Will Jenkins of Carbon Intelligence explains how the UK consultancy has helped one of Europe’s biggest conservation charities to set its 2030 goal without relying on carbon offsets
Over the last few years, "net zero" has become the guiding principle for action on the climate crisis, offering hope that bold steps will be taken in time to avoid the worst impacts of a warming world.
While the phrase may offer a helpful dose of clarity to a complex subject, not all net zero-commitments should be viewed as equals. There are valid concerns that net-zero targets are being set without a consistent and credible definition, and naturally this ambiguity brings with it many loopholes.
Important sources of emissions – whether that’s in the supply chain or in areas where you have little control or influence – should not be ignored
This means that when a client comes to me with intentions of getting their organisation to commit to net zero, I know that we probably have quite different things in mind. It’s my job to stretch their ambition and help them to understand the ingredients of a credible net-zero strategy.
First, the commitment should tackle climate impacts across the organisation’s upstream and downstream value chain. Important sources of emissions – whether that’s in the supply chain or in areas where you have little control or influence – should not be ignored. Second, net-zero requires rapid and deep decarbonisation across all sources of emissions in line with limiting warming to 1.5C. Third, remaining emissions from hard to decarbonise sources, such as aviation or livestock grazing, should be balanced by enhancing carbon sinks to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
We’ve been working with The National Trust for several years on its carbon reduction programme to commit to a net-zero 2030 goal and we’ve seen its ability to think big. For example, the Trust pledges to reach this goal without relying on the purchase of carbon offsets, and to tackle deep reductions in emissions across its entire value chain.
However, at the beginning of the journey to reach the net-zero goal, it became clear that years of hard work and investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy projects had only scratched the surface of the charity’s climate impact.
As one of the biggest conservation charities in Europe, the National Trust has a responsibility to do everything it can to fight climate change, which poses the biggest threat to the places, nature and collections it cares for. And it has vowed to do this and work to reverse the decline in nature through a radical and transformative carbon reduction strategy.
Fast forward a few months and we can now talk in detail about why the National Trust’s approach to tackle climate change is a bold but essential one, and why other organisations must follow suit if we’re to prevent any irreversible damage to our environment.
Deep and rapid decarbonisation sits at the heart of achieving net zero
The Trust is tackling all carbon emissions across its value chain in line with the latest best practice defined by the GHG Protocol. This means the sources of emissions that have been the focus of decarbonisation work for the last few years now account for less than 5% of the National Trust’s new expanded carbon footprint. It’s taking responsibility for emissions from its supplier’s operations, from the companies it invests in, to the properties it leases to its tenants. It’s also taking account of emissions from land use and land use change.
In taking responsibility for these sources of emissions in its net-zero target, the Trust is committing to reducing them in line with a 1.5C science-based target. Deep and rapid decarbonisation sits at the heart of achieving net zero.
To hit net zero, remaining emissions need to be balanced by an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide being removed from the atmosphere. Fortunately, the Trust has the rare opportunity to enhance carbon sinks on the land that it owns and manages. Unlikely many organisations that will have to resort to purchasing carbon offsets from third parties, the Trust can take an active role in tree planting, climate-conscious agriculture, land management and conservation across many of the special habitats the UK has to offer.
The headline-grabbing goal of planting and establishing 20 million trees in the next 10 years means that the National Trust will be able to sequester 300,000 tonnes of carbon each year, equivalent to taking 150,000 cars off the road. An additional 18,000 of the 250,000 hectares of land the trust owns will be converted to woodland.
It’s this sort of bold leadership that we need to see in every sector, in every country if we’re to stand any chance of reversing the ever-rising output of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Many are pinning their hopes on 2020 being the year when climate action scales up and puts us on a path where we start to see declining greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, recent evidence from Global Carbon Project and Climate Action Tracker doesn’t give much comfort.
Long-term thinking and the value placed on legacy and responsibility has enabled the National Trust to commit to an inspiring net-zero future
Under current pledges, the world is on track to warm by 2.8C by 2100, far greater than the “safe” limit of 2C and ambition built into the Paris Agreement of 1.5C. According to estimates from Global Carbon Project, greenhouse gas emissions rose 0.6% in 2019. This means that the rate of global heating is accelerating.
As the National Trust looks back on its last 125 years and sketches out its plans for the next decade, I hope others are doing the same. It’s this long-term thinking and the value placed on legacy and responsibility that has enabled the National Trust to commit to an inspiring net-zero future.
Will Jenkins is associate director at sustainability experts Carbon Intelligence.