With the formal adoption last year of a net zero carbon emissions target for 2050 and the forthcoming COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow this summer, there is little doubt that the climate emergency is near the very top of the national agenda. Many major employers too, organisations which might a decade ago merely have paid lip service to climate and sustainability issues, are now suddenly gripped by the urgency and scale of the problem and the need to play their part in finding solutions.

The workforce, particularly its younger millennial and generation Z cohorts, are becoming increasingly exercised around climate issues as well, with interest in a Green New Deal and the concept of a just transition working their way through into the demands of trade unions and other workforce representatives. Investors too are starting to pay very serious attention to corporate reporting on climate issues. Companies are increasingly under pressure from government, consumers, workforce and investors to get a grip on these issues and those which fail to do so risk suffering major reputational damage.

Clearly the things companies can do to reduce their own carbon emissions varies by industry – transportation, construction and energy companies in particular face huge challenges unique to their sectors which they will have to come to terms with over the coming years. There are many other steps though which are open to any companies to take, including important options relating to the workforce and HR policies.

To start with, one of the main workforce contributors to carbon emissions is daily commuting. Companies should take steps to examine their remote working and flexible work policies to see whether they could accelerate the existing trend towards more home working and telecommuting. More business meetings too could be conducted by Skype or other digital platforms, rather than having employees travel long distances to meet in person. Where business travel is necessary, companies should look to default to rail travel rather than car or, particularly, air – even if this proves more expensive.

Companies such as WSP have imposed internal carbon levies on any of their teams booking air travel, with the funds raised being invested in CSR activities. When their staff book travel online, pop-ups are set to appear, asking them if they need to travel at all or whether they could use Skype instead. Some companies are already going further. More than 30 companies so far have signed up to Climate Perks, a scheme launched by the charity Possible which offers two or more paid "journey days" of additional annual leave to employees who agree to travel on their personal holidays by train, coach or boat instead of air.

Looking further ahead, proposals for reducing working hours altogether could make a big contribution to decarbonisation. One of the key benefits of those companies moving to a four-day workweek include a 20% fall in commuting and the option to potentially close the office altogether for one extra day, saving on heating, electricity and other carbon costs. An increase in flexible and home working would also mean fewer people in the office at any time, allowing companies to consider smaller premises that are more carbon friendly.

Regardless of what carbon reduction measures companies are looking at, it is vital that they properly involve their workforce in discussions about major changes to the work environment, buildings, policies and processes and the use of new technology. This is particularly important for industries such as construction, transport, chemicals or energy where there will have to be the biggest changes in workplace practice if the net zero targets are to be met. If these changes are to be implemented successfully, employers will need to convince the whole workforce of the need for change and secure their buy-in to the agenda. Even issues which traditionally have been regarded as 'tea and toilets' questions of workplace facilities – things for workforce reps to avoid bringing to high level discussions with senior management – can suddenly take on a new strategic dimensions when seen through the prism of reducing carbon emissions in the workplace.

Climate change poses one of the greatest challenges the UK has ever faced – to rise to this challenge will require unprecedented levels of cooperation and coordination between all stakeholders in the UK economy. Companies are right to now be putting climate issues at the top of their CSR agendas, but a top-down, command and control approach to reducing workplace emissions is unlikely to succeed. Only by bringing the workforce with you on this journey, as equal partners working towards the common goal of preventing a climate catastrophe, will organisations succeed in achieving the radical change that is required.


Patrick Briône is Head of Policy & Research at the IPA

0207 759 1004

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