Most UK organisations will miss Government’s Net Zero target without bolder action on carbon reduction, research reveals

The majority of organisations in the UK are set to miss the Government’s target for net zero carbon emissions, according to research from Dr Chris Brauer, Goldsmiths, University of London in partnership with Microsoft. 

The study shows how thousands of organisational leaders and employees know they are under pressure to make their companies more sustainable but most are struggling to know how to do that. This is partly due to a failure to turn strategy into action and a scarcity of in-house skills. 

While “Accelerating the Journey to Net Zero – A UK Blueprint for Carbon Reduction” shows that urgent action is needed from organisations if the Government is to meet its green target by 2050, it also points to solutions to current challenges. Collaboration and technology are key to a more sustainable future. 

Clare Barclay, CEO of Microsoft UK, said: “If the UK is to meet its net zero ambitions, public and private sectors need to join forces to define the meaning of real net zero, agree how to measure progress and build markets that can deliver a just, prosperous future for everyone.” 

The research comes just a week ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference UK 2021 (COP26), which will be held in Glasgow in November. Microsoft has been named a Principal Partner for the summit, and the company has also made commitments around carbon, water, waste and ecosystems. 

The study found that 59% of UK firms will miss the Government’s 2050 net zero target without urgent action on carbon reduction. In addition, 74% of UK firms have “one foot in and one foot out” on sustainability, and are better at designing strategies than executing and operationalising sustainability plans. 

Read the full report

Leading British organisations have contributed to the study, along with prominent sustainable business experts from across government, industry and academia. 

The top challenges for business leaders in the next five to 10 years are: 

  • Actioning the strategy – Concerns about being able to action the sustainability strategy over the next five years (43%) 
  • Guidance – Having clear government guidance for action (41%), but the report points to the need for whole systems thinking, including collaboration between government, commerce, academia and NGOs to collectively address barriers to net zero 
  • Skills – Having in-house expertise and skills to support a strategy (40%) 
  • Financing – Having access to funding to implement their sustainability plan (36%) 
  • Getting the most out of technology – The availability of technology to support sustainability initiatives (33%).   

The study dived into the data to find that 74% of surveyed companies are considered “aspirational” on their approach to sustainability; a further 15% are “stragglers” that are making very low progress on their green goals; and just 11% are “leaders” that are unlocking funding and developing technology to meet their targets. 

The “leaders” are also actively exploring how technology can be used to amplify and accelerate their Net Zero strategies. Three quarters of this group are investing in research and development for new technologies (76%), including tech to measure carbon emissions (76%), and many are also building the in-house skills needed make the most of these technologies. 

Barclay added: “Technology will play a key role in addressing these challenges and it’s clear from our research that those organisations that have embedded technology in the heart of their strategies are the ones that have made the most significant progress against their sustainability goals. And while it is encouraging that so many of the organisations surveyed are taking the threat of climate change seriously, the time has come to move from ambition to action. We must work collectively to accelerate our journey to net zero.” 

Where the business case is proven to make a meaningful contribution to sustainability, organisations are investing in the greenest solutions. Examples include business productivity technologies (investment by 89% of firms), collaboration technologies (70%), cloud technologies (69%) and carbon emissions measurement technologies (33%).  

There is also demand for increasingly sophisticated technology over the next five years. Organisation leaders will shift their focus to more intensive use of Robotic Process Automation (51%), machine learning (53%), and “digital twin” technologies (55%) – a rapidly growing territory for simulation of business processes and strategies at scale without the real-world waste. 

The move from organisations to increasingly focus on a greener future could be fuelled by the high standards demanded by employees in this area. 

The Goldsmiths, University of London and Microsoft study found that 67% of UK employees expect their employer to take action to reduce the business’ climate footprint, while 72% believe sustainability should be a top priority for business over the next five years. However, only 19% reported that their employer is implementing their current sustainability plan efficiently. 

Only 17% of employees believe their work premises are as environmentally friendly as their own home. This is important, as almost half (48%) of employees surveyed said the strength of a firms’ sustainability plan would impact where they choose to work.

Lucas Joppa, Chief Environmental Officer at Microsoft, said: “In order for the world to achieve net zero emissions, it’s imperative that businesses build sustainability into their core strategy and operations. Business leaders in the UK today have a responsibility to set meaningful sustainability commitments and then put their organisations on a path to meet them. While this report acknowledges the challenges at hand, it also highlights the opportunity to utilise technology to measure, manage and ultimately aid in meeting those commitments.” 

In a blog post earlier this year, Microsoft announced it will help companies and organisations on their journeys to Net Zero by focus on: 

  • The meaning of net zero – a global definition for any net zero commitment grounded in both carbon removal and reduction 
  • The measurement of net zero – protocols and digital tools to ensure that progress reported on an accounting statement is truly progress 
  • The markets to support net zero – both the financial and human investment needed across the economy. 

For more information on Microsoft’s approach to sustainability and the commitments it has made to reduce its impact on the planet, as well as find out how the Cloud for Sustainability and Planetary Computer can help you meet your green goals, visit our dedicated website.