Net zero: Think global, act local

Sep 18, 2023 | Blogs, Monthly Briefing

In 2019, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050. The target required the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions down to net zero, compared with the previous target of at least 80% reduction from 1990 levels. This commitment put clean growth at the heart of the UK’s new Industrial Strategy, with the expectation that the number of “green-collar” jobs might grow to 2 million and the value of exports from the low-carbon economy increase to £170 billion a year by 2030.

However welcome such Government-led ambitions were, it was also recognised that the road to net zero was a multi-lane highway, with citizens, communities and businesses all needing to make their own contribution, ideally in harmony.

As part of the United Nation’s Race to Zero campaign, large companies have been encouraged to pledge a goal of reducing their emissions, in line with 1.5°C of warming and while Government data suggests that more than a third of large businesses have made such commitments, there are still 6 million small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – which make up about 99% of the UK’s enterprises – that have yet to set any targets. More worryingly, while it is clearly essential that these small businesses begin their net zero transition, there would seem to be a knowledge gap among smaller firms that is creating a drag on action.

Last month, the British Chamber of Commerce (a network of 53 accredited local chambers that represents tens of thousands of businesses of all sizes and sectors) published a report in association with Lloyds Bank, which revealed that its membership felt “lost in a fog of conflicting information” and “constrained by a combination of cost, time and resources”. Perhaps inevitably then, the study acknowledged “that many SMEs won’t be able to reach net zero alone” and that “collaborating with like-minded organisations” was the key to success.

Further research by Lloyds Bank itself, showed the very real benefits of such “grassroots” initiatives, and although it remains clear that larger businesses can still be the most effective agents of change (in part by helping to decarbonise their own supply chains), those SMEs that have made progress on emissions are increasingly looking to lead others towards more sustainable business practices.

One example highlighted is Allium Energy in Yorkshire, which originally began in quarrying and road building, before evolving into skip hire and waste management services. Recognising that a number of its former waste sites were producing gas, the company’s MD, Richard Todd, set out to learn how to generate renewable energy, by capturing the methane generated from decomposing organic matter. These sites are now renewable centres – all waste is processed to recover its power, with compost produced as a bi-product, and both the electricity and heat from the new plant can be used locally. A nearby poultry farm received the first draw of power, with the balance being fed into the National Grid. The £6 million project to install a dedicated energy recovery plant hopes to reduce local CO2 emissions by almost 6,500 tonnes every year, and generate enough power to supply the equivalent of 813 homes. In addition, it will create four new skilled job opportunities, which will see the Allium team grow from 14 to 18 over the next year.

Todd’s vision is now ensuring that waste materials at Allium’s disposal are creating a clean and renewable source of power (“There was huge potential sitting, quite literally, waiting to be transformed,” he says) and the set-up is fully scalable, which Todd hopes will act as a blueprint for developers and other big users of energy looking to find more sustainable, localised power and heat solutions.

Help in stimulating similar thinking is also coming from Government and in May, Innovate UK announced funding for 21 local authorities to accelerate progress towards hitting net zero targets. Its £6 million Fast Followers scheme is part of Innovate UK’s Net Zero Living Programme, designed to help places and businesses across the country move at greater pace towards the delivery of the transition to net zero. While some projects are in cities, including Birmingham and Edinburgh, others are targeting more rural areas, such as Devon and the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Many are, by design, seeking to overcome non-technical barriers such as citizen engagement and, in doing so, they are empowering and enabling local residents and businesses to come together.

While much of the heavy lifting of net zero continues to fall to large corporations, there is no doubt that the actions of smaller businesses (however modest by comparison) can make a real difference. Reducing carbon emissions won’t happen overnight, and the roadmap will look different for every SME, depending on where it is on its journey (and what incentive it has to transform, based on its role in the supply chain of other businesses), but local collaboration between companies, communities and councils is signposting the way to a greener future.