Adam Savitz, sustainable infrastructure director at Johnson Controls, EMEALA looks at the path to net zero.

This year’s World Economic Forum in Davos focused on pursuing a net-zero pathway, nurturing resilience, reimagining globalisation, and supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion in every part of society. Davos 2023 confirmed what was suspected, that CEOs are facing fresh challenges over sluggish climate efforts.

At COP27 in November of last year, the UN general secretary said we are close to irreversible tipping points in "climate hell", and we should be sitting up and listening to what he said. Conversations at the conference ranged from nature and agriculture to offsets – essentially all the things that are either impacted by climate change or have an impact on climate change. 

Events like Davos and COP encourage engagement, discussion, and debate. It’s a place where leaders can learn from each other and discuss new methodologies, approaches and initiatives. Industry leaders can share what they want to achieve, the pressures they are under, and the challenges that they face when it comes to sustainability. So, what have these major events taught us this year about sustainability and the road to net zero?

Tackling greenwashing

At Davos, the UN chief urged business to make 'credible' net-zero pledges, or countries will risk greenwashing. Yet across the UK and Europe, organisations in the industrial and manufacturing space have scrambled to be compliant with short-term “sticking plaster fixes”. What’s really needed is investments into long-term solutions. The crippling effects of surging energy prices and gas shortages is forcing companies to identify and implement energy efficiency measures, move away from gas through electrification and reduce dependency on the grid through onsite renewables.

The Built Environment: The Silent Polluter 

Buildings consume 36% of all the energy in Europe and produce 40% of emissions – so transforming our buildings is imperative in the race to net zero. The built environment is often ignored from sustainability conversations, but the evidence is clear.

While discussion is essential, we need to talk less and act more. Only then, can we make a true impact with measurable change. Businesses must holistically review their carbon footprint and adopt sustainable business practices into the buildings they use every day. £95 trillion of private capital will be invested in transforming the economy for net zero with a drive towards environmental initiatives. Reviewing technology investments is one place to start for large UK firms as they gain a complete view on their environmental impact.

To truly understand how our buildings are working and improve efficiencies, we must first understand where inefficiencies lie. The only way to accurately measure energy usage at scale is to utilise an energy management platform. Users and owners alike need to gather the data and analytics on every major piece of building equipment. Organisations can then set a baseline to constantly review so they can improve the energy performance of a building. From there, they can then start to introduce smarter energy-saving technologies. Luckily, solutions already exist that are relatively quick to implement.

The Workforce is Imperative 

Technology is essential, but who will deliver it? According to new research by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Microsoft, there is a systemic sustainability skills gap that must be closed, and 2023 needs to be the year of change. If we are going to decarbonise half of Europe in the next seven years, the reality is that we need to reduce emissions in every data centre, hospital, airport, factory and every building to be successful. And with that, we’re going to need the people who truly understand energy efficiency, electrification and renewable energy. The skills shortage is a major barrier to our success and it needs to be fixed if we’re going to be able to see the fruits of that labour by 2030.

Upskilling must extend far beyond the core team charged with making this improvement in order to achieve corporate-wide sustainability goals. To perform their jobs in new, sustainable ways, businesses must promote general sustainability competency and help employees combine their current functional skills with the necessary sustainability skills for their role.

Upskilling must come from the top down, and businesses need to understand the importance and need for sustainability measures. Teams need to have a clear understanding of how sustainability fits into the larger strategic picture, as well as the financial risks, market opportunities, and macrotrends they can exploit.

Businesses in this phase are aided by a core team of sustainability experts established in the mobilise stage, but they must step up their enablement efforts as they start to change the way the business operates.

What we can do moving forward

As the IMF forecasts a UK recession despite other leading economies growing, businesses must take stock of their priorities. Costs are soaring and profits are predicted to decline, will this impact investments into sustainability and reduce momentum? Fundamentally, it gets harder to prevent environmental collapse the longer we delay taking action. We also cannot ignore the long-term needs of the planet in the face of the current economic crisis. There is a tremendous opportunity to transition out of the downturn and achieve a green recovery.

There is a strong incentive for companies to act quickly for business success and the health of the planet. The earliest movers can expect a “sustainability premium” from their enhanced Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) credentials. But the real winner is the planet: If the world takes meaningful action on decarbonisation today, it can stave off the climate catastrophe tomorrow. The net-zero goals we’ve all set out can be achieved, but only if we act now.

This success hinges on collaboration, with buildings and energy efficiency leaders working to support changes at the speed and scale needed. We can all play a huge part in reducing emissions, reducing energy use, and increasing renewable energy across the built environment. We all have one common goal, so events such as COP27 and Davos are a reminder that we all need to share our knowledge, share what’s been successful and what hasn’t – and help each other to work towards a net zero future.