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UK businesses still committed to net zero despite government backslide

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's recently announced decarbonisation delays have been widely criticised.
Rachel Willcox
UK businesses remain committed to net zero
Photo by Nick Kane on Unsplash

The wide majority of large and mid-sized UK companies remain firmly committed to cutting carbon emissions by the end of this decade, proving that the government’s recent backtracking on its net zero pledges has done little to dampen corporates’ enthusiasm for sustainability.

A new survey from energy company Vattenfall suggests that UK businesses remain committed to their net zero strategies – despite the added costs recent policy changes could bring.

According to the survey of 1,000 mid-sized industry firms, 95.5% of companies with a workforce of 50+ said that they remain steadfast in their commitment to reducing carbon footprints or achieving net zero. Around three quarters of respondents (77.4%) said they are aiming for significant cutbacks by 2030, with 58.1% envisioning substantial carbon reductions within the next five years.

The findings reiterate analysis by the Net Zero Tracker published earlier this month, which found that the vast majority (94%) of UK firms in the Forbes2000 have a net zero target in place, despite the UK government pushing back on decarbonisation.

In September, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a major backslide in the government's climate commitments, in a bid to put his Conservative party on a more radical path to close the gap with Labour before the next general election. Key changes include delaying the ban on new petrol and diesel car sales from 2030 to 2035, and pushing back the ban on gas boilers from 2026 to 2035. 

The move was widely criticised by policy experts, NGOs and businesses. In an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister before his speech, companies including Nestlé, Ikea and Aviva Investors noted that they had already made substantial investments towards decarbonisation based on previous policy announcements and that they were “deeply concerned” by the backtracking. They added  that “sticking to long-term net zero policies is crucial to build business confidence and mobilise investment”.

Energy efficiency and electrification top net zero priorities for UK businesses

The Vattenfall survey shows that energy efficiency is the most obvious way to reduce consumption; a quarter of respondents said they were targeting savings this way. Meanwhile, almost 70% of companies with carbon reduction or net zero targets included electrification, solar PV or changes in energy use as part of their plans. 

Even though electrification is one of the most important strategies for reducing CO2 emissions from energy in time for the 2050 net zero deadline, only half of those companies surveyed anticipate a rise in their electricity usage in the forthcoming decades – signalling that electrification goes hand in hand with energy efficiency measures for most.

Vattenfall says the finding highlights that deeper understanding of the net-zero roadmap and its key steps is needed to navigate the transition. Indeed, a resounding 80% of respondents acknowledged the need for guidance – in particular, financial, technical and implementation support - to help organisations meet their targets.

Jim Watson, Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, says the weakening of sustainable policies is likely to add further costs onto businesses in the future, rather than cutting them. “Rishi Sunak’s net zero speech is full of contradictions and will make it harder to meet our medium – and long-term climate change targets. It also risks increasing the costs by delaying the shift away from fossil fuels and reducing the economic benefits to the UK,” he added.