to see it). Here are some prime examples of this particular genre;

Danone. “We are meeting this challenge (climate change) head on by committing to be carbon neutral by 2050”.

Maersk. “The world’s biggest container shipper, aims to be carbon neutral by 2050, in a challenge to the rest of the world’s fossil fuel-dependent fleet.” Reuters headlined one year ago.

Novo Nordisk. “We aim to set targets consistent with the 2 degrees reduction pathway towards 2050 ……”

Tesco. “We were the first FTSE100 company to set ambitious science-based targets to become a zero-carbon business by 2050”.

Contrast these self-congratulatory corporate statements with the observation of a 17 year old student, taking part in a sustainability debate. He was scathing. “That’s like the over-weight guy saying, “In 31 years I will be thin”. He won’t, he will be dead!”

Somewhat brutally, the student is highlighting the chasm between the differing perceptions of the corporate on the one hand and their audience on the other. In its simplest form the businesses in the headline seek to demonstrate their social responsibility (by committing to a zero-carbon target in over 30 years time) while the audience is left suspecting (or, worse still, believing) the corporate is setting CO2 neutrality so far in the future that the “carbon-neutral by” message becomes evidence of a lack of social responsibility.

Global Impact’s take on this conversation, which we often discuss, particularly with larger clients, is not that carbon-neutral targets are bad in themselves; far from it. Our concern is that a date set so far in the future becomes the story and obscures the steps being taken by remarkable management teams driving through sustainability-focused change to generate impactful sustainability outcomes in the short & medium terms.

And there are easy to identify themes justifying an intelligent drift away from this “carbon-neutral-by” fixation. I list here a limited sample of “warnings”, all of which should inform boardrooms and alert them to the need for caution when trumpeting long-date, zero-carbon targets.

  • The natural chaos of geo-political, economic & social forces will impact on us in ways we cannot yet comprehend, rendering many of today’s assumptions & intentions outdated long before 2050 arrives.
  • The markets in which our businesses operate are, by their nature, also chaotic; trends change, products become superfluous, customers & employees alter direction while commercial empires rise & fall spectacularly.
  • The fall-out from technological developments ‘coming our way’ is not predictable, meaning our corporations will most likely see their “best-laid-plans” thrown into disarray by risks and dangers we do not yet know exist but which will have to be face-down. (We need only look back to the plastics revolution for guidance – we loved it back in the 70’s & 80’s but it has become a curse today).
  • The climate upon which we all depend is changing erratically and impacts on us & our businesses in ways we are struggling to grasp now let-alone in 20 or 30 years.

Recognising these clear threats to long-term strategies, Global Impact clients are conditioned to prioritising & implementing short & medium-term sustainability steps in the context of a broader, flexible plan which, while paving the way toward a business’s carbon neutrality or other longer-term aspirations, nevertheless illuminate management’s determination to make sustainable changes that will have real outcomes in the foreseeable future.

Most SMEs we guide along their unique sustainability journey recognise what has been asserted above; not only that their business and the globe we call home will be a different place in 2050, but that the relationship between their business and customers, colleagues, communities, technological innovation & the planet, will be unimaginably different in 2025, let alone 2050.

In contrast, the following example of an SME, with around 100 staff and a further 60 sub-contracted workers, illustrates a rounded, more realistic agenda; an agenda developed in consultation with the two most vital ingredients in any successful business – colleagues & customers.

At the end of an initial 6 month project with a Scandinavian logistics business, the company’s management, mindful of the central risks of; i) too long-term targets being perceived as bland & meaningless, as well as ii) the negative environmental impact of running a large fleet of diesel-powered vehicles feeding distribution hubs, heeded the guidance coming from their key stakeholders by prioritised the following threads of the company’s sustainability strategy in a series of measurable, manageable, marketable, 6, 12 & 18 month action plans;

Within 6 months

  1. A minimum 40% reduction in CO2 emissions generated by the company’s fleet of print/copy devices & the installation of software to accurately deliver carbon emission reduction outcomes & assessments.
  2. A parallel 40% reduction in paper use.
  3. The introduction of a 6% weekly fuel consumption reduction target delivered through; i) more rigorous vehicle checks (tyres, heating, A/C etc), ii) tightly managed maintenance cycles & iii) the roll-out of ‘low-fuel-consumption’ driver training.
  4. 95% recycling of food & other domestic waste.
  5. To encourage staff to convert to electric vehicles, install a recharging station for staff-owned electric vehicles and offer this as a subsidised recharging facility.

 

Within 12 months

  1. The upgrading of the company’s fleet of desktop PC’s to more energy-efficient laptops.
  2. Conversion of the company’s office lighting to LED.
  3. The introduction of a pilot cycle-powered delivery service for short-haul, low-weight parcels involving full-time staff balanced equally between both women & men.

 

Within 18 months

  1. To have tested all mid-range electric commercial delivery vehicles.
  2. To incorporate electric commercial delivery vehicles into the fleet when these vehicles can reliably complete 200 kms (with standard loads) between charges.
  3. To switch director & manager vehicles nearing the end of their lease from petrol to electric.
  4. To install sufficient additional recharging stations.

The easily quantified net effect of the 6 and 12 month action plans will generate the following outcomes;

  • An estimated reduction of 19.8 tons of CO2 emissions per year
  • An estimated monthly expenditure saving of €1,470

benefiting the environment, public health in the communities they serve and the company’s profitability.

This same company also has a series of longer-term objectives focused on; i) a radically impacting their carbon footprint, ii) gender balance in work, iii) the work/life balance of colleagues & iv) the health & welfare of those same colleagues. But, such objectives are spoken of more quietly because the management team know that the long-term future of any enterprise is shrouded in a haze that only time can clear. They are equally certain the only predictable is that the haze will clear on a logistics environment radically different to the one our client operates in today.

 

Conclusion.

I do not assert that the case highlighted here illuminates the misguidedness or deviousness of our corporates or their management teams. I do however assert that a fixation with what businesses can or should do by 2030, 40 or 50 and presenting that as a target, rather than what it really is, an aspiration, confuses the sustainability debate, the audiences we speak to, the politicians we heed and the communities we serve.

When the debate descends into the short/medium-term however the opposite occurs; the sustainability debate becomes more focused, our audiences become more engaged, politicians are forced to address their legacy stemming from the period between one election and the next and society can take comfort from knowing that businesses are on their side today, and therefore for the long-haul also.

So, let us ensure forthwith that conversations about what we will or will not achieve in 2050 are conducted at a whisper. At the same time, when speaking of what we can, indeed must achieve in the short & medium terms should be broadcast through megaphones so powerful that even a Trump cannot ignore our achievements or our intent.

 

Finally, a thank you. Several business leaders, who I respect absolutely, have been consulted on the theme of this article and have passed judgement on its contents. Our debates have been frank & occasionally fractious, and the last draft still revealed differences amongst us. This is in the nature of corporate sustainability – a field where there are few certainties and many more than one way to deliver whatever it is our businesses need, or have to, achieve.

I hope this short article prompts responses of conviction from every hue because the debate this article is a part of is fundamental to our planet and every person & business on it, and that is a cause worth speaking about, fractiously or otherwise.