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How industry is key for net zero strategies

Firms are leading the way in reducing emissions and embracing renewables.

By Ed Stainton

The latest findings of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are stark. Its flagship report released earlier this year warned that the world faces a “now or never” moment for us to act to limit warming to 1.5ºC. Exceeding this threshold – the level agreed in the 2015 Paris Agreement – would exacerbate extreme climate events, would risk sea levels rising to unsustainable levels, and would create drought and disruption on a drastic scale.

Limiting our emissions and, crucially, ensuring that the UK reaches its own ambitious target of net zero by 2050, is central to achieving the UN’s broader climate goals.

But government can’t do this alone. Government can create incentives, provide investment, direct strategy, outline its vision, and give us the tools we need to make things happen. But this needs to be a joint effort by individuals, organisations, institutions, and by both the public and private sectors working in partnership. New social value measures being taken into account in public procurement are one way the government can encourage and steer businesses towards meeting shared targets, whether it’s through investment in environmental projects, climate mitigation strategies or upskilling disadvantaged communities and workforces. But these new social value measures don’t always necessarily take into account the range of positive actions companies are taking as a whole.

Across a range of sectors, we’re currently seeing an unparalleled effort by British industry to do its bit in combating global warming and reducing its carbon footprint. In tandem with the public and with the British government, now more than ever companies are recognising the immediacy of the task at hand. Now is the time for national champions to lead the way.

BT is ambitious and we want to make a difference. We see ourselves as a national champion and as a major telecommunications and technology company, contributing £24bn in gross value added to the UK economy, with major operations, investment and employment spread across regions all over the UK. Our customer base of 30 million households and one million businesses, from SMEs through to major corporates, the public sector and other communication providers, puts us in a unique and privileged position to lead a conversation on climate change and on the individual actions customers can take to reduce their emissions.

As one of the biggest companies in the UK, we want to step forward as a national champion that’s ready to help tackle the big problems. This isn’t because we’re chasing higher returns but because we want to step up in areas where we can make a genuine difference. That’s why we have brought forward our zero-carbon target by 15 years, from 2045 to 2030. That’s just for our own operational emissions. For our supply chain and customer emissions, our target is to reach net zero by 2040.

Given the urgency of the climate crisis, it is essential that the private sector embraces its responsibility to play its crucial role in the UK’s zero-carbon journey. That’s why BT has been trying to lead on climate action and reductions in greenhouse gases for a number of years. It doesn’t take long to see real, tangible results. Since 2016 we’ve reduced the carbon intensity of our operations by 55 per cent. We have also made conscious efforts to help build a circular economy, recovering and recycling over 99 per cent of our operational waste in the UK. As well as being good for the environment, these reductions also make sense from a business point of view, particularly given the current situation in the energy markets.

We have already moved to using 100 per cent renewable electricity for our own operations. We’ve made a conscious effort to make sure our own offices and headquarters are ultra-modern and energy-efficient. The next big task – and this is absolutely key to us getting to our net zero target – is for us to move our fleet of cars from petrol and diesel to electric. After Royal Mail, BT Group has the second-largest vehicle fleet in the UK, made up of 33,000 cars and vans. Moving to electric is a major project but we’ve already replaced 1,000 diesel vehicles with electric vehicles (EVs).

The problem at the moment is that many of our engineers and employees at Openreach – the subsidiary that runs the nation’s broadband network – often have to make multiple, back-to-back, long journeys to remote areas of the country, meaning that the current state of EV and charging technology just isn’t in the place it needs to be for us to make an overnight transition. That’s where government comes in: us making the positive change we need will require a more widespread roll-out of charging infrastructure. And as EV technology progresses over the coming years with advances in battery power and capability, along with the roll-out of charging services, we’ll see our transport transition accelerate.

In so many ways, economically, socially, politically and, of course, environmentally, we are facing a crucial period for our planet – a series of “now or never” moments. As the UK progresses on its journey to net zero, industry needs to act as a partner in making environmental sustainability a reality. BT is leading the way in this journey, and is ready to work together with government and our customers to achieve a climate-friendly future.