Cutting the carbon jargon around net zero

Dan Crowe, Optimisation Manager, Inspired Energy

Net zero has become a hot topic since the UK’s 2050 emissions target was enshrined into law in 2019 – but as the Government begins to set out its plans to reach its ambitious milestones, the growing amount of jargon in the net zero conversation could be preventing many organisations from making much-needed progress towards their own goals.

For many public sector organisations, reaching net zero emissions by 2050 against a backdrop of squeezed budgets and pressing short term priorities may seem like an ambitious target – so the Government’s new commitment to reducing emissions by 68% by 2030 will have many wondering how they will be able to contribute to this goal. Because despite setting out plans for a ‘green recovery’ from the Covid-19 crisis, the government is yet to publish a clear net zero roadmap, which many organisations are eagerly awaiting in order to move forwards with their carbon reduction plans with confidence.

And government policy isn’t the only area where organisations are lacking clarity around net zero. A whole new vocabulary has sprung up around the topic, as organisations try to communicate their targets, strategies and achievements without clear guidance or a reference document to work from. When we spoke to over 100 energy managers from businesses across the UK, this issue was highlighted when we asked them to define net zero. Most mentioned one of three key terms: carbon offsetting, carbon/emission elimination or carbon/emission reduction. While these terms sound similar, they have very different meanings – carbon reduction involves bringing emissions down, for example, whereas carbon elimination means getting rid of emissions entirely. Clearly, net zero is being interpreted differently by different organisations.  

It’s therefore unsurprising that 86% of energy professionals believe that ‘net zero’ is in danger of becoming a meaningless term unless a consistent approach is adopted. But it’s not just the term that’s in danger – unless the public sector is given a consistent approach to defining, planning and measuring their net zero progress, the UK’s ability to meet its decarbonisation targets is also under threat.

Clarity must come from the top

While some public sector organisations will have secured funding for heat decarbonisation and energy efficiency measures through the Government’s £1 billion Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme, applications for this scheme are now closed and further support is needed. And this support cannot be limited to funding alone – the public sector needs clear guidance to understand what is expected of them and what strategies they can pursue to achieve it. 

Currently, the absence of clear guidance from the Government is leading organisations to define their own paths and methods of measuring their progress. Lots of councils are setting ambitious targets – recently, 38 city and council leaders pledged to eliminate carbon emissions from their local authorities by 2030, and to neutralise greenhouse gases from their local communities by 2045. But just 6% of energy professionals said that they measure their progress using frameworks like the Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions framework – the majority use internal consumption monitoring or KPIs instead. 

While it’s encouraging that the public sector is striving to play its part in helping the UK to reach its decarbonisation goals, the confusion around measurement risks leaving some organisations behind. While some are forging ahead with their own strategies and setting goals, other organisations could find themselves on a steeper or costlier journey to net zero because of the delay that this lack of clarity has caused.

It’s therefore vital that the Government provides public sector organisations with a clear roadmap to net zero, underpinned by a consistent framework within which they can develop, measure and progress their emissions reductions. One of the contributors to Inspired Energy’s Cutting the Carbon Jargon report, Dr Grant Wilson from the University of Birmingham’s Energy Institute, agrees that “given the role that businesses must play… and the timelines involved to ensure sufficient time to prepare, plan and invest in decarbonisation, clarity is essential to avoid additional confusion or delay and promote a consistent approach across organisations. The sooner this is set out, the sooner organisations can begin or continue their efforts towards decarbonisation with the knowledge that they are basing this on a set of consistent definitions.”

Progress can be made now

Organisations cannot afford to wait for Government guidelines before they get started – they must strive to cut through the ‘carbon jargon’ and take action now to reduce their emissions. At Inspired Energy, we know that organisations benefit from taking a structured approach to net zero, so our Carbon Action Programme is designed to take organisations through their carbon reduction journey step-by-step, from setting meaningful targets to reviewing their progress. 

Like all reduction programmes, the first step for any organisation is to get to grips with their emissions, and the GHG Protocol Scopes 1, 2 and 3 are the ideal method for doing so. By collecting data and reporting on their Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions, organisations can build an accurate baseline to measure their progress against, which should enable them to identify which areas they should prioritise in their net zero strategy. Unlike private sector businesses, most public sector organisations aren’t required to comply with schemes like the Energy and Carbon Reporting Scheme (ESOS), so measuring their emissions under a universal standard like the GHG Protocol could make it easier for these organisations to benchmark their progress against other organisations.

Once they have a good understanding of their existing carbon footprint, organisations should have the information they need to set an ambitious yet achievable net zero target. Almost two thirds of energy professionals told us that they were concerned that their emissions reduction targets could be seen as ‘greenwashing’, which is likely due to the jargon and wide variety of different measurement measurements used by different organisations. That’s why we recommend that organisations set Science-Based Targets (SBTs) to demonstrate their commitment to emissions reduction, specifying how much and how quickly they plan to reduce their emissions. 

Every organisation will start from a different baseline and set different carbon reduction goals, and that means that each organisation’s ideal route to net zero will also be unique. Once they have established their baseline and their goal, they must create a clear strategy and roadmap to ensure that they can meet that goal, detailing the carbon reduction projects and the action required to achieve it. By regularly monitoring their progress, and using their data to drive decisions, organisations can move towards their goals with confidence. 

Taking action today

It’s clear that greater clarity, simplified terminology and universal frameworks for measurement are all needed in order to help public sector organisations to play their part in helping the UK to achieve its net zero target. But while we wait for robust and widely-accepted standards around net zero, organisations must still take action to reduce their carbon footprints using the tools that are available to them today. 

Tools like the GHG Protocol’s Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions framework and the Science-Based Targets, along with expert guidance where necessary, can enable businesses to take meaningful action now – so organisations shouldn’t wait. The sooner an organisation begins its net zero journey, the sooner they will see the financial, reputational and environmental benefits of carbon reduction. 

More information about Cutting the Carbon Jargon and a copy of the report is available at www.inspiredenergy.co.uk/carbonjargon