What is Net Zero and what does it mean for event teams?

We cut through the jargon to give you a easy-to-navigate guide on the past, present and future of net zero.

Want to commit to a net-zero strategy, but not entirely sure how to get there. Don’t worry, you’re not alone…

A 2022 net-zero survey conducted by the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership questioning C-Suite executives spanning seven different countries, including the UK, revealed that while nearly 7 in 10 have some sort of net-zero plan in place:

  • Nearly 8 in 10 businesses are relying on policy and regulatory changes to help the company’s net zero ambitions
  • Only 3 in 10 businesses have all of the investment it requires to achieve its net zero ambitions
  • 8 in 10 companies agree that an integrated, collaborative and systemic approach will help to tackle the climate crisis

Below we explore the origins of net zero and what is means for event teams the length and breadth of the country.

The Science Based Targets Initiative 

Understanding the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) is key to understanding the origins of net zero. A collaboration between the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) the SBTi was formed in response to the seminal 2015 Paris Agreement. This legally binding international treaty on climate change was formally adopted by 196 Parties at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21), with an overarching goal to pursue efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”.

The SBTi provides companies of all sizes ‘with a clearly-defined path to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement goals’, with 4,000 companies around the globe already utilising its framework.

In 2018, three years after launch of both the Paris Agreement and the SBTi, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) an intergovernmental body of the United Nations warned that in order for the Earth’s atmosphere to stay within a 1.5C global warming limit, we would need to cut our CO2 emissions in half by 2030 (compared to 2017 levels) and reach a state of net zero CO2 emissions by 2050.

Three years later in 2021 SBTi launched the world’s first net-zero standard, where they called for companies to ‘deeply reduce emissions and counterbalance the impact of any emissions that remain’.

This gave birth to the concept of net-zero as we now know it, with momentum building for a net-zero goal (a 90-95% reduction in emissions) at COP26 held in the same year, with 74 countries promising to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century by the end of the conference.

At COP27 in 2022 the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan acknowledged the need to drive down emissions globally and outlined that a significant investment in renewable energy was needed to reach the net zero by 2050 goal.

Despite the above, in 2023 the IPCC echoed its earlier warnings as part of the AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023 emphasising the urgent need to drive climate mitigation forward and action ‘deep, rapid, and sustained reductions’ in emissions.

The UK’s net-zero commitment

In 2019 a net-zero target was made legally binding in the UK by the Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) Order 2019.

This pledged that national emissions would be cut to almost zero by 2050, and in April 2021 the government set out an additional target of a 78% reduction in emissions (vs. 1990 levels) by 2035. Putting it simply, this is the same as a 50% reduction in carbon emissions from pre-industrial levels. 

On 19th October 2021, ten days ahead of COP26, the UK published its Net Zero Strategy. This document focused on the diffusion of technologies such as electric vehicles, low-carbon aviation fuel and the mass installation of heat pumps. 

In January 2023 former Energy Minister Chris Skidmore MP conducted an independent review of the above Net Zero Strategy, putting forward a raft of recommendations to government designed to clarify targets, mobilise action and maximise the opportunities presented by net zero.

In March 2023 the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero released its Powering up Britain report which went some way to addressing the energy recommendations in the review.

Debate on intricacies of the Net Zero Strategy continues apace. As an example, in June 2023, Kwasi Kwarteng MP opened an in-person update at Westminster Hall to debate on government policy on reaching net zero by 2050.  

Categorising emissions: the GHG scopes

The GHG Protocol – ‘which supplies the world’s most widely used greenhouse gas accounting standard’ categorises different types of emissions according to who ‘owns’/is responsible for producing these emissions.

Scope 1 – The ones directly caused by your owned or controlled assets. Examples include burning fuel in your vehicle fleet (if these aren’t electrically powered) 

Scope 2 – Indirect emissions associated with the purchase of electricity, steam, heat, or cooling for those owned or controlled assets

Scope 3 – The indirect emissions of your supply chain and logistics which occur as a result of your organisation’s activities (Scope 3).

How can my organisation work towards Net Zero?

COP28 will hopefully continue to create some shared consensus on net zero, and with the increase in government leadership, subsidies, taxes and clear frameworks will need to be implemented to achieve our global goals. 

There are three different ways that carbon can be accounted for in relation to net zero:

–  per product accounting (i.e., your laptop)

– *per project accounting (i.e., measuring your event)

–  per year accounting (i.e., measuring your company operations)

With all that said, you might be wondering how your organisation can get one step ahead and work towards net zero in your event deliveries*. 

Step 1 – Define and commit to Net Zero

Enshrining a definition of what a transition to net zero means for your organisation should be the first step towards this goal. Your official sustainability policy should include reference to the UK’s 2030 and 2050 Net Zero targets, in line with commitments towards:

  • A 50% reduction in emissions compared to business as usual (baseline years vary from organisation to organisation) by 2030
  • A 90-95% reduction in emissions compared business as usual (baseline years vary from organisation to organisation) by 2030
  • Adherence to some SBTi and credible delivery plans to meet this pathway
  • Measurement and reductions across your Scope 1, Scope 2 AND Scope 3 emissions – you can do this using carbon measurement software, like TRACE

Action: Read isla’s temperature check report to understand how embracing the concepts of climate literacy and carbon instinct can help facilitate the above.

Step 2 – Understanding Your (Scope 1, Scope 2 and 3) Net Zero targets

Scope 1, direct emissions caused by your owned or controlled assets, and Scope 2, indirect emissions associated with the purchase of electricity, steam, heat and cooling, are more straightforward to calculate as you should already have access to the majority of this data. 

As soon as you are able, you should aim to conduct an audit of your Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions for both the current year and a baseline year before that, as defined by your organisation for comparison.

Referring to the SBTi will help support you in this process. The SME Climate Hub is the official path for small to medium-sized businesses to join the globally recognised UN Race to Zero campaign. You can refer to their range of target-setting resources and guidance including the 1.5 degree Playbook to establish robust climate action plans in line SBTi’s strict science-based criteria. 

Step 3 – Understanding Your (Scope 3) Value Chain 

Scope 3 are all other indirect emissions of your supply chain and logistics which occur as a result of your organisation’s activities. The hospitality sector is responsible for 15% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to estimates from the Sustainable Restaurant Association. 

In June 2023 The International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) issued its long-awaited inaugural global sustainability disclosure standards, including requirements for Scope 3 reporting. The need for increased Scope 3 emissions reporting was also highlighted by Chris Skidmore’s Net Zero Review.

The above are just some of the indicators that pave the way for mandatory Scope 3 reporting. It is therefore crucial to include the climate impact of your full value chain to make a net-zero commitment truly meaningful. 

In order to do this, you will first need to get a broad-based picture of your operations and define the boundaries of what you will and won’t measure. This includes looking at key measurement areas including Energy, Food & Water, Production and Travel & Transport*. 

Engaging and collaborating with your value chain will be key in supporting this process.  

Step 4 – Planning and prioritising for Net Zero

Even with the successful integration of sustainability into your event processes, prioritisation is key to addressing your biggest sources of emissions through efficient and effective use of your human and financial resources.

Through either an SBTi assessment or an internal audit, preemptively and more thoroughly identify your areas of highest Scope 1 impact across the the key measurement areas outlined above*. Avoid making presumptions about the size of these impacts – run your available data through isla’s TRACE carbon calculator software for definitive results. 

Your immediate focus should be on areas of high environmental impact with quick, simple and / or cost-effective solutions. For areas of high impact with no immediately actionable solution, set the wheels in motion to develop emissions reduction strategies in the medium-to-long term. Low environmental impact, but simple-to-action net-zero targets should also be developed.

Step 5 – Measure & Report for performance improvements

Measuring means starting to gather data on your event activities. This can include, as an example, the method of travel and miles travelled for both audience and staff, or the kilograms of production materials consumed. Once this data is collected, you can enter it on a software such as a TRACE to get a 360-picture of your event/s environmental impact.

Collating this data in a report will help you understand what key actionable steps you need to take to reduce event impact even further on future iterations as well as giving you a point at which to measure your progress against (your baseline year of measurement).

Net Zero vs. Carbon Neutrality

Is net zero is the same as ‘Carbon Neutral’?

Carbon neutrality is a process of balancing the CO2 that is emitted into the atmosphere, as a result of your company’s activities, with an equivalent amount of CO2 removal. The go-to method of achieving this involves carbon offsetting investing in schemes that both reduce CO2 emissions in the first instance (renewable energy projects, reducing heat loss through improved building insulation, the development of electric vehicles), or by preserving and restoring natural carbon sinks (forests, oceans and soils). This approach should be viewed as more of a stepping stone towards the net zero by 2050 transition.

Net Zero targets take things a step further than carbon neutrality and involve a more comprehensive decarbonisation assessment and approach including mandatory targets, as outlined by the SBTi.

What next…

It’s a big ask – but if every event business went after one thing and focused on making it happen i.e. creating a concrete net-zero pathway or start understanding your scope 1 and 2 emissions – these wins will build positive momentum to escalate towards bigger actions.

With the current guidance and framework available to the event sector, it is only possible to be net-zero in your business operations, and carbon-neutral in your event deliveries and that this is because a net-zero standard for events is yet to be defined, but that the best place to enable future net-zero event deliveries is by starting to collect event emission data. 

If you’d like to know more about how to create a pathway for net zero and join other event businesses doing the same visit www.weareisla.co.uk

If you’re ready to learn more about event carbon measurement, book a free demo of TRACE by isla – the definitive carbon measurement tool for sustainable events today.  

Additional resources 

SME Climate Hub 1.5 degree Playbook – how to set your businesses climate strategy

WWF Emission Possible Guide – a beginners guide to emissions reporting

WWF Beyond Beyond science-based targets –  a blueprint for corporate action on climate and nature

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