The drive to Net Zero

The drive to Net Zero is a concept that has now been widely accepted as the solution to avoiding a climate ‘tipping point’ in which there is no return.

By Niall Keighron, Cluttons and Sam Luker, AESG

This was agreed by the UK government, when in 2019 they set a national net-zero target of 2050; however, there has been a growing impetus for local councils to push their own, more ambitious, net-zero targets. Climate emergencies have been declared up and down the country, with local authorities setting net-zero targets closer to 2030 rather than what the national policy has set. With that only being eight years away Cluttons and AESG wanted to see what was currently being done and what needed to be done to achieve net-zero within the UK’s public sector and this section will discuss our findings.

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In the lead up to the ‘Public Sector: How to model buildings to net-zero’ talk, participating councils and central government representatives provided insight into councils’ current positions on their respective net zero journeys. In the lead up to the ‘Public Sector: How to model buildings to net-zero’ talk, participating councils and central government representatives provided insight into councils’ current positions on their respective net zero journeys.

Our research covered the progress on net zero initiatives, the most important drivers and challenges, the understanding of current carbon footprints of respective councils, the roadmap to implementation of respective strategies and the role of offsetting.

The research found that 58% of councils who took part were in the ‘early stage’ of their net-zero journey, with 26% at the delivery phase but 11% not yet started.

When it came to examining the main drivers for UK councils in setting their net-zero strategies, the majority of responses included the financial savings that come from achieving carbon reductions and the environmental benefits that it would bring to the local area. Governmental regulations were another key driver, and this was especially prominent for those councils with ambitious net-zero targets of 2030; suggesting that there is a realisation that significant changes are necessary if UK councils are to be anywhere near net-zero within the next eight years.

Watch the Public Sector: How to model buildings to Net Zero webinar, here.

In response to the third question: “What are the two most important challenges you face in achieving your net-zero target?”, 71% stated that ‘financing the journey’ was the greatest challenge, with ‘skills to implement’ and ‘time’ being the second and third most popular responses, respectively. This supported the idea that councils within the UK do not currently have the resources available to meet their net-zero goals and without further governmental assistance, the most ambitious targets may not be met.

The fourth question in our survey showed that only 24% of the councils and government representatives had a ‘Clear’ or ‘Comprehensive’ understanding of their current carbon footprint, with 37% stating they did not understand their carbon footprint. Alongside this, results from our fifth question: ‘Does the strategy give a clear roadmap for implementation?’, 69% of respondents stated they only had a ‘not clear’ or ‘average’ understanding of their council’s own net-zero strategy, with only 27% having a ‘clear’ or ‘very clear’ understanding. The results from the two previous questions highlight the challenges that most councils are currently facing. Despite net-zero targets rapidly approaching, the majority of local councils who responded are still unaware as to how they will be expected to meet these, questioning whether these targets and declaration of climate emergencies were made as they were seen as achievable goals or in response to public pressure and statuary obligations.

Lastly, with many councils within the UK setting ambitious net-zero targets, we were interested to find out how many had included ‘carbon offsetting’ in their council’s climate strategy. Unfortunately, 68% did not know if their strategy included offsetting – supporting the result that many respondents did not understand their own climate strategy. Of the respondents that knew offsetting was included in their strategy, 20% was the average figure suggested, however the majority stated their council’s exact offsetting figure was yet to be determined.

Overall, the findings from the net-zero survey, distributed amongst councils across the UK, suggest that despite over 75% of local authorities in the UK now declaring a climate emergency, very few have a clear understanding of how their targets will be achieved. The most ambitious of commitments may have been made in response to public pressure and statuary obligations, rather than a sincere belief that net-zero targets will be met. Despite the majority of councils being unaware as to how much carbon offsetting will contribute towards their net-zero strategy, it is felt that without greater financial assistance, and significant and rapid progress, offsetting may be heavily relied on. However, with the price of carbon offsetting due to rise significantly in the coming years, council’s will be forced to look at reducing their own emissions first but will require further governmental assistance in order to do so.

Our main call to action from this research is that collaboration between private and public sector is more crucial than ever and bodies like Crown Commercial Service (CCS) will play a key role in leveraging the expertise of sustainability consultants to support both Central and Local Government in delivering on its targets and making a real step change in the UK’s drive towards net zero.

In the following sections, we provide more information on what Net Zero is, why it has recently gained importance and recognition and, in our opinion, what are the best approaches to achieving Net Zero.

Net Zero definition

Net Zero can be defined as balancing the amount of carbon and greenhouse gases emissions associated with an organisation or a development’s construction, operation and related activities to zero or negative, through the use of energy efficiency, low carbon procurement, on-site renewable energy and carbon offsetting. Among the available standards, the Science Based Targets Initiative can be considered the most comprehensive standard for organisations, developers and developments that are pursuing Net Zero Carbon across their operations.

Greenhouse gas emissions are divided into 3 main scopes:

  • Scope 1- Direct GHG emissions: Direct emissions are the emissions that occur from sources that are owned or controlled by the company or development, for example, emissions from combustion in owned or controlled boilers, furnaces, vehicles, etc.
  • Scope 2 – Electricity indirect GHG emissions: Scope 2 accounts for GHG emissions from the generation of purchased electricity consumed by the organisation or development.
  • Scope 3 – Other indirect GHG emissions: Scope 3 allows for the treatment of all other indirect emissions. Scope 3 emissions are a consequence of the activities of the company but occur from sources not owned or controlled by the company such as transportation, extraction and production of purchased materials and use of sold products and services.

Drivers and incentives

Climate science confirms that the eventual extent of global warming is proportional to the total amount of carbon dioxide that human activities add to the atmosphere. Therefore, to stabilise climate change, CO2 emissions need to fall to zero. There has subsequently been a considerable increase in the interest to pursue Net Zero among public and private sectors in the UK.

The main drivers for pursuing Net Zero are detailed below:

  • Government Policy & Regulations – Such as more stringent planning requirements, building regulations compliance and EPC ratings.
  • Cost Savings – A more efficient building means lower energy costs, and with bills forecasted to continue rising, the case for net zero gets clearer.
  • Stakeholder Demands – Both Investors and tenants are demanding more sustainable buildings.
  • Risk Management – The physical and transitional risks associated with climate change drive cautious decision makers towards lower risk net zero buildings.

Benefits of Net Zero

It is estimated that pursuing Net Zero would have the following national environmental and economic benefits:

  • Contribute to generate £689M savings on energy bills by retrofitting 3.49 million homes to Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) level C.
  • By 2030, reduce carbon emissions by 7.92MtCO2e through retrofit activities.
  • Generate £1.9 billion per annum cost saving for the NHS, and
  • Create 32,104 FTE skilled jobs by 2030 to meet retrofit demand.

Regulatory timeline

In recent years, the government has taken certain measures to further align with the national goals of Net Zero by 2050. These measures have been outlined in the form of construction and operation building regulations. The table below summarises the how and when these regulations would impact the built environment by 2030.

Approach to Net Zero

The optimum strategy for targeting net zero takes into consideration a whole systems approach that enables companies to understand the complex interrelationships and challenges posed by net-zero aspirations and come up with practical solutions. This combines an understanding of managing physical factors (such as the building fabric and mechanical systems) with wider intangible factors (such as economic, behavioural, and organisational), and the intricate interactions between the two. Using this approach facilitates the consideration of behaviours and interactions between different parts of the company, and how these can combine to provide a beneficial Net Zero outcome.

A four-step process (with an in-built feedback loop), sets out our approach to achieving net zero for existing assets:





1. Plan

2. Develop

3. Manage

4. Optimise

Overall, the research conducted by Cluttons and AESG has highlighted that there is no denying that UK councils are engaged with the challenge of achieving net-zero and the benefits that this will bring for their local areas. Many have set ambitious targets, declared climate emergencies and are at the start of their own roadmaps on how progress will be achieved. However, the sincerity of these net-zero plans is soon to be tested, with many still admitting they do not understand their council’s net-zero roadmap. Following the net-zero approach outlined in this article, local authorities can move from the phase of setting the target, to achieving the target without wasting any time, as there isn’t a lot left to waste.