How to...

Quantify going green

The carbon agenda should now move on to the people and financial benefits derived from going green, says government advisor Natural England. Read on for the lowdown on this fresh approach

Quantify going green

Being a good green citizen, Natural England, the government’s advisor on the natural environment, had set itself a goal in 2006 to cut its operational carbon emissions by 50 per cent, including reducing business travel by 25 per cent in under four years. Fast forward to 2012 and it has done just that, reflected in a travel spend that had shrunk from £4million to £2.5million by 2010 and likely to close 2011 at nearer £2million.

Moreover, the 2,500 employees had learned to leave their car behind and avoid airports for any UK meetings and instead use public transport and the likes of teleconferencing, videoconferencing, as well as working more from home. “It was a real mix in cultures when I came on board in 2007. Some people would only travel by train for business purposes while others would insist on using their own cars. What we lacked was a clear set of expectations about how and when our people travelled and the tools to make it sustainable,” explains Paul Hinds, head of sustainability.

Hinds was brought in to lead a small team to drive the carbon agenda, setting out the how, where and when to achieve the target. “It was seen as an ambitious target and I was the new kid on the block tasked to put meat on the bones of it,” he says. Natural England’s journey didn’t stop there. Once the company was managing its carbon efficiently, and driven by the government’s austerity measures, it wanted to prove that reducing the carbon footprint of business travel can also lead to financial gains for the benefit of their front line services.

“Our story is as much about the people and the money benefits we have brought to our organisation and the way we engaged with our employees,” says Hinds. Read on to discover how he helped Natural England achieve both of these ambitious targets.

STEP 1: Hind produced a draft green travel policy which provided travellers with a range of options. They could, for example, select a policy of borrowing pool bikes to cycle to the rail station (something that has been universally accepted); or reject a policy that limited the number of car miles driven each day.

Hinds established communication channels to allow travellers to voice their approval or concerns over the changes. “The purpose was to get people talking about what types of travel were critical to achieving our business objectives. Then we could get into solution mode,” he says. Common to many organisations, there was resistance to using rail, with the pre-conceptions around having to queue for hours and not being able to get a seat. Installing ticket printers in its main office, backed up by an online booking system, eased the mechanics of switching to this travel mode.

The final policy was a three-prong attack: ensuring sustainable travel options were considered first; focusing on those teams with the highest carbon footprints; and responding to the overwhelming message from employees not to tell them what to do, but to give them flexibility in selecting the right type of travel for the right job. Only then they would commit to reducing carbon. And they did.

 

Travel was reduced by 25 per cent in the first year. “They very quickly got into low-cost carbon mindset,” explains Hinds. “The classic case was the weekly team meetings that people drove to were replaced by teleconferences.” The development of an in-house meeting planning tool has supported further changes as it produces a matrix of the best Natural England office venue in terms of time and carbon.

Endorsement from above helped to drive this strategy, not least by all the directors publishing their carbon footprint online each month. “That gave the overriding message that we were all in it together,” says Hinds. These and other success stories were showcased on Natural England’s intranet site. “It helped show that travelling by public transport was acceptable and not scary.” There were little upfront capital costs as the introduction of VC in major offices and teleconferencing co-incided with the renewal of the company’s telephony system.

STEP 2: In 2010, having made great strides in its carbon journey, Natural England was keen to quantify all the soft benefits that employees were noticing as a result. “There was a recognition that we were making financial savings, creating a better work/life balance and being more productive. As an evidence-based organisation we wanted to analyse that,” says Hinds. “Our focus over the previous few years had been all about the carbon and we couldn’t fail on that front as it relates to our credibility as an organisation.” Asking around for a supplier that could do this led to SOS (Sustainable Opportunity Solutions) coming on board.

STEP 3: SOS is an Edinburgh-based company that was formed in 2008 by Paul Adderley, MD and principal advisor, combining his accountancy skills with his environmental knowledge, to help corporates make the business case for sustainability. SOS used its sustainable travel assessment tool to model the financial gains from Natural England’s carbon reduction achievements. The tool also enabled Natural England to assess the financial gains from an optimal carbon reduction programme. SOS analysed the underlying travel data over a long period of time to ensure that it was the right data, analysing 45 months worth before providing the results.

Whereas the modelling tool helps corporates develop the business case for optimising carbon reduction programmes, the company's online travelHUB helps businesses implement their programme on the front line. “By connecting carbon budgets with productivity and costs, travelHUB helps a traveller make sense of how their travel decision supports the wider business goals. It basically highlights the best way to get around,” explains Adderley.

Of the three financial results, one stood out: “We were benefitting from a very surprising £700,000 in improved staff productivity and reduced subsistence costs,” says Hinds. “We thought that figure was going to be more like £50,000-£100,000.

“When you look at that achievement, you think we’ve achieved our overall operational 50 per cent target to reduce carbon and reduced our travel by over 40 per cent, but so what? The actual carbon saving is a miniscule amount compared to the rest of the public sector, but how we achieved it and the people and financial benefits it brings is something we should be sharing across the whole of government as this is what it’s all about.”

STEP 4: Natural England is continuing the carbon reducing work too, but Hind realises that, “As a business, we’ve almost got to the point where we’ll begin to squeak if we reduce our travel more.” Instead, they are looking at technology to move forward and last year introduced a new Carbon Travel Budgeting System for the year and integrated it into corporate performance management system. Carbon is now an additional item to assess at employees’ quarterly reviews. “It gives them greater ownership,” explains Hinds.

Other goals on the horizon are to replace Natural England’s vehicle fleet. Some have already been converted to run off used cooking oil but the downside is finding fuel storage space. No doubt, they’ll find a fresh approach to overcome this obstacle too.