Kim Yates and Davide Stronati describe Mott MacDonald’s pathway to carbon neutrality, the challenges we faced and where the company hopes to go next.
Well, it’s been exhausting, but we finally did it! This month we announced that Mott MacDonald has achieved its aim of becoming carbon neutral – the first major company in our sector to achieve this crucial milestone.
We had been actively reducing our carbon emissions for much of the last 10 years in keeping with our sustainability agenda and had made great progress.
However, last year we decided we had to be more ambitious and go fully carbon neutral. The worsening climate crisis was reflected in massive demonstrations around the world. International accords such as the Paris Agreement have been bolstered by the drive of individual states, such as the UK which has committed to become carbon neutral by 2050, and China which wants to achieve the same goal by 2060. Companies in other sectors have become carbon neutral – or are well on their way. And soon clients will be demanding this of their partners and suppliers in our sector too. We had to take action.
So here is a summary of our path to becoming carbon neutral. We hope it inspires others in our sector and beyond to make the same journey, and warmly invite you to contact us if you need any help on the way.
Start by defining your carbon baseline
We couldn’t effectively cut carbon if we didn’t know what we were emitting and where, so our journey began with the mammoth task of calculating our global carbon footprint. This is something we had been examining for many years, although it was in 2019 that we sought external verification of our figures. Our global carbon footprint for 2019 was 30,019tCO2e.
As you would expect, calculating this figure was hugely complicated. We have projects in over 150 countries and offices in nearly 50, and gathering good quality, accurate data was the crucial first step. Most of our offices are in buildings shared with other companies, making it even harder to isolate our carbon emissions.
We managed this by creating an app which was sent to office managers around the world to help them collect the necessary data. This initiative was led by our executive chairman Mike Haigh, as effective culture change always requires visible leadership to drive it forward. This included regular communications and engagement to highlight the importance of comprehensive data gathering and local taskforces to support office managers.
The next step was to examine business travel. This was easier said than done, as in 2019 we employed 33 different travel agencies across the global business. And our travel booking systems around the world were not originally set up with our carbon calculations in mind. It was quite a challenge to ensure all travel data was captured in our systems. This added up to over 100,000 lines of data – and the huge task of data cleansing to match each trip and its associated emissions to individual staff numbers. We found that automation could only take us so far, at least in the first year of producing these calculations. Our team had to look intelligently at the data to ensure that there had been no oversights and that the numbers were accurate.
Once we had calculated our carbon footprint, we wanted to have our conclusions verified by an external body to ensure we had met all the right standards and that our figures were accurate. We enlisted the Carbon Trust, which went over our entire methodology and examined all our spreadsheets – a massive undertaking considering the vast quantities of data generated across the company. They worked with us to further improve our data and processes. And now we are independently accredited on a global basis. Getting to this point took a major effort – but it meant we could confidently define our carbon footprint – and get to work on becoming carbon neutral.
Driving down our carbon footprint
We don’t sign up to things we can’t deliver. Our original plan was to become carbon neutral in 2022. However, our executive chairman challenged us: “Let’s make it happen in 2020!” It was daunting to have two years knocked off our timetable, but we knew that a demanding goal would spur teamwork and innovation.
To start with, we looked at how we could decarbonise the energy supplies to our offices. In Europe – where we produced more than 50% of our energy carbon emissions and over 60% of our transport emissions – we worked closely with our landlords, and the vast majority have now moved to renewable energy supplies. In North America, Asia Pacific, the Middle East and South Asia we looked at both switching energy supplies and becoming more energy efficient.
We found our biggest travel-related emissions came from flying. We now signpost low carbon airlines or those offering offsetting schemes to drive down our footprint, while collaborative platforms and conferencing technology help us avoid much unnecessary travel. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how seamlessly we can work just using technology, so we hope this will herald another step-change in cutting corporate travel.
In North America we noted a lot of road travel, so we promoted hybrid vehicles and are now moving towards electric. Of course, this only works if the country’s electricity grid is itself relatively low carbon, so a bespoke national approach is needed that takes this into account. Elsewhere, such as in the UK, we worked with our providers for preferential rates on low emissions vehicles.
From the beginning, we shared details of our carbon footprint openly with our employees via a Power BI dashboard, and this has allowed them all to drill into the data and provide their own suggestions on how to cut our emissions. Crowd sourced ideas include taking a vegan-first approach to catering for meetings and events.
Our carbon reductions are aligned with science-based targets, which are focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050 in mature economies and by 2070 worldwide, in order to prevent climate change exceeding 1.5°C, relative to the pre-industrial average temperature. Indeed, our pathway to carbon neutrality and onwards to net-zero has been approved by the Science-Based Targets initiative, which is a collaboration between carbon disclosure charity CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, the World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Finally, although we firmly believe in carbon reduction over carbon offsetting, we had to mitigate our remaining emissions by physically removing CO2 from the air to become carbon neutral. Many carbon offset schemes exist, and we wanted to choose ours carefully – aligned with our values, sustainable, bringing benefits to the local economy and local ecosystem. Ideally, we wanted a project we were involved in. The scheme we selected is a peatland project at the Berbak National Park in Indonesia for which we provided advisory services, including support in donor co-ordination, identifying potential funding for additional peatland restoration and helping to train local staff and 10,000 oil palm farmers in how to maximise harvests. Peat, which is made of plant matter built up over time, effectively converts atmospheric CO2 to solid form. Natural erosion of peatland reduces water absorption and increases flood risk, so supporting this project helps to protect the local area and increases the value of the land too. We have bought offset credits that will finance the creation of new peatland with a storage capacity equivalent to 31,000t of carbon.
The importance of accreditation
Seeking independent accreditation was a crucial part of our carbon neutral journey. It provided us with assurance that our approach and methods were best in class. Accreditation also enables us to assure others that we have truly done what we say: it is important for our reputation and credibility. It’s a matter of trusting us not because we say so, but because the Carbon Trust, an independent organisation, says so.
The first standard to meet was ISO 14064, the international standard for carbon reporting. This assures that our carbon footprint has been correctly calculated.
Verification of our offsets showed we had also met the standard for carbon neutrality, PAS 2060.
Six tips for achieving carbon neutrality
Seek accreditation: Certification from external bodies will bolster your credibility within the industry and can also provide guidance if you need support in meeting your carbon neutral goals.
Make the most of technology: Use dashboards and data-based solutions to find out where the carbon is and use technological solutions where possible to mitigate it.
Leadership must come from the top: Embedding largescale change is only successful if there is buy-in and visible support from senior leaders.
Share responsibility across the company: Once each employee and each department see their carbon footprint, they are empowered and encouraged to find ways to cut it.
Collaborate with other organisations: Ask your suppliers and partners how they can help you reduce your carbon footprint.
Set science-based targets: Make sure you’re playing your fair part in cutting carbon, to reach the global goal of attaining net-zero emissions.
Benefits to the business
We have become carbon neutral first because it is important to us that we do the right thing, for our planet and people worldwide, and for our friends, colleagues and families. Evidence from all around the world shows that we are in a climate and environmental emergency. We have to play our part in responding to it and bringing the emergency under control. We are carbon neutral because we must be!
And there are upsides. Colleagues feel pride in working for a company that takes carbon reduction seriously and has reached this important milestone. We think that people at school and university, graduates and skilled professionals will view carbon neutrality as an important and positive thing too and we hope it will help us attract the kind of people we want working at Mott MacDonald.
It’s important to us that we are consistent in what we say and do. We have a thriving business in carbon management, and it is essential that we have our house in order as the focus shifts from carbon reduction to net-zero. Clients and partners are already talking to us about our carbon neutral journey, and how they may follow suit.
There will be financial benefits from our efforts. We know that carbon is a proxy for cost, so carbon efficiencies correlate with cost savings.
There will also be benefits for those we work with, especially our clients, who need to consider carbon emissions in their supply chain. We have the certification they require when working out their own carbon accounts, helping them to drive down their overall project footprint.
Every tonne of CO2 counts. But in practice, our historic contributions to the carbon footprints of major engineering projects has always been dwarfed by emissions associated with materials, construction and operation. In addition to being carbon neutral, we are also globally certified to PAS 2080, the international standard for managing carbon in infrastructure. Applying the principles and methods of PAS 2080 to our clients’ projects and infrastructure operation can contribute substantially further to their emissions reductions.
Next steps: From carbon neutral to net-zero
Looking ahead, we want to make the journey from carbon neutral to net-zero by 2040. Carbon neutral involves offsetting our emissions by investing in carbon capture and sequestration schemes operated by third parties – such as the Indonesian peatland project. The fact we’re paying to offset provides an incentive to cut emissions further – we will continue to seek savings year on year, to minimise our footprint and the amount of offsetting required.
What we want to achieve, net-zero, involves us offsetting our residual carbon emissions ourselves, without relying on any third parties. How we achieve net-zero is still to be finalised, but is sure to include: more robust carbon management; better use of data and technology; further reduction of travel; shifting responsibility from the company to individuals; reducing energy use of our offices; more green energy; continuing the shift to hybrid or electric vehicles; and developing our own offsetting schemes.
No doubt we will learn lots from our suppliers and partners who join us on this journey, while the emissions landscape changes with new regulations, standards and legislation over the next 20 years.
If you are interested in starting or progressing your journey to carbon neutral or net-zero, then talk to us and let’s see how we can work together.
Counting down to net-zero
2008 – First calculated our carbon footprint
2013 – Co-authored the UK government’s Infrastructure Carbon Review, establishing the link between carbon and cost
2013 - 2018 – Achieved 45% reduction in emissions per employee
2015 – Co-authored PAS 2080, the international standard for managing infrastructure carbon
December 2015 – Paris Agreement signed
2017 – Independently accredited to PAS 2080, globally
June 2019 – UK passes legislation committing to become net-zero by 2050; we lead the formation of the Net-zero Infrastructure Industry Coalition
September 2019 – Group sets target of becoming carbon neutral before the end of 2020
September 2020 – Group is independently certified to ISO14064, the international standard for carbon reporting, for the quality of its global carbon footprint measurement
October 2020 – Target achieved: Group is independently certified carbon neutral, globally; accredited to PAS 2060, the international standard for carbon neutrality; reaccredited to PAS 2080
2024 – Target: 25% reduction on 2018 global Group carbon footprint
2040 – Target: net-zero