October 29, 2021
Just 41 percent of UK organisations are on track to meet the Government’s target for net zero carbon emissions by 2050, according to new research released by Dr Chris Brauer, Goldsmiths, University of London in partnership with Microsoft. The findings suggest strong ambition and strategic vision on sustainability within UK organisations, but most leaders are struggling to translate that intent into action, with almost three quarters (74 percent) described as having “one foot in and one foot out” on sustainability.
Based on online surveys of 1,707 UK business leaders and 2,153 employees, the research report includes insights from leading British organisations, as well as prominent sustainable business experts from across government, industry and academia.
The ambition-action gap has not gone unnoticed by UK workers. According to the survey, the majority (72 percent) of employees surveyed felt that environmental sustainability should be a top priority for businesses over the next five years, yet only 19 percent report that their employer implements their current sustainability plan efficiently. Tellingly, only 17 percent of employees believe their work premises are as environmentally friendly as their own home. This is important, as almost half (48 percent) of employees surveyed said the strength of a firms’ sustainability plan would impact where they choose to work.
The challenges for business and a blueprint for net zero
The report points to the most pressing sustainability challenges identified by UK leaders in meeting net zero goals and outlines a practical blueprint of short- and long-term actions to overcome them. When asked to identify their top three most pressing challenges in the next five to 10 years, the top challenges highlighted by organisations surveyed include:
• Actioning the strategy – Concerns about having a clear organisational sustainability strategy (43 percent)
• Guidance – 41 percent of respondents cited clear government guidance as a challenge, but the report points to the need for whole systems thinking, including collaboration between government, commerce, academia and NGOs to collectively address barriers to net zero
• Skills – Having in-house expertise and skills to support a sustainability strategy (40 percent)
• Financing – Having access to funding to implement their sustainability plan (36 percent)
• Getting the most out of technology – The availability of technology to support sustainability initiatives (33 percent)
The sustainability leaders
The research team developed a scorecard against which to benchmark UK organisations’ progress on environmental sustainability. Based on the results, organisations were categorised into one of three groups:
• Sustainability Leaders – just 11 percent of UK organisations – distinctive in their ability to unlock funding and develop technology to meet sustainability goals, with highly supportive leadership and strong stakeholder buy in. This group is on track to meet net zero targets.
• Aspirational – 74 percent of organisations – better at raising their ambitions and designing strategies for sustainability than executing them. They have the operational potential to reach net zero, but faster transformation is needed.
• Stragglers – only 15 percent of organisations – have embedded sustainability within their strategy but are currently making very slow progress on goals. This group are unlikely to reach net zero by 2050, unless ambition becomes genuine action.
One factor setting the Sustainability Leaders apart is their ability to harness the potential of technology to amplify and accelerate their net zero strategies. Three quarters of this group are investing in R&D for new technologies (76 percent), including tech to measure carbon emissions (76 percent), and many are also building the in-house skills needed to make the most of these technologies.
Technologies enabling sustainability
The report also explores the role of technology in the journey to net zero. Where the business case is
proven to make a meaningful contribution to sustainability, organisations are investing in the greenest solutions. Examples include business productivity technologies (used by 89 percent of firms), collaboration technologies (70 percent), cloud technologies (69 percent) and carbon emissions measurement technologies (33 percent).
And there is appetite for increasingly sophisticated technology over the next five years to reduce carbon emissions. Business leaders will shift their focus to more intensive use of carbon emissions measurement technology (56 percent), Robotic Process Automation (RPA, 51 percent), machine learning (53 percent), and ‘digital twin’ technologies (55 percent) – a rapidly growing territory for digital simulation of business processes and strategies at scale without the real-world waste.
“To truly address the climate emergency before us, actions must speak louder than words”
Clare Barclay, CEO of Microsoft UK, comments: “If the UK is to meet its net zero ambitions, public and private sectors need to join forces to define the meaning of real net zero, agree how to measure progress and build markets that can deliver a just, prosperous future for everyone.
“Technology will play a key role in addressing these challenges and it’s clear from our research that those organisations that have embedded technology in the heart of their strategies are the ones that have made the most significant progress against their sustainability goals. And whilst it is encouraging that so many of the organisations surveyed are taking the threat of climate change seriously, the time has come to move from ambition to action. We must work collectively to accelerate our journey to net zero.”
Dr Chris Brauer, Director of Innovation, Institute of Management Studies (IMS) at Goldsmiths, University of London, comments: “UK organisations have strong net zero ambitions. But to truly address the climate emergency before us, actions must speak louder than words. Today’s findings don’t just call for progress, they outline a practical short- and long-term blueprint to help organisations accelerate net zero progress. If organisations can prioritise areas such as cross-sector collaboration, stakeholder buy-in, in-house expertise and technology to track carbon reduction progress, the positive environmental impact could be seismic.”
Sam Kimmins, Head of RE100 at The Climate Group, adds: “These figures can and must increase, with large organisations using their scale and influence to lead the way. Companies need to really work with their suppliers to drive shared sustainability goals fast. If a large firm greens a supply chain that is also supplying 30 other companies, you get a positive multiplier effect.”