What is net zero emissions and how can the industry achieve it?

Chris Harrop of Marshalls plc
Thursday 14th October, 2021

Sustainability has been part of the Marshalls story for a long time. We started reporting our carbon data back in 2004 and since 2008, we've reduced our carbon footprint by 50%. Now I'm even more proud to confirm that Marshalls has committed to a 1.5°C trajectory and achieving net zero emissions by 2030. More importantly, we are already on track to accomplish this.

This is a firm commitment, and we have the roadmap to how we will get there. Sadly, I'm still seeing companies making strange commitments based on time and definition. In particular, there is still a lot of confusion about what net zero emissions is, what it means to be a business with net zero or carbon neutral targets, and importantly when a company should aim to achieve this by.

When should a business aim to be net zero?

1.5°C might not sound like a lot but in just over 11 years, the planet will warm to 1.5°C and it is about as far we can get before irreversible damage. If the planet's average temperature reaches 1.5°C, we will see more extreme weather events including heatwaves, droughts and flooding. We have the opportunity right now to prevent the most catastrophic impacts of climate change – and this is the urgency. Any target set for after 2030 will simply be too late.

How are carbon emissions measured?

It's important to understand how we measure carbon emissions to fully understanding what net zero emissions actually means. This comes under three areas known as Scopes 1, 2 and 3:

  • Scope 1 refers to all direct emissions of carbon – for Marshalls, this means emissions from our fleet and manufacturing processes
  • Scope 2 are indirect emissions of carbon – so this would be electricity that we've purchased
  • Scope 3 is everything else – supplier emissions that result from our activities but don't own or control, such as the shipping of goods and business travel

What is the difference between net zero and carbon neutral?

When a business is aiming for net zero emissions, all of the above scopes must be addressed. In contrast, companies with targets around carbon neutrality only need to work on Scopes 1 and 2. At Marshalls we look at emissions within all scopes as this is the only way to give a true reflection of a company's impact on the environment.

Another difference between net zero and carbon neutral is the level of ambition. To be carbon neutral, there is no requirement for a company to reduce its emissions along a specific trajectory or timeline. To be net zero, a company must set a science-based target and reduce its emissions along a 1.5°C plan for all scopes.

What about science-based targets?

It's essential that any target set is appropriate, based on science, and approved by experts. Science-based targets are goals developed by a business to provide it with a clear route to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. An emissions reduction target is defined as science-based if it's developed in line with the scale of reductions required to keep global warming below 1.5°C from pre-industrial levels.

Our carbon reduction plan has been approved by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) which is a partnership between CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project), the UN Global Compact, the World Resources Institute and the WWF. This means we have calculated our Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions and projected according to a 1.5°C pathway.

What can a business do about residual emissions?

The last bit to understand about carbon reduction is what to do with emissions that are hard to get rid of, or residual emissions. No matter how good your carbon reduction programme, there will be processes that are difficult to adjust. To be carbon neutral, a company can purchase carbon offsets which can take various forms. For example, some companies are planting trees. This is great for biodiversity and for absorbing carbon. However reforestation needs to consider a range of factors: location, type of tree and the fact that only matured trees can make a full impact.

For net zero, it's different. Instead of offsetting, a company needs to look at ways to remove carbon completely and permanently, through greenhouse gas removal or replacement.

We know the construction industry is one of the biggest global producers of carbon, which is why Marshalls has scienceā€based targets – and we're still the only ones in our industry in the UK which is slightly depressing.

In months to come, we will share more details about our roadmap to net zero, which is based on the twin goals of mitigation – the actions we are taking to reduce emissions that cause climate change – and adaptation – the actions we need to take to manage the risks of climate change impacts.

In the meantime, you can find out more about our sustainability work on our website.

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