The BBC’s journey to net zero: Technology’s key role in sustainability

Have you watched an episode of EastEnders recently? You may have spied an electric vehicle (EV) whizzing by Albert Square, or a subtly placed recycling bin near The Queen Vic. Sustainability is a key part of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s output, whether it’s in woven into its programming, or factored into behind the scenes production.  

It’s all under the directive of Danielle Mulder, the BBC’s Group Director of Sustainability. She was appointed to the role in 2021 with a remit to achieve net zero by 2030 across the global BBC organisation.  

It’s no small task. Since its first broadcast just over 100 years ago, the BBC now reaches a global audience of 492 million people. There’s a fair chance you’ll have watched a programme, caught up on the news, read an article, or listened to a radio show produced by its 22,000 employees. In 2022, people spent 53 billion hours consuming BBC content in the UK alone.   

But broadcasting and production at this scale comes with a sizeable carbon footprint. The BBC calculated that their greenhouse gas emissions in 2019/20 came to 1.3 million tonnes CO2e globally. That’s the emission equivalent of approximately 283,000 round-trip flights between London and New York.  

We spoke with Danielle Mulder to find out more about her strategy and to understand how technology is playing a pivotal role in helping the BBC Group achieve its goals.  

The science-based targets to achieve net zero 

With a global responsibility for sustainability initiatives across the BBC’s public service, international bureaus, and commercial operations, Mulder is excited for the challenge her net zero programme poses. “It’s a large remit for a reason,” she reflects. “It means there’s a consistent strategy across the whole organisation, regardless of where you sit.”  

Mulder’s sustainability strategy has three pillars. “The core pillar homes in on net zero,” she explains. “We also have a pillar on nature – we call it nature positive – where we take responsibility for our impact on biodiversity and nature itself. And our third pillar is people positive, which is about the impact of our programming on people, as well as our staff.”  

The net zero targets are split into three categories: scope one, which includes direct fossil fuels, scope two, which includes electricity, and scope three, which includes indirect emissions such as those from the supply chain. 

To achieve the scope one and two targets, Mulder is focused on reducing the use of fossil fuels in buildings, operations, and company vehicles, as well as ensuring that the electricity used is certified to a renewable energy standard. For scope three, the biggest contributor is the supply chain emissions, so engagement with suppliers is key. The BBC is also collaborating with peers such as Sky and ITV to decarbonise together through the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP).  

Moving from a cottage industry of spreadsheets to one source of data 

With such a large scope, Mulder’s team recently implemented Microsoft’s Sustainability Manager to help them manage carbon emissions and overall sustainability performance. The Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability solution brings data together to help companies monitor and manage their environmental impact.  

Mulder says no matter what kind of company you are, you need data to act with impact.  “If you have signed up for science-based targets and a net-zero goal, you need a tool like Microsoft’s Sustainability Manager to gather and consolidate data into one reliable source. It gives you one version of the truth, and you can make informed decisions based on accurate information.” 

The Sustainability Manager is being used to monitor the BBC’s energy consumption, travel, and waste generation. By tracking these factors, the BBC can identify areas where they are using resources inefficiently and develop strategies to reduce their impact on the environment. The tool also allows the BBC to report its sustainability performance, improving transparency and accountability.  

 “The platform itself is to help us avoid a cottage industry of spreadsheets,” Mulder says. “It creates efficiencies – we can save a lot of time, and potentially money as well.” 

The role of technology in achieving net zero 

“Our implementation of Microsoft Sustainability Manager goes all the way down from division level to cost centre level, so we have a holistic overview,” she says. “It enables us to capture the carbon emissions related to each cost centre and that’s powerful.”  

The Carbon Trust conducted a review of Mulder and her team verify their data. The BBC has already achieved a 15% reduction in their emissions. Sustainability Manager allows them to verify data, track progress, and see details of how they achieved their targets, such as reducing gas, diesel, and oil use and improving building efficiency.  

“From the production through to the end user, technology is the red thread through it all,” Mulder says. “It underpins a lot of what the media system does, from production technology to how we transmit and distribute data. Cloud services also play a role – we need to know how efficient that technology is in terms of energy consumption.” 

But technology isn’t everything. “Some of this change depends on people. We need engagement and behavioural change too, where consumers make different choices but also employees.”” 

Informing, educating, entertaining on the journey to net zero 

One of the BBC’s founding principles is to inform, educate, and entertain. Mulder is building on this foundation with her strategy, using the BBC’s programming and platforms to consolidate the sustainability message.  

“More than 6,000 hours of TV content is commissioned, nearly 3000 hours of content is produced by BBC Studios, and there is more than 70,000 hours of radio output. When it came to news output, our analysts couldn’t give me a number because it is produced and distributed across so many different platforms,” says Mulder. “The challenge for me is how to make that sustainable; from commissioning, to producing, to how we get it on air. Then there’s the messaging in that content.” 

The milestone moment for Mulder was at COP26 when the BBC’s Director General, Tim Davie, along with 11 other UK broadcasters (including ITV, Channel 4, and Sky) signed a pledge to improve the quality of their climate change storytelling. It committed all broadcasters to integrate the latest climate science across all their content, and across all genres.  

“It was a significant turning point,” reflects Mulder. “A lot of other sectors could see how we were collaborating, and it was a ‘wow’ moment. From there it really came together.”  

The Eastenders closing image with the Eastenders logo and a map of London, but the river is starting to burst at some parts owing to climate change

EastEnders end credits highlighting how climate change will impact London

Taking advantage of this momentum was the next challenge. News was excluded from the pledge because of the policy of impartiality, so Mulder looked to programmes and started with the commissioners. “The ideal opportunity to integrate climate science is at the commissioning level, when a programme is green lit,” says Mulder. Informing commissioners on the topic and helping them understand the ideas behind sustainability is key, she says.  And although Mulder mentions some of the BBC Natural History Unit’s recent hits – David Attenborough’s Green Planet, which focuses on plant life, or Wild Isles which celebrates British wildlife – she is quick to recognise that the message should go beyond the Science & Nature category.  

She cites the primetime magazine programme The One Show, which regularly has sustainability-themed features. The Great British Sewing Bee harks back to the ‘make, do, and mend’ approach of years gone by. And even the soap opera EastEnders is instrumental in communicating the sustainability message.  

“There’s a big role to be played in having climate science implicitly weaved into our content. It’s all about the normalisation of sustainability. In EastEnders you’ll see an electric vehicle (EV) charging point on the programme, or an EV whizzing around Albert Square. We also build it into storylines – characters talk about recycling and reuse, and food banks. We’ve even had special edition end credits highlighting how climate change will impact London and the River Thames. It’s subtle but it normalises important topics.”  

How to get started in your sustainability journey 

Mulder is aware of the responsibility that comes with the ambitious net zero target, but she embraces the challenge and encourages other companies to do the same.  

“We all have a role to play in this,” she reflects. “If you look at the BBC’s emissions, they’re not as big as some other organisations in terms of our direct operational emissions. But we recognise that, as a responsible business, we should address them.”  

“We need to play our part in halving them by 2030, which is what we’re committed to doing.” 

For companies who are just starting their sustainability journey, Mulder has some core tips: “Don’t delay, just get started and you will figure things out as you go. Get help where you need it. And make sure you get buy in from the top, as it makes the whole transition a lot easier – and that’s essential for success.”