Both topics have been heavily linked in terms of dictating future workplace trends as well as the positive and negative outcomes seen in our response to the global pandemic. But what does that mean for those managing workplaces?

This month we take a look at some of the current workplace sustainability issues.

Net zero – What is it and how will it influence organisations?

Fundamentally, net zero refers to a state where there is balance between the greenhouse gases (GHG) (not just Carbon dioxide (CO2)) being released into the atmosphere and those being removed from it.

While we continue to see an imbalance and the levels of greenhouse gases being released outweigh those being removed, the process of global warming continues. As put by the 2015 Paris Agreement (Paris Accords) for global warming to be countered we need to ‘achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century’.

As illustrated by Oxford Net Zero on their Net Zero Climate website (What is Net Zero? - Net Zero Climate) “It is international scientific consensus that, in order to prevent the worst climate damages, global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050.”

Based on this evidence and following recommendations by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the UK government amended the Climate Change Act 2008 (with a target of an 80% reduction in GHG emissions compared with 1990 levels) announcing a target of “net zero” by 2050. This change came into force on 27th June 2019.

Historically we have been making progress, albeit not at the pace now needed with BEIS reporting in March 2021:

“Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the UK are provisionally estimated to have fallen by 10.7% in 2020 from 2019, to 326.1 million tonnes (Mt), and total greenhouse gas emissions by 8.9% to 414.1 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e). Total greenhouse gas emissions were 48.8% lower than they were in 1990.”

However the report does go on to highlight that “This large fall in 2020 is primarily due to the large reduction in the use of road transport during the nationwide lockdowns and the reduction in business activity.”

The full BEIS report can be found at - 2020 UK greenhouse gas emissions, provisional figures ( Net zero is and will continue to increase in the lexicon of organisations sustainability policies, in meeting it though there are going to be challenges.

The future of emissions measurement

Carbon, most notably in the form of energy use, is a long established metric for many organisations. Although with numbers informal as well as various formal measurement criteria being used, quality, consistency and comparability of data is not always easy.

The 2021 IWFM sustainability survey clearly highlights this with the answers to the question “Does your organisation have, or are they looking to set, net zero carbon targets?”, which were:

  • Has a clear net zero target (and roadmap) 25%
  • Has a clear target and signed off externally (e.g. SBTI) 24%
  • Has carbon reduction target(but not net zero) 20%
  • Is preparing to set targets 15%
  • Not intending to set targets 7%
  • No targets 6%
  • Don’t know 3% 

Added to this only 35% of end user responders who said they had net zero plans in place, indicated that they had access to all the baseline and ongoing data needed to help their organisation meet their targets.

Whether using a “net zero” based system or not though one of the biggest challenges facing all organisations with ambitions to reduce their carbon is effectively capturing and measuring scope 3 emissions.

The Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol categorises emissions into three scopes:

  • Scope 1 - Direct emissions from owned/controlled sources i.e. direct fuel combustion, company vehicles, fugitive emissions;
  • Scope 2 - Indirect emissions from electricity generation – i.e. purchased electricity, heat and steam, etc.; and
  • Scope 3 - Covers all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain i.e. business travel, purchased goods and services, employee commuting, use of sold products, generated waste and end of life, investments and leased assets.

Whereas historically scope 1 and 2 emissions have been the target for much reporting, if true net zero is going to be realised for organisations, scope 3 emissions must be identified, measured and acted upon too.

Hopefully as more organisations ambitions towards net zero/carbon reduction increase demand, calculation tools will be developed that provide better capture and consistency of the reported data.

How has COVID-19 affected the sustainability agenda?

Although the global pandemic has dominated the news agenda over recent times, the extremes of weather, flooding and fires we’ve seen around the World have not stopped either. This together with increasing “climate anxiety” especially with younger generations keeps sustainability in the spotlight too.

Encouragingly, the 2021 IWFM sustainability survey reported that over half of respondents felt, “their sustainability plans had changed positively as a result of COVID-19”, with a further quarter saying they had “remained the same”. Less than 20% of responders said, “their plans had changed negatively”.

As a result of COVID-19, a number of specific topic areas saw a predictable increase in focus, with the areas listed below seeing action by almost all organisations who responded to the 2021 survey. These covered, for example:

Wellbeing 99%
Hybrid Working 97%
Video conferencing facilities 96%
Remote working 95%
Air quality/ventilation 93%
Workplace transformation (specifying, planning and delivering the changes to the workplace needed) 93%
Social value 87%
Travel policies 81%
Transport policies in relation to the fleet and/or electrical charging points 79%

The blend of activities also sees a broadening of the sustainability agenda where the influence of COVID-19 has shaped and accelerated the actions organisations will take. How these will be integrated into the future agenda, is though yet to be seen. It does though clearly demonstrate that organisations can respond and respond quickly, where there is a direct need.

What is likely to be shaping the sustainability agenda in the coming year and what are the opportunities for those managing the workplace?

With COP26 starting in Glasgow at the end of the month, a return of the spotlight to some of the more traditional areas of sustainability is very likely.

This was also reflected in the 2021 IWFM sustainability survey, where in the responses to the question on “what the top five priority areas for sustainability over the next 12 months would be”, the following were identified:

  1. Carbon/energy management/climate change/net zero - 70%
  2. Flexible working/workplace strategy - 50%
  3. Health and wellbeing - 48%
  4. Health and safety - 43%
  5. Equality/diversity - 34%

The continued blending of subject areas to cover the social, health, safety and wellbeing, as well as environmental, is both an opportunity and challenge for workplace and facilities management professionals. The level of responsibility and activity they have for an increasing portion of the organisation’s sustainability agenda, makes them pivotal in its delivery. The question is though how prepared is the industry to meet this challenge?

In assessing skills and capabilities, the IWFM sustainability survey found, of the five priority areas listed; 

  • Health and safety (85%), flexible working/workplace strategy (71%) and health and wellbeing (68%) scored relatively highly for understanding and knowledge. 
  • However, at 50% and 43% respectively, equality and diversity and carbon/climate change/net zero, fared less well.

What was also identified was that other key areas of activity, such as supply chain (42%), sustainable travel (41%), social value (33%) and circular economy (23%), displayed even greater gaps in knowledge.

These will need to be addressed if the opportunity is going to be realised.  As has been seen though with the rapid development of the wellbeing agenda and the introduction of the National TOMs FM Plug-in for Social Value, there are solutions.

In whichever way you are approaching your workplace sustainability, reliable and verifiable data will be essential across all areas. A legacy of the pandemic sees employees wanting not only compliance, but reassurance that their workplaces are safe. With COP26, and events around it (for example the recent Earthshot Prize and Extinction Rebellion campaign) now also exerting an influence, increasingly sustainability will demand more organisational attention. Workplace and FM are ideally positioned to understand and deliver on both.

Assurity Consulting is the UK’s leading independent consultancy specialising in workplace health, safety and environmental solutions. As your partner in compliance management you will reap the benefit of our more than 30 years’ experience of helping customers across a range of different sectors – manage their compliance responsibilities as effectively as possible. If you need any help with your health, safety or environmental compliance, or if you would like more information on the services Assurity Consulting offer, please get in touch.