Big Interview

Setting green goals

Andie Stephens - Carbon Trust.jpg

Capacity’s Natalie Bannerman speaks to Andie Stephens, associate director at the Carbon Trust, about how operators can lower their carbon emissions and get on track for a sustainable future

November saw a number of telcos up their commitment to sustainability. O2 launched its Green Savings Calculator, a tool which uses individual businesses details, including such things as travel and office space arrangements, to help identify ways to save money and reduce carbon emissions from flexible working.

Additionally, Vodafone Group pledged to reduce its total global carbon emissions to net zero by 2040 while the Prysmian Group committed to investing €450 million in a new project aimed at rapidly reaching net-zero CO2 emissions.

In all of these announcements, one name kept reappearing and that was the Carbon Trust, a UK-based organisation that works with businesses and companies across numerous verticals, to help them develop sustainable, low-carbon economic objectives.

As such Capacity spoke to Andie Stephens, associate director and telecoms lead at the Carbon Trust.

We began with the biggest overarching question and that was what do telcos need to do in order to set themselves on a path to business sustainability, according to Stephens it comes down to three things: measure, manage and reduce.

“You can't reduce your carbon emissions until you start measuring them and you need to put things in place to manage them,” says Stephens.

In the UK the likes of O2, Vodafone and BT all already have ambitious targets aligned with science-based targets, which are needed globally to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

“The important thing about the science-based targets is that they cover all of a company's emissions. So the scope 1, scope 2 and scope 3, which includes all of their supply chain,” adds Stephens.

In the ICT sector at large, the setting of these targets are supported by such industry bodies as the GSMA, the International Telecoms Union (ITU) and the Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) who have collectively been pushing this agenda and encouraging its members to sign up to take part in its climate action scheme.

Now, it’s one thing to expect a telco to ensure that sustainability targets are met within its own company, however, tackling the supply chain is a different commitment entirely.

“For all telcos, the biggest part of their scope 3, is their supply chain, it can be 90% of the total emissions. It dwarfs all the other scope 3 areas, and it dwarfs that the scope 1 and 2,” explains Stephens.

“In a way, scope 1 and 2 is easier to decarbonise because for telcos the primary thing is switching to renewables, but also looking at their transport fleets, buildings and refrigerant gases – primarily reducing electricity to renewables.”

For the supply chain however, the average telco will have thousands of suppliers, so how can they engage with all suppliers, across various locations, to get their buy in?

“The really important thing is if you set a target, then that sort of drives behaviour,” Stephens says.

“We've seen this sort of thing working with these various telco businesses and their procurement teams are getting on board and working out strategies for this.”

One way it to do it formally though, is through contracts. “You can build into your contracts terms that require your suppliers to measure their emissions and set targets,” Stephens advises.

Another way is through direct engagement with key suppliers and developing joint programmes where you work together on how you can take carbon out of the supply chain, “and then create workshops and forums for the smaller suppliers which don't necessarily have the same resources,” Stephens adds.

But as Stephens says, however operators choose to go about the task, their impact can cascade through the entire supply chain, ultimately pushing the mission forward.

“If the big telcos get their suppliers to set targets, which requires them to then get their suppliers to set targets, as well as leading by example, it's actually driving that down through the supply chain.”

But what type of government and regulatory support is required to make these sustainability goals a reality and pushed to the forefront of corporate strategy? Stephens says it is in fact the other way around with telcos informing government.

“I tend to come this the opposite way around,” he says. “My observation is that businesses are actually leading governments on this. They're setting more ambitious targets and clear-cut business-led plans.”

But although Stephens is not convinced that there's a need for regulation, there are an awful lot that governments can do to help.

“One thing that that governments can do is set very clear market signals,” he explains. “So, by countries setting targets this allows companies to plan and invest with confidence for the future.”

A simple example of this is BT, which has one of the largest vehicle fleets in Europe – and a plan to electrify them in the near future. But one of the challenges BT faces is, will there be enough infrastructure, and enough commercially viable electric vehicles, to make its plan work?

“So that's where I think innovation and incentives to provide the infrastructure and support is required, especially with things like decarbonising the electivity grid,” explains Stephens.

“The other thing is that governments need to go beyond just setting these NDCs (nationally determined contributions), they need to actually deliver on these targets,” he adds. “They need to show this clear action and consistency.”

In parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa Stephens points out that “they don't have the same ability to just buy renewable electricity, because there aren't renewable energy markets developed”.

“It's sporadic and that infrastructure is not there, so that's something that would be really, really important in other parts of the world.”

Lastly, and probably most poignantly, governments could also play a big role in providing the data.

“Publicly available data which helps people to understand their carbon emissions, to do the calculations and assessments and to support that sort of thing is key,” says Stephens.

In fact, Stephens believes it’s an area in which the ICT sector could probably help and take a lead in facilitating.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, the reasons for taking green initiatives and sustainability seriously are quite literally a matter of life and death. But for the telco space, it’s also about reputation and customer expectations.

“I've been at the Carbon Trust for over 10 years, and I've seen in the change both in the landscape of what consumers are demanding, but also what businesses are doing,” Stephens says.

“Customers now expect that businesses are doing the right thing. They feel that if I’m buying from a particular brand then that brand should be doing this. It's almost becoming like a hygiene factor, in the way quality used to be”

“It’s sort of embedded in part of the culture of the organisation, it’s what companies are expected to do, it’s just part of their license to operate.”

This in turn will of course help businesses maintain their market share, or give them opportunity to grow, because if you're being energy efficient then you're reducing your costs.

One top tip from the Carbon Trust on reducing emissions is not to use the energy in the first place. "The sustainability accelerator

Covid-19 has made our dependency on ICT and telco services grow at a rate like never before. Questioning Stephens on whether it is still feasible to ask businesses to prioritise sustainability in a year like this, the answer is simply "yes".

“Covid-19 has actually had had an accelerating effect,” he says. “In some sectors obviously their sustainability programs have been set back because they furloughed people and they have had to divert resources, et cetera. But for the ICT space, we've just seen the increase demand and sense of urgency.”

However, while the pandemic has changed IT and connectivity demand trends, shifting focus from city centres to rural areas, it hasn't necessarily increased the overall energy usage. On the hyperbole often shared around IT's energy consumption, Stephens says: “It wasn't just data that went up, it was a shifting pattern.

"The GSMA published a report with input from three or four telcos that showed that data went up significantly but what was really interesting is that they said the energy consumption had gone up by less than 1%,” he shares.

“That's because the networks are designed for use at certain capacity, and whether using 50% capacity, 100% capacity, then much the same energy is used. It’s like a bus – if you've got buses traveling around a route every hour, they'll use much the same amount of fuel, whether there's four people on the bus or eight people on the bus.”

Much like the discussion on government, Stephens says that the organisational cultural shift is often driven from the bottom up and it is from the top down.

“In a lot of companies you see that the employees are actually pushing the business and there are some very prominent examples where there was a very strong campaign amongst employees to the company, saying it should be bolder in its sustainability goals”.

But the companies that are really embracing this change are the ones where the CEO leads the way.

Interestingly Stephens shares that an unexpected source of change for those who work in companies making these ambitious goals is actually their children.

“Their teenage and university aged children are coming and saying excuse me, what are you doing at this company? I do know from personal experience that there are some senior people for who that is one of their motivations, or that it is one of the things which has really influenced them.”

Having been set up 20 years ago by the UK government to work with the public and private sector to help reduce carbon emissions and set the UK on the path to a low carbon economy, the Carbon Trust is well placed to assist the businesses ready to make that leap.

“We operate as a private consultancy and because of that heritage, as a not-for-profit organisation,” says Stephens. “We're very much mission-driven and want to do the right thing. We want to move the agenda forward."

In Stephen’s role, he primarily works with the ICT sector, supporting stakeholders to measure their carbon emissions – and verify their accuracy – as well as helping them with improving their methodologies, particularly with scope 3 supply chain emissions and target setting.

“We work with a lot of companies to help them set the targets that are approved internally and then go through the science-based target initiative process, which in itself is sort of a bit daunting if you're doing it for the first time.”

The organisation also has engineers who can come in and assess the energy efficiency of particular parts of the business, and although most of the work they do is with large corporations, “we're also working with some small operators as well as in smaller countries”.

The next steps

Though normally the job of Carbon Trust CEO Tom Delay, Stephens shares some insight into the organisations’ plans for 2021.

“We've seen the demand for our services increase dramatically over the last the last two years or so, ever since the Paris Agreement. We are sort of not quite inundated to the stage where we are having to prioritise what work we take on and what work we don't.”

Now the Carbon Trust is looking strategically at how to drive the cause in a sustainable, financial and environmental way.

In addition, Stephens says the body is exploring new ways, beyond its consulting reach, to push its sustainability agenda forward, this includes technically or through developing the market.

On such project is its Offshore Wind Accelerator, which aims to reduce the cost of offshore wind, overcome market barriers, develop industry best practice and trigger the development of new industry standards.

That business has never been busier for the Carbon trust, leaves us with some semblance of hope for sustainability and the future. As Stephens put it, “this is actually gaining momentum across the world”.