Bevan Jones 20 April 2020

Getting to net zero

Nearly 70% of local authorities in England and Wales declared a climate emergency in 2019.

Increasing pressure on private and listed companies to be more transparent about their impact on the environment is being matched by that on local authorities and public bodies to show leadership by using their statutory powers to push for net zero actions.

While some local authorities have set targets for 2030 and then set about how to get to that target, others have begun on the road to calculate how and when they will get to net zero. There is no right or wrong approach, but Greengage’s experience in carbon management and climate risk has identified where large organisations like local authorities can get in front of the juggernaut that is net zero.

Where the gaps are

In our experience, there are common gaps where councils and public bodies can inhibit bold actions to becoming net zero.

Data quality is poor

In a data driven world, public sector organisations run the risk of falling behind in terms of exploiting the power of the data they hold. Large organisations have the advantage of holding data in great quantities – but can often fail to use it to its full potential. In terms of carbon, water, waste we see organizations not ‘caring’ for their data, leading to inaccurate or low confidence carbon footprints. And if an accurate footprint cannot be established, setting targets becomes infinitely harder.

A lack of technical expertise

Over the last 10 years, the impact of austerity has been felt keenly by sustainability officers within the public sector. There has been a brain drain of expertise in this decade which has meant a loss of embedded sustainability expertise. The impact of this has been that public sector organisations are generally unprepared for the investment and action needed to reach net zero and the projected impact of heatwaves, floods and extreme weather.

Leadership is lacking

Research from HR Magazine in 2019 found that 60% of UK employees felt that tackling climate change should be the ultimate responsibility of the CEO. However, there are very few directors who are climate specialists at the top of the UK’s public bodies. However, it can also be legitimately argued that most leadership courses do not cater for climate change in 2020.


Austerity has impacted on a local authorities ability to exploit funding and initiatives beyond their statutory duties. The day to day running of the local authority in meeting its statutory obligations has been rightly prioritised, leading to reduced capacity to chase funding. This is not a position that looks likely to be changed in coming years, unless climate change becomes a corporate priority.

What organisations can do now

Provided below are just a few suggestions on what organisations can do now:


Question whether the data your organisation holds can answer challenges around climate change. Is your mileage data clear on fuel types? Have you taken a longitudinal approach to scrutinising insurance data? Are your suppliers able to meet your data needs? This is the first step that needs to be taken, which becomes clearer when you try to calculate a carbon footprint.

Leaders need to lead

In most organisations if the CEO states a direction of travel, most employees will respond. The same applies to executive teams. If leadership ‘buy in’ is an overused phrase in sustainability and climate management, getting this at an early stage helps to provide certainty, remove cynicism and send a message that the organisation takes climate change seriously. But organisational leaders must begin to back climate promises with climate action.

Target training…and then pass it on

In times when budgets are constrained, offering training when the turnover of staff can sometimes be out of your control can seem risky. However, organisations have had to fall back on consultants to meet that capacity gap. In the long run this can prove costly. However, targeted training and a little leftfield thinking can optimise educational and organisational impacts. For example, identifying where the biggest impact can be made in terms of an organisation’s carbon footprint or to create momentum to reduce carbon, organisations should consider the following:

1. For executive directors - Business Sustainability Management run by Cambridge University is aimed at those in senior leadership positions and how they can integrate sustainable thinking into organisation strategy and planning.

2. For finance teams – The Green Finance Certificate (Chartered Banker Institute) is designed to develop financial professionals’ knowledge of the science behind, the principles and practice of Green Finance.

3. For organisations with domestic assets - Retrofit coordinator training (Retrofit Academy) is targeted at built environment professionals, this is the only training that provides comprehensive upskilling to perform low carbon retrofit.

4. For those with very tight budgets - Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) are a no cost way of training staff where there is a demand. edX host a number of free online courses that cover a range of sustainability topics hosted by universities such as Delft and Harvard. MOOC’s have been underutilised by public bodies as a means of increasing organisational knowledge.

Large organisations must also improve knowledge sharing. How much do colleagues hear about each other’s learnings or the implementation of new practices learned on a course? Sharing the information from these courses is vital to embedding sustainability within an organisation.

Align strategies

The growing activism of groups such as Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Friends of the Earth in relation to climate emergencies poses a risk to organisations in terms of reputation and litigation. Not aligning statutory strategies and key policies to climate declarations is not only contradictory, but also leaves an organisation open to accusations of green washing. Strategic reviews of how much work it would take to make organisational police ‘climate compliant’ should be done at the earliest opportunity when thinking about carbon neutrality.

Over the coming year Local Planning Authorities will increasingly be challenged on their climate credentials, their decisions and their performance. Starting simply and getting the foundations in place can help any organisation begin to meet the net zero challenge.

Bevan Jones is an associate at Greengage

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