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Constructing a sustainable future – Jo Gilroy, Head of Sustainability & Environment for Kier Group plc

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Sustainable development is at a crossroads and ahead of us lay two paths.  One leads to a truly greener, cleaner future but the other, more frequently traveled, road leads to only an illusion of change and ultimately environmental disaster.  To steer our development onto the right path, organisations must go beyond the headline grabbing rhetoric and instead be transparent over how sustainable targets are going to be achieved and what environmental measures are within or out of scope.

As well as the need for transparency, the language around sustainability needs to be altered.  It’s time to move out of the ‘green’ space, where intentions and solutions often become diluted by greenwashing activities.  Instead, we need to move to the ‘mindset’ space, where sustainability is fully integrated into the commercial language of business and where business leaders comprehensively understand their responsibility to run operations in a way that keeps the three pillars of sustainability (environment, social and economic) in balance. This will positively impact operations and ensure meaningful change is driven through core business decisions.

In July 2020, Kier launched a new sustainability framework, Building for a Sustainable World, which reframed sustainability to a strategic and business critical mindset, balancing the need for environmental resilience, community resilience and profitability in day-to-day decision making.  Across environmental and social sustainability, the framework focuses on ten critical areas for improvement and builds on the company’s historical successes.

Since 2014, we have reduced our carbon intensity footprint by 54%, and since 2015 we have reduced our construction waste footprint by 35%.  In 2017 we committed to reducing our energy consumption by 30% by 2030 under our 30 by 30 strategy.  By the end of FY19 we had delivered 83% of the 30 by 30 programme.

The aim of our new framework is to set meaningful goals and critically to provide transparency over how we are measuring success.   At the heart of our framework is our pathway to Net Zero where we will be transparent and open with our customers and stakeholders on the decisions that we are making and the steps we are taking to achieve Net Zero carbon emissions across our own operations and supply chain by 2045.

Transparency is a critical factor for success in constructing a sustainable future.  The Race to Zero provides the perfect example as to why. Carbon Scopes 1 and 2 (carbon emitted from fuel, gas and electricity) are the easiest emissions to reduce but are also the smallest part of an organisation’s total carbon footprint.  Reducing Scope 3 carbon (carbon emitted from purchased goods and services, suppliers, investments and transportation), is where organisations can have the biggest impact.  Scope 3 emissions are typically 8-10 times greater than Scope 1 & 2 emissions, but Scope 3 is also the most challenging area to tackle because these emissions are not within an organisation’s direct control.

To achieve Net Zero, we often see companies offset carbon, which means buying carbon credits equivalent to the companies carbon impact. When used as part of a wider carbon reduction strategy, offsetting is a useful and important tool.  However, it must not be used as the only solution for reducing carbon.  If this were to happen, then carbon offsetting would effectively become a license to pollute.  An organisation could produce as much carbon as they liked and then pay to have their carbon offset.

Net Zero carbon commitments must include clear reduction plans for Scopes 1, 2 and critically all of Scope 3.  Effective Net Zero carbon strategies must also set an internal price for carbon which ensures that the cost of offsetting always remains higher than the cost of investing in carbon reduction technologies.  It is important for organisations to disclose what percentage of their carbon footprint they are offsetting and through which credible schemes.  As we continue to innovate and invent low carbon and carbon free technologies, carbon offsetting should be used less and less.

At Kier, our Net Zero carbon strategy is structured over four stages: Review, Reduce, Renew, Rebalance.    We will review of our existing processes to ensure an accurate baseline for our full carbon footprint, including all our Scope 3 categories.  We will establish reduction plans for all of our carbon emissions by establishing annual carbon budgets for our businesses.  Under our Renew pillar we will adopt renewable energy technology and alternative fuels, and finally under Rebalance, we will declare the offsetting of any residual carbon emissions using credible schemes and on a decreasing basis year on year.

This is how industry will make the difference. Not by setting superficial targets but through transparent actions and measures of success, and by engraining sustainability into the working practices of everyone at a business. From the boardroom right through to the boots on the ground, sustainability is a responsibility for all of us. Only once we rebalance our thinking and drive forward a business-as-usual mindset to sustainability can we hope to do away with ‘green’ trend thinking and build a genuinely sustainable future.

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