Environmental consulting and professional services firms WSP and AECOM have joined industry trade associations in committing to set a science-based target to reach net-zero carbon emissions by at least 2050.
The pair - together representing around 15,000 UK employees - have joined forces with the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA), the Association of Consulting Engineers (ACE), the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) and the Society for the Environment (SocEnv), as the first signatories to spearhead the initiative.
They are hoping many other environmental services firms operating in the UK will also sign up to Pledge to Net Zero, with a deadline of 31 January 2020 to do so. Those who join will then be asked to set a science-based carbon emissions reduction target by the 15 May 2020, and report performance on their commitment by the end of December 2020.
The pledge sees WSP and AECOM effectively throw the gauntlet down to their peers in the design, engineering and environmental consulting sector to lead by example. It marks a continuation of the wave of climate action seen across the global professional services sector recently, including national initiatives led by the Engineers Declare movement in the UK (EA 23-Jul-19), Australia (EA 22-Oct-19) and France (EA 11-Nov-19).
Should the Pledge to Net Zero initiative attract the full support of the industry the impact could be hugely significant. EIC estimates that the environmental services sector employs some 373,000 people in the UK and generates some £61bn in annual revenue - thereby contributing c1.6% of UK GDP. Of these, around 80,000 people are employed by the 30 largest companies operating within the environmental consultancy sector alone, according to Environment Analyst’s own industry figures.
Many of the senior business leaders the ‘Pledge to Net Zero’ advocates are looking to attract will have attended the Environment Analyst Business Summit 2019 in June, which was dominated by calls for environmental consultants to take a leadership position on the climate crisis and sustainability. As such the sector now faces its own extinction or rebellion, as RPS UK and Ireland CEO John Chubb so eloquently described it in his opening keynote (EA 26-Jun-19).
So will the sector respond?
This may depend on what is involved. In order to become a signatory to this initiative an organisation must commit to setting a science-based reduction target to reach net zero. At the very minimum this requires:
- The inclusion of an organisation’s buildings and travel
- At least a 2.5% reduction in carbon emissions per annum
- The inclusion of targets for scope one, two and three emission sources
- Achieving this reduction without the use of offsets
- Measuring carbon footprint year-on-year
- Playing an active role in advancing the industry's progress to net zero
The problem, which some consulting firms face [and also voiced at the EA Business Summit] is the perceived conflict of interest associated with pledging to a net zero target, while simultaneously supporting carbon-intensive clients and projects.
It raises a much deeper argument about how environmental consultancies marry up their deep desire to protect the environment - and lead by example - with their longstanding support to oil & gas firms, or global aviation operators, or overseas coal mining clients, or highway developments, etc. Does a commitment to carbon neutrality stop at your office door, or your travel arrangements? Or should it reach much deeper into the business relationships every company chooses to foster?
This is a debate that only the environmental services sector can resolve. However, the creation of the pledge will at least provide a starting point for the sector itself to come together under one banner. To pledge to tackle their own emissions, and in time perhaps the remit of the pledge may grow.
IEMA’s chief policy advisor, Martin Baxter, said: "The transition to net zero carbon emissions is the defining challenge of our time. We are fully supportive of the environmental services sector pledging science-based emissions reductions which align with the urgency of addressing the climate and environmental emergency."
Chair of the SocEnv Will Pope said: "Harnessing the expertise and leadership credentials of environmental professionals is at the heart of everything the society stands for – as we know that their knowledge, competence and enthusiasm is crucial to ensuring we are able to respond to the climate emergency in front of us.
"As such, we are delighted to be involved in an initiative which sees the environmental services sector take a strong leadership role and commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions within their organisations."