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28 November 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 2:07pm

The power for change lies with us all

Responding to the challenge of transitioning to a low-carbon economy requires a joint effort from government, industry and society, writes the head of environmental sustainability at BT Group

By Gabrielle Ginér

The stark environmental challenges the world faces are becoming more apparent with each passing week. Encouragingly, the UK government sent a positive signal by setting a net zero target earlier this year. Targets like these can serve to focus stakeholders to come together to share that sense of ambition, creating a snowball effect, and inspiring others to act and scale up their own ambitions. From there, we can create “ambition loops” – from businesses to cities to governments and round again – that will not only deliver environmental benefits, but create jobs and economic growth as well.

At BT, we have long recognised the importance of setting ambitious carbon emissions targets as a way of motivating our organisation and inspiring others. It is part of the reason we were able to achieve our 2020 goal – to reduce the carbon emissions intensity of our business by 80 per cent – four years ahead of schedule. This spurred us to set a target in line with a 1.5-degree trajectory in September 2017. This target will see us reduce our carbon emissions intensity at a rate of 87 per cent. By setting targets, we not only send a signal internally to transform our business, but also externally to indicate to the wider market and policymakers that we are looking for a supply of innovative low-carbon solutions. These demand signals are incredibly important, but they cannot achieve the kind of climate action needed in isolation.

One of BT’s biggest challenges in achieving our net-zero carbon emissions by the 2045 target, is decarbonising our fleet of around 30,000 vehicles that service the UK’s digital networks across the country, including its most remote areas. We need further action to ensure long-term stability that will provide innovation and investment in low-emission vehicle technology and infrastructure.

Government and industry have embarked on significant activity to promote electric vehicles, but further action is required to provide the long-term certainty that will promote innovation and investment.

From conversations with our suppliers and our own pilot schemes, including the installation of charging points in some exchange centres and homes in Birmingham, we see a number of points that need to be tackled. We need a clear plan to create a national charging infrastructure that effectively serves everyone. We need a commitment to prioritise and increase R&D funding and also a provision of incentives to send even stronger signals to industry.

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Introduction of upfront purchase grants, clarification on future carbon emission standards, and further incentives could accelerate the uptake of zero emissions vehicles. Setting further incremental, long-term targets, produced in conjunction with consumer groups and manufacturers, to reduce the sales of non-electric vehicles, could be one such option.

We also need to encourage innovation in non-conventional low-emission vehicles, such as heavy-load vans, and in more complex areas of the transport sector where zero-emission technology is not yet deployable at scale.

Additionally, we should be trialling various technologies such as hydrogen and biofuels. Getting those points right will lead to commercially viable vehicles for both individuals and businesses alike.

So, what can be done to realise the massive potential of electric vehicles? Looking at one facet of our environment strategy – renewables – we can see important parallels. Adopting a light-touch regulatory regime – which allows industry to develop and deploy emission-reducing technologies – has supercharged the renewables market and can do the same for low emission vehicles and other sectors ripe for decarbonisation.

This isn’t a hypothetical position. BT is one of the UK’s biggest consumers of electricity, using nearly one per cent of the UK’s electricity to power our national networks, data centres, and offices. To meet our energy needs in a sustainable way, BT has long been a pioneer in purchasing renewable electricity.

All of the electricity we directly purchase from energy suppliers in the UK comes from renewable sources, with 16 per cent coming from power purchase agreements. Even our world-leading research and innovation hub at Adastral Park in Suffolk is powered by a solar farm the size of 40 football pitches.

Looking at the bottom line, through our energy efficiency programmes, we’ve saved enough energy to boil 10.5bn kettles and nearly £300m over the past decade, giving us the chance to re-invest those savings elsewhere. This was only possible as there was wide policy support for the generation of renewables that complemented and supplemented the demand in the market. It’s a powerful message that we share with both our customers and suppliers, climate action isn’t only the right thing to do – it makes business sense too.

We have been able to take some dramatic steps towards tackling one of society’s biggest challenges, but more needs to be done. Information and communications technology (ICT) solutions are an important part of the answer, with studies showing that they have the potential to enable a 20 per cent reduction of global carbon emissions by 2030. We are already seeing this at BT.

Last year, our products and services, such as video conferencing and vehicle telematics, helped our customers save on 11.7 million tonnes of carbon – that’s the equivalent of the carbon emissions of nearly three million UK households. And let’s not forget supply chains. BT has around 16,000 direct suppliers and a global spend of £13.4bn. We are working with our suppliers to drive innovation on sustainability and also to introduce a contract clause for suppliers to reduce their carbon emissions over the term of their contract.

BT is up for the challenge and we hope that others will join us in setting their own science-based net-zero targets, thereby driving themselves, industry, and policymakers to develop the right conditions for quicker, more impactful climate action.

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