In the final piece in our series commenting on Manchester’s aims to achieve net zero by 2038, we look to the future and offer our predictions as to some of the key environmental issues for businesses going forwards.

Manchester’s objectives – and the UK as a whole – are clear, as are the opportunities for businesses to cooperate and participate in achieving net zero. As we have highlighted in our previous blogs, businesses can no longer shy away from their environmental impact, and must integrate ‘green’ issues and how they consider them in their day-to-day operations.

But what does this mean in practice?

Whilst environmental impact is not a new concern for businesses, unlike in the past, in the next few years the promotion of environmental objectives will be placed onto at least an equal footing and importance as other daily business concerns.

Appreciation of environmental impact

As we have highlighted in previous blogs in this series, there are many ways in which businesses can help contribute to Manchester’s goals.

All of these measures however require businesses to evaluate their environmental footprint, and then to take measures to address specific issues arising. For example, we have previously touched upon cycle to work schemes and onsite EV charging. Whilst not necessarily applicable to every business, these are perhaps obvious areas for businesses to consider if they can reduce their carbon impact.

Likewise, our blog series has also commented on the potential to retrofit the built environment. There are a number of potentially ‘easy wins’ in this regard, in terms of upgrading insulation and heating systems, but there are cost consequences.

We recommend that businesses take the time now to consider all aspects of their operations, and assess where and how measures can be taken to contribute to the net zero aims. It would be advantageous for businesses to undertake this task now, before they are compelled to do so, in order to best position themselves going forwards in light of expected growth in this area.

Lengthier due diligence exercises

As environmental awareness increases, and local and national drives to achieve net zero pick up pace, we anticipate that this will be reflected in more protracted and complicated due diligence exercises.

We have touched upon some of the relevant concerns within this series, but the net result will require businesses to consider additional matters when considering purchases and acquisitions. For example, where new build commercial properties are constructed with the benefit of on-site energy generation, issues of licensing, regulatory requirements and health and safety will need be incorporated into enquiries. The consequence of considering such additional matters will be to increase the cost of, and time required to complete, legal due diligence.

Cultural change

It is accepted that net zero cannot be achieved overnight, and will require a concerted and consistent approach across all sectors. That being said, change needs to start somewhere and may for many businesses require a cultural change and significant revision to their current operating procedures.

Such changes can only flow from the top of an organisation, and the active promotion and furtherance of environmental aims cannot be seen or treated as a simple tick-box exercise. The achievement of net zero will require a new mindset and a genuine prioritisation of the objectives to be achieved.

Solid foundation for environmental claims

In contributing to the region’s net zero aims, businesses may want to promote their own environmental credentials – either by way of encouragement of others, or to promote the steps they are taking. However, organisations must remain mindful that any ‘green’ claims they publish about themselves must be accurate and not misleading. Recent years have seen an almost overnight increase in the number of ‘greenwashing’ claims, and the Competition and Markets Authority is actively investigating claims of sustainability.

In order to avoid falling foul of these novel causes of action and litigation, businesses need to be conscious of the way in which they publicise their net zero actions and, where necessary, have in the background clear data to demonstrate the validity of their claims – for example, in terms of their environmental sustainability or net zero achievements.

Increasing importance of ESG scores

Environmental, social and governance scores have existed for many years, although historically they have been used by financial institutions to benchmark their performance against competitors and assess likelihood of default by a business.

The last few years has seen a rapid increase in their prevalence, across all sectors, and we predict that they will only play an ever more central role over the coming years. Not only does the EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive serve to mandate the inclusion of ESG scores within companies’ annual reporting processes, but this information will also likely play an increasingly seismic role in M&A deals, and is already being seen as a key influencer in investment decisions:. Investors will require clear and unambiguous confirmation that their investments have verifiable ‘green’ credentials.

Carbon accountability

Han-in-hand with the increase in ESG scores, we anticipate that the next few years will see an increasing awareness, and benchmarking, of carbon accountability. Manchester has already provided information as to how much carbon its net zero measures have saved, and we consider it is only a matter of time before similar information is volunteered by other sectors.

To date, these scores have mainly been used by aviation companies to provide information as to the carbon impact of individual flights, but we anticipate their spread into construction, hospitality and retail.

As worldwide efforts to achieve net zero increase, and consumers become more alive to their own environmental impact, carbon scores will likely become increasingly omnipresent and a key driver of consumer behaviour. It may be the case that carbon limits are in time placed on businesses, and potentially individuals, as further drivers of change. For example, similar initiatives have been introduced by some banks which have already started to offer card accounts with an in-built carbon tracker.

In time, it may be the case that retail goods, and other purchases, are provided with an individual ESG/ carbon accountability score in much the same way that energy efficiency ratings currently attach to white goods.  We therefore recommend again that business look now at where their main carbon spend is occurring, and what measures may be available to address and reduce this.

War on plastic

Although our series has not focussed on the war on plastic, Manchester’s actions towards net zero are taking place against the national background of this issue. The government has stated its desire to avoid all avoidable waste by 2042, and recent years have seen the prohibition on sales of certain items, such as single-use plastic cutlery, and the introduction of the plastic bag charge.

Businesses are not immune to these measures and have been equally affected by the Plastic Packaging Tax and extended producer responsibilities, both of which serve to impose waste management cost obligations on businesses for the packaging they generate and handle.  Whilst the purpose of these regulations is to encourage and incentivise durability, repairability and recycling, and move away from disposal as the default option at a product’s end of life, the additional costs generated are almost certainly going to be passed on throughout the supply chain.

As part of the suggested internal review and assessment identified at the start of this piece, businesses need to start considering now whether any of their produced items can be redesigned using environmentally friendly components, or re-packaged in a way that supports environmental targets.

What does the future hold?

Absent of a crystal ball, no one can predict with certainty what tomorrow may bring, but so far as the achievement of net zero and climate action are concerned, the route is clear: preservation of the environment is to be promoted.

We suggested at the outset that businesses may want to consider now (before they are obliged to do so) what their environmental footprint is and how they may be able to reduce this so as to contribute not only to their immediate community, but also the wider objectives stated by Manchester and central government.

Whilst this will almost certainly result in immediate costs being incurred, these perhaps pale into insignificance given the greater good to be achieved.

Photo: Sakorn Sukkasemsakorn

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In the second of our series focusing on Manchester’s aim to become a zero carbon city region, we take a look at transport and travel. It is well accepted that transport is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, contributing just less than a quarter of all UK domestic emissions in 2020. Emissions from cars and taxis account for more than half of this figure.

Greater Manchester is not alone in facing a significant challenge, but it has clear objectives in response, which mirror those being pursued at a national level.  For example, in the Department for Transport publication ‘Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge,’ the UK Government has set itself an ambitious target of zero emissions across all modes of transport by 2050. The publication anticipates achievement being attained through a combination of facilitating the transition to large-scale use of zero-emission vehicles, and supported by the implementation of a meaningful and effective refuelling infrastructure, including the installation of 300,000 public charge points by 2030.

How does Manchester hope to achieve its aims?

Within its own operations, the Council has committed itself to reducing direct emissions by replacing its fleet with electric vehicles, and hopes to reduce its emissions by between 35%- 45% by 2025.

The city region is eager to encourage sustainable and accessible travel options across its boroughs but beyond its own activities, the wholesale uptake of zero-emission vehicles faces a number of significant logistical hurdles. For example, electric vehicles require somewhere to re-charge and whilst for many it is possible for their vehicles to be charged at home overnight, within Manchester approximately 60% of homes do not have access to off-street parking.

For those who do not have access to home charging, their only option will be to access the public network. Pending the development of improved battery technology and mileage, the fundamental difficulty of availability of charging stations is not easily overcome.

To meet objectives it is expected that by 2030 there may need to be upwards of 3,000 additional public charge points within the Manchester region. Manchester has published the EV Charging Infrastructure Strategy which sets out its role in providing more charge points, but the Council is reluctant to install on-street charge points as these can:

“cause obstructions to pavements and street clutter, and we do not support the use of cables crossing the pavement to charge vehicles at the roadside… as these can cause trip hazards.”

Recent figures indicate that Manchester is perhaps some way behind other regions in the UK in this regard, with around 24 charging points per 100,000 population, compared with the UK average of 42 per 100,000.

Although there is no statutory duty to provide public charge points, Manchester is looking at opportunities within council-owned car parks to expand the public network for residents and businesses, and within the last few months there have been announcements to construct charging ‘oases’ within the city to address some of these concerns. However, replicating the service provided by petrol stations is not without some hindrance. Whilst there are a number of different charging systems available, with varying recharge speed from a few minutes up to several hours, were Manchester to be successful in its aim then it will need to ensure that re-charging is able to take place on demand and within a reasonable period of time.

Central Government plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 are well under way, but by contrast the uptake of electric vehicles remains sluggish. For example, by the end of March 2022 there were still less than 2,000 plug-in cars registered in Manchester, equating with around only 1% of the total number of cars registered. This is below the UK average of 2.4%.  Whilst the transition will not happen overnight, to enable individuals to move freely, efficiently and at low-cost, whilst also being environmentally friendly, there needs to be a viable alternative to current combustion engines.

Hydrogen is being considered as an alternative fuel source although the enabling technology still requires refinement and, in addition, there are very obvious safety risks arising from the storage and use of this fuel. Current plans for hydrogen fuel appear to be restricted to the haulage sector, and do not extend to domestic and residential travel. Therefore, this is not something which will necessarily help to achieve objectives in the shorter term.

Barriers to implementation

The aims are laudable and are to be welcomed.  However, despite their increasing presence, electric vehicles are far from the predominant mode of transport and the impact of the Government’s intended ban on the sale of fossil fuel vehicles will not be fully appreciated for many decades yet. Likewise, the transition to a net zero transport network is likely to be many years away.  The fact that success will not be achieved overnight is not a reason for the objectives not to be pursued in the interim, but implementation must be mindful of the very real logistical problems that need to be overcome.

There are also concerns as to how ‘green’ electric vehicles actually are, and the level of ‘carbon debt’ created during their manufacture. For example, at present not only are electric vehicles generally more expensive to buy, but their production requires the input of significant volumes of fossil fuels. In addition, questions remain as to how electric vehicles, specifically their batteries, are to be stored and disposed of at end of life.

The electricity required to power electric vehicles also needs to be sourced from within the national grid, and the mass charging of vehicles at peak times is likely to put a strain on the system. Although wind and solar and renewable energy sources are currently active within the network, the proportion of energy generated by them is not only intermittent but also lags far behind the energy generated through fossil fuel usage.

What can businesses do to assist?

There are no statutory requirements at present for businesses to contribute to net zero through assisting and enabling a greener transport network.  Whilst grants are available, the transition to green and sustainable alternative fuels remains a costly option, which is also accompanied by logistical issues and numerous other considerations.

That being said, the objectives have been stated loud and clear and, in order to position themselves, businesses may want to consider the feasibility of alternative fuel and transport. For example, car share and cycle to work schemes may be one option, but it is accepted that these may not always be possible or practicable depending on the nature of the work undertaken by an organisation.

Alternatively, business may wish to consider providing electrical charge points and, for those involved in the haulage sector, it may be worthwhile exploring the availability and applicability of hydrogen to their operations, despite technology realistically still being a few years away from wholesale adoption.

As corporate ESG scores increase in importance, especially following the implementation of various sustainability reporting requirements, businesses would be well advised to give careful consideration to actively implementing ‘green’ measures within their day to day operations, including in respect of their transport and travel needs.

Such changes will not come overnight, and will require a concerted effort to achieve them, as well as behavioural and cultural change.

Our next commentary piece will consider how behaviour may be influenced and shaped to assist the transition to green technology. To read our first blog in the series, visit https://pannonecorporate.com/manchesters-move-towards-net-zero/

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