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The race to net-zero: sprint, marathon and steeplechase

By Graham Duxbury, Groundwork chief executive and part of the ACEVO climate emergency member working group.

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

Groundwork has a carbon footprint of 2,143 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. Of course, I’m not delighted that we’re responsible for pushing more than 2,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year – the equivalent of flying to Australia and back nearly 400 times. However, I am genuinely pleased that we’ve got a proper and robust baseline against which we can measure our progress towards achieving net-zero emissions.  We have a goal of getting there by 2030.

What’s more, this is a figure for the whole Groundwork Federation – 15 separate charities employing more than 1,100 staff and responsible for a range of assets and premises including offices, education centres, museums, community centres and sports facilities. Getting consistent data to produce a single measure and then getting all the leaders in our federation to make a collective commitment to a collaborative action plan has been a significant undertaking.

But it presents as many questions as it answers. The most obvious is how do we achieve our goal now that we know our starting point? To a degree, this is the most straightforward one to answer. Each part of our federation has a bespoke analysis of the source of their emissions – including any data gaps – which should inform the production of an action plan. Bringing together leads in each organisation to work through issues as a virtual team should share learning and spread innovation and a commitment to annual reporting – overseen by our Federation Board and built into our collective membership agreement and quality standards – gives us a sound governance framework.  Approaching this as a collective also gives us the chance to operate an internal carbon market – achieving net-zero overall while recognising that in some places it may take longer to make the necessary changes.

As an organisation committed to driving social and environmental change, our staff teams are naturally supportive of the process, and we have significant expertise within our ranks to know what we need to do (a service that we can also provide to other charities and businesses – Sustainable Business Consultants | Sustainability Goals).

So far so good, but there are big challenges ahead. The first is about what we measure. To establish our baseline we’ve adopted a standard methodology, capturing direct and indirect emissions relating to our own people, processes and premises. Understanding the carbon embedded in some of the programmes and partnerships through which we operate is currently beyond us. Neither have we delved into our digital footprint, the upshot being that we could claim to be net-zero one day, but as soon as we extend the scope of our methodology we need to start the journey again.  This is probably no bad thing as it will keep pushing and stretching us.

Another challenging area will be our financial arrangements. We’re lucky enough to have some cash held in investments and are thinking hard about how we ensure that is managed in line with our net-zero goals. But we’ve also been asked about pension funds, at which point we enter into the more complex territory of influencing our staff team’s personal financial choices.

And how about the company we keep? Groundwork has a long history of working with a wide range of corporate partners – sometimes advising them on their sustainability strategies, sometimes benefiting from their CSR investments or employee volunteering programmes. The internal pressure to avoid association with companies who might not obviously share our values or whose practices might conflict with our vision of how the world should be is rightly strong, but this all rests on drawing lines, which can be increasingly difficult to do.  Some decisions are very obvious, some we can arrive at through internal debate, but others have become a difficult moving target as companies also try and pivot their activities and rebuild their reputations. For example, we may all need to readjust when we get to the point where the companies investing most in renewables are the same companies currently rushing to diversify away from fossil fuels.

It’s a bit like my experience of learning German at school. On the face of it, the initial steps we need to take are logical and familiar. However, the deeper we go into the grammar the more complex it gets. I also know we’re going to hit some roadblocks at some point, when we realise that getting properly to net-zero may be dependent on major investment or buying offsets. And what happens when we identify a piece of work which may be bang on in terms of our social mission and highly beneficial for those involved but will blow a big hole in our carbon budget?

Getting us over all of these issues and hurdles will require open, honest and mature discussion with both our trustees and our staff teams so that we can effectively reconcile the drive to do what’s best for our organisation and its beneficiaries with what’s best for the planet.  As with so many items on the charity CEOs to-do list this requires steadfast adherence to mission, purpose and benefit and a willingness to be open about the unknowns, the dilemmas and the risks involved in doing the thing we believe to be right.

Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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