The key to unlocking net zero

By Atkins

We have the key to unlock Net Zero – why aren’t we using it?

By Jacqui Lees, Net Zero and Social Value director at Atkins, a member of the SNC-Lavalin Group

Let’s start with a word game. One word connects these three ideas:

  • Safety
  • Cyber security
  • Net Zero

What is the word? What do safety, cyber security, and Net Zero have in common?

The answer is ‘behaviour’.

Is that what you were thinking? Perhaps not, so let me explain.

There are many examples of the scale of change that can be achieved when we look more closely at why and how people behave. Consider our current approach to health and safety within the industry – it is saving countless lives. Our fire prevention strategies mean that far fewer people are likely to die in a house fire[1]. We can even learn from our approach to cyber security, which acknowledges that human error (or, in the worst-case scenario, deliberate acts) are an organisation’s biggest threat and therefore seeks to raise awareness to prevent people from creating vulnerabilities unintentionally.

Technology has played an important role in these transformations because it’s reduced our reliance on people always getting things right but fundamentally success can be attributed to a change in human behaviour. So, what does that mean for Net Zero?

The recently published Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report declared ‘code red for humanity’. It showed humans have lived in the world harmoniously for hundreds of years but in the past century, we’ve made irreversible and damaging changes to the planet. This isn’t a situation that may affect us in the future, it’s impacting us now. If you’ve watched or read the news recently you will have seen the flooding in Europe or wildfires in Greece and France.

Many of us are looking for solutions. For example, finding new, lower carbon ways to power our homes and businesses or looking for alternatives to plastic. But climate change isn’t just a technical challenge. There’s no silver bullet, and we can’t continue to see it as a problem we can deal with later. Now is the time to look at ourselves – the root cause – as part of a more holistic and proactive approach.

When we asked colleagues on LinkedIn about the biggest challenge to their organisation’s carbon reduction plans more than half of respondents said it was behavioural or cultural change. That’s despite the media and scientific reports and studies that highlight the dangers of inaction. So why aren’t we changing our behaviour: is the problem too big, too difficult to tackle, too uncomfortable, is there a lack of understanding, is it too expensive to act? Is it even our problem?

I believe it is. We have an opportunity to come together collectively as governments, organisations, and individuals to make changes. It won’t happen overnight but here are four steps we can take to build momentum:

Step 1: Engage, inform, and empower people

The subject of climate change can be overwhelming for some people, others might feel helpless, or don’t know how to make a difference. The important thing is to speak about the issues and make the discussion relevant.

By establishing a dialogue, we will better understand people’s drivers for change. We can help challenge the status quo too – after all, little changes can make a big difference. To do this, we need to provide helpful information and make sure it’s easy to access. The way food packaging is labelled in the UK is a good example of this. The handy traffic light system makes it easier for shoppers to make informed decisions and, if necessary, modify their diet. The same approach is used to help people address other health-related issues, for example, smoking and inactivity.

Step 2: Lead by example

We can also drive change by increasing transparency – within our organisations and by being clear with our stakeholders. As a starting point, we can discuss our climate change commitments and carbon reduction initiatives at all levels of the organisation. But leaders must go one step further as well – they need to take decisive action and lead by example.

Closely linked to this is the need to change the way we measure success to include sustainability and environmental performance rather than just focusing on revenue and profit.

Some businesses are already on this journey. London’s Heathrow Airport has incorporated sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) into its operation, and says 60% of its “airlines by capacity have committed to turning at least 10% of their fuel supply into SAF by 2030”. Looking further ahead, it’s also encouraging airlines to cut their carbon production completely by developing electric aircraft. As an incentive, it’s offering them free landing fees for a year, which could be worth up to £1 million.

Seizing the initiative is the right thing for organisations to do, but it will also help them attract and retain talent.

Step 3: Put sustainability initiatives in context

Individuals, organisations, and governments also need to be able to put their sustainability initiatives in context, rather than focusing on the smaller, easier wins. For example, in the UK, drivers are being encouraged to switch their petrol and diesel vehicles for electric versions. But my question is, how many journeys do we really need to make by car? Should the conversation start with challenging that thinking? For example, during and immediately after the COVID-19 pandemic more people walked and cycled around London but we need to encourage them to make the switch to active travel longer term.

Step 4: Understand more than the system itself

When we put a new business system in place, we work to define the system itself (the technology), how it should work (the process) and who will use it (the people). The challenge we face in this case is the scale of the transformation required means the implications of a move to Net Zero are almost impossible to envisage. The transition will impact everyone – wherever they live and regardless of their culture.

As systemic changes are made, they will have consequences – good and bad – and we don’t know how people will behave in response to them. But we can’t let the uncertainty prevent us from moving forward. We don’t have all the answers and we don’t know what the future holds but we must start making small changes now because they will add up.

So, what does that mean for us?

As we embark on the biggest transformation since the industrial revolution, and we set out to realise our ambition in years rather than decades, we should be looking at how we behave as the key to change. That means we need to take urgent, collective, and decisive action.