Harnessing the lessons of Covid-19 to restart the zero carbon journey

As businesses begin the recovery out of the Covid-19 crisis, we must put zero carbon at the heart of the economic recovery to ensure we avoid an even greater global crisis

The Big Zero report

Image: FNZ

The Covid-19 crisis has delivered a shock to the world, the impacts of which will be felt for many years to come. It has also demonstrated the need for people, businesses and governments around the world to respond in swift, coordinated and effective ways to limit the spread of the disease – and combat the crisis together.

As businesses begin the recovery from this health emergency, they face many urgent priorities, from safeguarding the well-being of employees to managing costs and regenerating profitable operations. Before the crisis, many had been making significant progress towards achieving zero carbon. As we slowly emerge from the Covid-19 lockdown, it’s important not to forget that the greatest long-term threat to the planet remains climate change.

Climate change poses the greatest risk to the planet

Tragically, Covid-19 has so far cost 555,000 lives worldwide, and yet the risks to humanity posed by climate change are dramatically higher. Rising temperatures, and the fires and flooding that result from irreversible changes to habitats, threaten the health and well-being of many more people than will be impacted by Covid-19 – and for much longer. Figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggest that global warming will be responsible for at least 1.5m deaths by 2030. And the economic risks are also much greater.

One welcome side effect of the Covid-19 lockdowns has been the global action taken to minimise the spread of the disease, which has provided us with a glimpse of a greener future. Lower energy consumption and carbon emissions have significantly reduced pollution levels and improved air quality, while raising awareness of the value of nature and sustainability for health and wellbeing. Having witnessed these benefits for themselves, people are likely to demand that businesses play their part in sustaining this positive shift. However, if there is a significant shift from public to private transport this could mean an increase in carbon emissions, so driving the growth of electric vehicles and its infrastructure, will be an important part of the sustainable post-Covid-19 recovery.

Time to rebuild for a greener future

As we rebuild, we must harness the lessons of this crisis, and put zero carbon at the heart of the economic recovery – ensuring we avoid an even greater global crisis. Many businesses have already recognised this, and more than 200 leading UK companies, investors and organisations have jointly called for a green coronavirus recovery plan.

In an open letter to the UK government, they stated: “The current crisis, in moving us all away from business-as-usual, has already created shifts in how we operate, and we believe we must use the recovery to accelerate the transition to net zero. Efforts to rescue and repair the economy in response to the current crisis can and should be aligned with the UK’s legislated target of net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest.”

Recently, in an extended edition of its annual assessment of progress towards the UK’s decarbonisation targets, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) called on the government to embark swiftly on a major green investment drive to deliver a resilient recovery from Covid-19 and lay the foundations for a net zero economy.

Integrate carbon reduction into business recovery

So, what can businesses do to ensure that carbon reduction is an integral part of their economic recovery in the wake of Covid-19? The first step is to assess the scale of the problem – to measure carbon emissions associated with business operations and understand where they originate. Organisations then need to assess all the possible options to develop a clear roadmap for achieving carbon-reduction targets. Technology and collaboration are key ingredients, alongside flexible energy management, green sourcing, smart technology, and a commitment to drive change.

The good news is that measures to reduce carbon emissions can support cost savings and operational efficiencies that will benefit businesses in the long term. Sustainable economic recovery has to be the priority for businesses of all sizes, and there are many ways this can be achieved while managing short-term costs and ensuring businesses have the funds they need as they take their first steps back from the crisis.

Smarter ways to improve energy efficiency

Controlling energy use and improving energy efficiency will be essential in reducing carbon emissions. Many efficiencies can be introduced for very low cost or with very short pay-back periods. Often, significant improvements can be made simply by tweaking processes, altering temperature and control settings, adjusting timings and introducing behavioural changes among employees.

Optimising the workspace available for returning employees will be a priority, ensuring energy is not wasted in underused areas. In the short term, however, even if fewer employees than usual return to the workplace, reducing energy consumption will not be straightforward. Consumption will be increased by the need to maintain greater airflow and fresh air intake rates in buildings, to minimise air recirculation and reduce the risk of airborne virus transmission. Fewer people will be allowed to occupy lifts, so these will be used more frequently than usual each day. These and other changes to building operations mean that lower occupancy levels will not necessarily equate to reductions in energy consumption.

In the longer term, many organisations are likely to review their office space requirements, with the potential for significant reductions in the amount of space they need. This could lead to new working practices being adopted, which is where smart building technology can make a huge difference. Smart technology can help to ensure that assets are deployed in the most efficient manner and available workspace is maximised helping with new ways of working. Behavioural change will play an important role too, requiring people to develop an awareness of the carbon emissions associated with their activities.

New approaches to asset ownership

Businesses recovering from the shock of Covid-19 need sustainable carbon-reduction options that work for them, while enabling costs to be managed effectively in these straitened times. When new energy-efficient plant or equipment is required and capital funds are in short supply, there are some innovative ways for businesses to manage their energy assets.

Heating, lighting and HVAC systems can be delivered ‘as a service’. This involves a supplier buying, operating and maintaining energy-efficient assets on behalf of a business – for a monthly fee. That way, the business can enjoy the energy, cost and carbon reductions achieved by the most efficient equipment, without any up-front capital costs.

Choose renewable energy supplies

Greening energy supplies is another important way for businesses to eliminate carbon from their operations. Sourcing energy from renewable sources, installing on-site renewable or low-carbon generation assets and tapping into local decentralised renewable schemes are all ways to cut the carbon from business energy supplies. For organisations that are unable to install their own renewable generation assets, corporate power purchase agreements (PPAs) are a good alternative. These provide a direct supply agreement between a specific renewable generator and a business, supporting the further development of renewable generation facilities in the UK.

Technology and innovation have a central role to play in the journey to net zero. Smart building systems, smart electricity grids, advances in electric vehicles and battery storage capabilities will make carbon elimination an increasingly achievable reality for many businesses. Embedding smart technology into the way facilities and assets are managed will ensure changes are sustainable and optimised to accommodate evolving business priorities.

Sharing the benefits across supply chains

The transition to a net zero economy must also be fair, democratic and equitable. Companies thrive by working in harmony with communities – and the recent crisis has demonstrated how people and organisations can work together effectively to make changes for the common good.

In the past, offsetting carbon emissions was a quick way for some businesses to achieve their net zero goals by offsetting all their emissions. In the post-Covid-19 world, just looking at offsetting will no longer make economic sense for most organisations. It will of course still be an important part of the solution for those emissions that can’t be reduced through carbon reduction measure, we may however see an increase in insetting which directly benefits the entire supply chain and delivers measurable carbon reductions.

Insetting is investing in carbon-reduction schemes among businesses that supply or serve our organisations. By doing this we can not only help smaller firms to survive the crisis, but also help to green our supply chains. This is particularly important for businesses that wish to produce truly net zero products. Such ‘insetting’ represents a continuation of the community spirit that has been so evident during the Covid-19 pandemic, helping everyone to recover together from a crisis that has impacted businesses indiscriminately.

Sights set on a carbon-free future

Covid-19 has meant that businesses worldwide have lost valuable time in their carbon-reduction programmes. Of course, returning from the lockdown requires the health and well-being of employees to be prioritised above all else. But beyond this, there are huge challenges in getting the UK’s net zero project back on track.

However, with the technology, innovations and expertise available today, we have a unique opportunity to build on the dramatic falls in carbon emissions seen during the lockdown, and together make sustainable progress towards a net zero future.

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