Richard Tarboton and Annabell James from Carbon Credentials argue that companies will go much further if they can tap into a growing desire by workforces to do their bit for the planet

The story of sustainability in 2018 was of extreme change – from weather events, to variable political action and a sharp increase in the expectations of businesses on key issues; for example the war on single-use plastics. It was also a year that brought clarity about the scale of the challenge, and the opportunity climate change presents.

The IPCC report was the most extensive warning yet on the risks of rising global temperatures, with leading international scientists announcing that we have 12 years left to limit temperature increase to 1.5C and avoid a climate catastrophe. To avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change, globally we must slash carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, and completely decarbonise by 2050.

More than half of junior employees surveyed said their employers aren’t doing enough to involve them in cutting their carbon footprint

Preventing world temperatures rising dangerously above 1.5C requires urgent collaborative action, from everyone and from everywhere.

Some businesses have started taking action by setting science-based carbon reduction targets, aligned to the objectives of the Paris Agreement, a pledge signed by nearly 200 countries to tackle climate change and keep global temperature rise “well below’ 2C. (See ‘We’re rethinking every part of our business, from supplier agreements to future technologies’)

Overall, 505 companies from 38 countries have now committed to set an approved science-based target, with four firms committing to targets aligned with 1.5C – namely our clients supermarket Tesco and tea brand Pukka Herbs – as well as brewer Carlsberg and telecoms giant BT. But beyond these leading companies, are businesses doing enough to address climate change?

To answer this question, we recently commissioned the Carbon Commitment Report, and the results were eye-opening. We found that beyond large corporates, carbon targets are rare; and employees aren't impressed.

Of the 1,000 heads of sustainability and business owners questioned, only 10% had set carbon emissions targets, and none was science based. However, employee appetite for tackling climate change does exist. A thousand junior employees were also questioned and more than half (57%) said their employers aren’t doing enough to involve them in cutting their carbon footprint at work. In fact, even when targets do exist, 74% of employees have no idea what their organisation’s carbon reduction targets are, and 57% of those questioned said they don’t, or don’t always, trust UK organisations to deliver on their sustainability claims.

More than half (66%) of employees would support a bonus incentive scheme to cut carbon use at work, but only 4% of companies have these in place. A mere 14% of organisations have set staff personal goals and targets to cut their own workplace carbon footprint, only 9% incentivise staff to save energy at work or reduce their individual carbon footprint with benefits such as increased annual leave, or financial incentives for cycling to work. Just 13% offer an official company car-share policy and 12% have a cycle-to-work scheme.

This gap between corporate ambition and action is leading to a high percentage of employees confused over what they need to do

This lack of action by organisations has meant nearly three-quarters of employees (71%) are taking their own initiatives to cut their carbon footprint at work, but not necessarily in the right areas.

Shockingly, when Carbon Credentials asked employees what their most innovative ideas were for cutting workplace energy, these included banning personal mobile devices, or old-fashioned suggestions like foil to cover walls or spaces near heaters/radiators, mandatory screen savers and sleep mode on all laptops, tablets and phones.

This gap between corporate ambition and action is leading to a high percentage of employees confused over what they need to do to help reduce greenhouse gases at work. There is also declining trust among employees towards their organisation’s capability to deliver on sustainability commitments. More ambitious science-based climate action is needed, and employees must be involved in the journey.

Putting sustainability on the employee agenda can spur leaders to act. (Credit:

According to Carbon Credentials’ research, 60% of respondents, including heads and managers of sustainability, said that a lack of leadership support, insufficient funding and competing inter-departmental budgets and resources were the biggest barriers preventing organisations from rolling out successful sustainability programmes. On the other hand, employees are engaged and willing to help, but aren’t always given the incentives, tools and support to do so.

By incorporating employee engagement into their plans, businesses have the potential to overcome internal budgeting and leadership challenges. Placing environmental issues firmly on the employee agenda can help sustainability managers leverage their support to convince leadership to act. Capitalising on support from willing and passionate colleagues offers a cost-effective way to create change and deliver impact.

For there to be any chance in meeting the IPCC warming recommendations, businesses must play their part

Our client, P&O Ferries, found that embedding sustainability into day-to-day employee activities enabled significant savings and more effective company-wide change. A mixture of employee sustainability campaigns and communication materials such as infographics and posters enabled P&O Ferries to share the work being undertaken to minimise its environmental impact.

The results were impressive: carbon savings in one quarter were equivalent to driving 137,000 miles. More than 90% of sites are now supplied with renewable energy, and importantly, P&O now has a trusting, motivated workforce with a renewed sense of ownership in the overall sustainability programme.

For there to be any chance in meeting the IPCC warming recommendations, businesses must play their part by setting ambitious science-based emission reduction targets. Engaging employees in the process is key and will help businesses drive action and ultimately achieve success. Setting targets not only sends out a clear message on the organisations’ commitment to climate change but reduces energy costs and spend; which benefits the planet, your people, your business reputation, and your bottom line.

Richard Tarboton is director of client services, and Annabell James is sustainability consultant at energy performance and carbon management company Carbon Credentials.

Main picture credit: Leeds Fotografica/Shutterstock
Carbon Credentials  Employee engagement  Science Based Targets 

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