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S3E3: Net Zero jargon and the evolution of COP

Hayley Baines-Buffery, a Director at sustainability agency BRODIE Consulting talks to Daisy about why it matters whether we talk about net zero or carbon neutral, how climate talks have changed over the past decade, and what all of this means for businesses. And what does it all mean for you? Our key takeaways are: 

  • Companies that really look at their impact holistically (for example, B&Q) think about and measure emissions from products they sell and help consumers change behaviour

  • But the general public would not feel confident explaining terms such as net zero, carbon neutral, so it is really important that we find better ways to engage with people on these issues and start to cut through the jargon

  • Even if COP26 doesn't live up to expectations we can still be hopeful for the future. Copenhagen paved the way for Paris, and we wouldn’t have the commitments we do have now without Glasgow as a deadline

  • Businesses have leaned into COP26 and it's been a great hook for their campaigns - the best way to keep momentum post COP is to commit to long-term, clear plans

You can find the all the data and analysis from the BRODIE Public First Sustainability Sentiment tracker HERE or listen to the whole episode here:

Or read the transcript in full here:

S3E3 - Net Zero jargon and the evolution of COP

Daisy Powell-Chandler

Welcome to Why Everybody Hates You, an audio support group for reputation professionals. If you have any responsibility for how people talk, think, and feel about your organization, then you are in the right place. I’m your host, reputation coach Daisy Powell-Chandler.

Hello! In this third season of Why Everybody Hates You I’m bringing you a series focused on the link between reputation and sustainability, covering everything from human rights to climate change, lobbying to labelling. Public First recently partnered with responsible business advisers BRODIE Consulting to find out what the public think about a host of these issues. You can find a link to the full report in the podcast description. I’ll be discussing some highlights of that data with a selection of experts and offering you guidance on what this means for corporate reputation.

In today’s episode, I’m speaking to Hayley Baines-Buffery, a Director at sustainability agency BRODIE Consulting about why it matters whether we talk about net zero or carbon neutral, how climate talks have changed over the past decade, and what all of this means for businesses.

But I started by asking her about all that tricksy climate change jargon and how businesses and government can best communicate with the public…

Daisy Powell-Chandler

Thank you so much for joining me, Hayley, it's a delight to have you. And I'm hoping that today we can really get into some of the jargon that's involved, particularly around environmental sustainability, and net zero. And I know that's something that you've been working on for years and years now. And I'm also hoping you can tell us a bit about COP and give people an idea of how it has changed over the years. But let's start by talking about the term net zero itself. I think it's really interesting in the polling that we did on the Sustainability Sentiment Tracker, we've discovered that when you talk to people in focus groups, they actually have a fairly good understanding of the concept of climate change, and the impacts that might be having on our world. It varies a lot across the population. But we know that knowledge is on the increase. But when we test the term net zero, what we actually find is fairly low levels of understanding, both awareness of the government's commitment to net zero, and also confidence in explaining what the term means. How should companies respond to that? Is it a case of using different language? Is it about explaining ourselves better? And how problematic is that given that we have a lot of debate still in the sustainability industry about whether net zero is the right thing to be aiming for?

Hayley Baines-Buffery

Thanks, Daisy. Yes, I suppose the tracker really confirmed our suspicions, that the general public would not feel confident explaining terms such as net zero, carbon neutral. So it is really important that we find better ways to engage with people on these issues and start to cut through the jargon that has really proliferated. And even among professionals and businesses, these terms net zero, carbon neutral, carbon positive, they're used interchangeably. People are using them without really understanding what they mean, or what are the implications of those goals for their business. I suppose to give an example, people are saying net zero carbon and carbon neutral and assuming that these are sometimes the same. And actually, they are the same in theory. The theory is that carbon neutral and net zero carbon means balancing anthropogenic, human caused, carbon dioxide emissions with removals over a specified period of time. So that aspect is the same. The big difference is how you go about setting those goals and how you achieve them. With net zero, what we really want to see companies doing is actually reducing emissions as far as possible, before you then deal with residual emissions. And the other big difference we're seeing here is how those residual emissions are dealt with. So previously, with carbon neutral, you might be flying somewhere and think ‘Oh, yes, I'll offset my flights. It'll be a carbon neutral flight’ and you pay for renewable energy, for solar panels in a developing country, what we really need to start doing is actually scrubbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with carbon removals, and more companies are starting to do that Microsoft, for example, is starting to invest in carbon removals technology. There's a lot being done to address these issues by companies. I think the understanding is growing. There are more standards emerging that are going to help companies to make really good commitments, that are in line with what the climate science is telling us we need to do. I think there are really three things that that companies could do to improve people's understanding of what they're doing to move us towards a lower carbon economy. I think the first is to be very clear about their intentions. What are they aiming to do? Where do they want to get to? I think secondly, to be very transparent about the progress that they're making, both positive and negative. We're all learning here, we need to understand from business, what are the challenges that they're facing, and how are they looking to overcome those, and this will help to speed up I think the progress that's being made. And I think the last point is building on that, be very clear about the pivots that you're making, and how, as companies develop their understanding, how are they shifting their activities? What changes are they making to that?

Daisy Powell-Chandler

I think that's all really interesting, because it ties into something that we're definitely seeing coming out of consumer groups that we're doing across the board, which is that amongst the people who are most aware, as people become more engaged in this debate, we're also seeing some increased cynicism around some of the pledges that we hear from companies. The more aware you are about net zero and the sort of the bigger, perhaps more nuanced impacts of climate change, the more simple you become about offsetting and offshoring of emissions. And what we see is our more informed groups of people starting to say things like ‘of course UK emissions have gone down, we've just shut factories here and moved them overseas’ or ‘Oh, that's just because of COVID so we've stopped our factories for some time’ or saying ‘Well that company says it's reducing its emissions, but is that just because they've moved it all to India or China?’ Do you think that's something we can get beyond? Do you think transparency is enough there? Or has there been a sort of fundamental undermining of the trust between companies and the public on that?

Hayley Baines-Buffery

I hope that it's something that we can move beyond, I think it's really good that certain people are questioning these big reductions that are being claimed by governments and by businesses, as you say, through potentially moving activities overseas. Some of the work that I have done in the past has looked more closely at this with certain businesses, getting them to better understand the impacts of producing products, both in the supply chain, but also the impacts of those products, the use of energy by the consumer. One example being actually with B&Q, setting their science based targets with their parent company, Kingfisher Group. So they as part of that science based target, they have to include the emissions that arise from the products that they sell that use energy. So lighting, for example, gas boilers, and there was no standard in place, no methodology to calculate the emissions that arise from all those sales. We worked quite hard to develop and refine that methodology, and looked at the emissions arising from all of the products that it sells. And it was by far the lion's share of the emissions of their overall business. But in reality, the general public probably don't care and have no concept of what seven, eight million tonnes of carbon dioxide really mean. What matters to people is what can I do? How can I reduce my impacts? And it's great to then see which products have changed over time. The phasing out of incandescent light bulbs, and so on. We are starting to see, what does this mean in practice? What does this mean to me in my day to day life, and I think that's where we're going to get the cut through, it's not going to be the fact that a company like B&Q has a science based target, it's going to be about the fact that it can sell products that can help everyday people to reduce their bills and create more comfortable homes. That's the story I think we really need to be telling.

Daisy Powell-Chandler

That's something that of course, is difficult to put across if you don't have a shared language to have that conversation in. And I suppose brings us on to that forever present topic of labelling, one thing that comes across a lot from the consumer is it's really hard to tell which product is better. ‘How do I choose one? How do I know which one is going to actually reduce the bills?’ And I think there's also a big role to be played here in terms of consumer reviews, especially to get around that trust point. Have you found any labelling schemes that are really helping to deal with that problem that you saw at B&Q around creating standard methodology to make this information clearer for consumers to help them make those choices?

Hayley Baines-Buffery

I think labelling can be very helpful. I think things like the EU energy label, the A to G rating has been very helpful. I think it's very clear. And it's being improved over time as well. I think in other areas we've seen that certain labels are becoming more familiar to people, labels like Fairtrade FSC for timber. I think these individual certification schemes have worked very well. I think there are questions now being asked about the robustness of some of these certifications. And again, there's always room for improvement. But I think that those have made a difference. I'm not sure I can really point to a labelling scheme that's been developed by an individual company that people really trust. I think these are really starting to emerge. And we'll see over the course of time what difference this makes to people's purchasing decisions. One pledge is the Amazon Climate Friendly pledge. And when we ran the Sustainability Tracker, Amazon was one of the companies that people identified as being a leader in sustainability. Although a lot of people actually couldn't name a company that they felt was a sustainability leader. I think it was something like 40% of the people that we polled in that Sustainability Tracker, couldn't name a sustainability leader. I don't think they're making as much difference yet, as people hope. And I think part of the role of business needs to actually be that choice editing. Some of that will be driven through legislation, but some of it can be companies going ahead of legislation. As I mentioned, B&Q phased out incandescent light bulbs, they actually did that head of the government legislation. Also looking at things like timber, making sure 100% of your timber is sustainably sourced, you shouldn't have to look at a label and choose between decking that is and isn't sustainably sourced, that should just be par for the course. I think there's a role to play. But there are improvements that need to be made around the transparency of some of these labelling schemes for people who want to delve into the detail a bit more.

Daisy Powell-Chandler

Absolutely. And I think, also important to caveat here that if we've got listeners who work across different markets, one of the interesting nuances we found from the data was that some sustainability terms have quite different levels of understanding in the US and UK. So particularly around some of those sort of human factors, fair trade, modern slavery, better understood in the UK market than they were in the US. So always worth testing that before you stick it on your packaging. Now, I really wanted to pick your brains about COP, one of the things that we're seeing at the moment is a very rapid increase in public awareness and understanding of climate change. I'm sure part of that is driven by some of the extreme weather that we've seen over the past year and some of the conversations around Covid and climate change as well. But I would expect that some of that increase in UK awareness is also because we're talking about it a bit more. Because we have these big climate talks coming up. How has that changed over time? I seem to recall that you have in fact been to a COP in the past.

Hayley Baines-Buffery

Yes, it's been fascinating really, to have people talk to me, to have neighbours talk to me, about the COP, that this is even on their radars. It was in 2009 that I went to Copenhagen to COP15. I was really early on actually, in my sustainability career, had been working for Bioregional for three years. And in that time, we'd had the Stern Climate Review in 2006. In the UK, we had the Code for Sustainable Homes. So we'd committed that all homes were going to be net zero carbon by 2016. I felt having started at Bioregional in 2006, a sustainability charity, starting there, and those three years building up to COP15, we really felt that was going to be the big moment that was going to be the moment that we got this global agreement to work together to combat climate change. So four of us got on a train to Copenhagen, 18 hours on a train, to go to the climate talks. We really wanted to be there for this big moment. And we ran some workshops with businesses and other organisations that were there looking at what we can do, what's our contribution to climate change, then right up to sitting in some of those plenaries and trying to figure out what they were talking about. It really was quite an eye opener, in some ways quite overwhelming. I didn't, to be honest, really understand what was going on half the time. But we felt that something was going to come of it. And then, of course, at the end, it really fell apart. Ed Miliband, I remember he was the Environment Minister, got bought in at the 11th hour to try and rescue the talks. And some good things came out of that COP, I think there was the commitments to provide finance to reduce deforestation. So some good things came out of it, but not this global agreement we'd all been hoping for. It was really quite deflating, having had this build up, really felt something was going to happen. And it took another six years to get that global agreement. One of the big things that I think has changed since that time is when we were at the COP in Copenhagen, there was a lot of representation from NGOs, there were climate scientists, and of course, the political leaders and negotiators, but business didn't really have a presence. I remember there being a couple of businesses there, a couple of sponsors, but there wasn't much engagement from what I remember from businesses. So that does seem to be a big difference now, and we've got Sainsbury's and Sky sponsoring the COP. They're putting it in their adverts. There's been coverage on the news every day this week about the negotiations and talks that are leading up to the COP. I do feel it is much more present and on people's radar compared to previous years, and I hope that is going to help that there's now a pressure from all angles to try and get an even stronger deal from countries to tackle climate change.

Daisy Powell-Chandler

Yes, I feel there's positives and negatives in that. Because yes, as you say, Copenhagen, a lot of people went in feeling this was the moment there's been a real build up something big was going to come out of it. And then what we actually saw really fell short of those expectations. But we did get Paris later on as a sort of longer term result of those talks. And the involvement of business this time, I suppose is interesting for our listeners, because actually it provides an opportunity for businesses to get involved. But it's also probably great news in terms of speed of progress on climate goals, because a lot of the active partners in changing our behaviours are going to be the companies that can edit our choices, as you put it, which I think is a really neat way of encapsulating that the companies who can push to find us new options whose R&D is going to help answer a lot of the questions about how do we reach net zero? Having them involved feels to me like a really positive step. I know that we do get some scepticism from the public about, can we trust people who have a profit motive in this fight? Do we want them involved? But I tend towards the view that actually unless we can get businesses motivated to be part of this journey, then we might as well all go home because we're never going to meet it.

Hayley Baines-Buffery

Yes, I completely agree. Daisy, I think that the weight of business is so important in making this a success and seeing the transformation that we need in terms of reducing emissions from company operations. And we've seen some big businesses in recent years, really shift their ambition and activity to reduce emissions. Take Maersk, for example, big shipping business, what they looked at was the climate risk. The risk of climate change on the financial standing of their business. And developing that understanding has really, I think, opened their eyes and they now have much bolder commitments on carbon reduction. We are seeing really positive action and it is great to see businesses taking a lead here. I think in some areas, there is a need for a more level playing field to help some companies to take bolder action on climate change. And that's where some regulation will be helpful. The other big impact that I've seen is in privately held businesses, so companies like IKEA, are putting enormous sums of money into renewal energy, into forests, protecting forests. They are looking at this in the long term, and they have that long term view on the impacts that this will have on their business, but also the opportunity again, the opportunity for them arising from being able to generate more renewable energy than they need, and then selling that on to their customers and being a provider of renewable energy. So what we're seeing is some companies responding very much to the risks presented by climate change, and others, looking more at where are their opportunities to pivot their business models, or develop new products and services that will help people to reduce their impacts?

Daisy Powell-Chandler

And are their lessons do you think that companies can take from the way in which the political cycle works around this kind of climate talks? Are we going to get to the third week of November and everyone's going think ‘Phew, don't have to worry about that for a little while, we can all go home and talk about something else’ like Covid recovery or budget deficits or whatever it might be, and then the focus will shift away? Or is it likely that then the focus is going to shift more to implementation? What should we be looking out for after the COP?

Hayley Baines-Buffery

I think there is a risk that we do lose momentum after the COP, that there's been such a build up, there's been a number of announcements made by companies in the run up to COP using COP as a hook for announcements on new climate change goals and strategies. What comes after COP? I think you're absolutely right. What we need to start seeing is that implementation, it's the devil will be in the detail around the actions that companies are taking. What we will be looking for is clear progress being reported against goals. Seeing really clear decarbonisation roadmaps, I've seen a great plan, actually, from the Co-op, they've got a 10 point plan for how they are going to reduce their impacts, it's a really clear presentation of what they're going to do, not just the goal, but all of the different steps that they will be taking. I think as a sustainability person, I will be really interested to see how they make progress against those different areas of activity, which ones succeed, which ones proved more challenging, and really understanding where those challenges lie. But I think knowing that they have 10 areas that they're going to look at is really encouraging because it shows that level of sophistication in their understanding that there is no silver bullet, we can't achieve this through planting a lot of trees through massive pipes that are going to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, it's going to be a combination of all of these different measures that are going to get us to where we hope we're going to be.

Daisy Powell-Chandler

I couldn't agree more. I think the companies that I've seen that are doing the best work on this look at reaching net zero in a really holistic manner. And it's about helping their consumers to change their behaviour, helping their suppliers to change their behaviour, changing their own energy makeup, changing the makeup of the very products that they produce, and the ways in which they work. And that can be a really intimidating process to start on. But all of the companies I know who've really committed to it have also then found some interesting business model results coming out of that, as you alluded to, whether that's finding new opportunities, or identifying risks that they perhaps hadn't seen before, and being able to mitigate those. So hopefully, it can be a positive journey for all of us. But perhaps we shall have to regroup in a few months time and see what the results are from the COP and where we have ended up.

That's everything from us. A big thank you to my guest, to Hayley Baines-Buffery, from BRODIE Consulting.

I’d love to hear from you which lessons particularly stood out. For me there were four key takeaways:

- Companies that really look at their impact holistically (for example, B&Q) think about and measure emissions from products they sell and help consumers change behaviour

- But the general public would not feel confident explaining terms such as net zero, carbon neutral, so it is really important that we find better ways to engage with people on these issues and start to cut through the jargon

- Even if COP26 doesn't live up to expectations we can still be hopeful for the future. Copenhagen paved the way for Paris, and we wouldn’t have the commitments we do have now without Glasgow as a deadline.

- Businesses have leaned into COP26 and it's been a great hook for their campaigns - the best way to keep momentum post COP is to commit them to long term clear plans

If you've enjoyed this episode, I hope you'll tell your colleagues and perhaps write us a review on your usual podcasting app – it really does help new listeners to find the show.

Thank you for listening to Why Everybody Hates You, and remember: you are not alone.