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An expert’s guide to net zero and climate standardisation

To stand a chance of meeting our environmental and sustainability targets, the world needs to work toward goals in a unified way – and that means standardised assessments. Maria Varbeva-Daley walks us through the metrics for a greener future.

white clouds in blue sky

The urgency and extent of the climate crisis, combined with the need for a rapid, effective global response, has placed the reduction of greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions to net zero firmly at the top of the agenda of governments, businesses and societies.  There is widespread agreement that large-scale, globally coordinated action is needed to reach net zero targets and deliver on wider climate and sustainability commitments. 

However, the sheer complexity and scale of the challenge ahead, along with the vast number of stakeholders involved, means there is currently no consensus on how best to get there.  As an integral part of a global Quality Infrastructure, accreditation will be instrumental in underpinning the adoption of clearer, robust, just and effective net zero transition pathways across the world.

The United Nation’s Climate Action Group defines ‘net zero’ as cutting GHG emissions to as close to zero as possible, with any remaining emissions being reabsorbed from the atmosphere through oceans, forests and other natural processes.  To date, 149 countries have set targets to reach net zero emissions by 2050, with the aim of limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels in line with the historic COP21 Paris agreement.

Quantifying the challenge

With the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service advising that global warming exceeded 1.5C across an entire year for the first time in January 2024, the scope of the net zero challenge cannot be underestimated.  It requires an unprecedented scale of systemic change – in behaviour, culture, processes and across sectors of the economy.

The timescale involved is a major challenge, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that the window of opportunity for implementing changes that will enable the Paris 1.5C target to be reached is closing rapidly.  Its Climate Change 2023 Synthesis Report projected that the world could emit only another 500 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to have a 50:50 chance of reaching that 1.5C goal.

Many organisations have started taking action in pursuit of net zero, but the journey looks very different for individual countries, industries, governments and businesses. The playing field is uneven, with vastly varying starting points, effort required, degrees of responsibility, financial resources available, and the extent to which the effects of climate change are already being felt. 

For example, energy production and consumption accounts for around 75% of worldwide GHG emissions.  Transitioning to a decarbonised, renewable energy-based system by 2050 could save the world at least $12 trillion, but decarbonising energy-intensive industries remains one of the most complicated and costly challenges. In its Fostering Effective Energy Transition 2023 report, the World Economic Forum highlighted that geopolitical volatility and the global energy crisis has caused the global energy transition to plateau after a decade of progress.

But there are encouraging signs that this may have been a temporary lull, as the International Energy Agency reported that the world’s renewable energy capacity grew by 50% in 2023.  This gives the sector a real chance of meeting the COP28 goal of tripling global renewable energy capacity to 11 terawatts by 2030.

Net zero is proving a challenge for businesses regardless of size or industry sector.  Small and medium-sized enterprises make up the vast majority of global businesses and account for nearly half of the UK’s business-driven emissions. A 2021 survey by the British Business Bank reported that whilst 94% of SMEs had taken at least one action to reduce emissions, over 20 different barriers had been identified (chief amongst them being cost and feasibility), which prevented further meaningful action being taken. 

Cost and information issues were further highlighted by the Federation of Small Businesses [FSB] when it proposed a Help to Green scheme in the run up to COP26. 2023 research by the FSB and Warwick Business School found that less than 1% of local businesses had benefitted from key local support schemes across England, with significant variations between regions. As well as suggesting that current net zero support systems are largely piecemeal and inaccessible, it indicates that whilst there is an awareness and willingness around the requirement to reach net zero, there is widespread uncertainty about the feasibility and best methods of getting there.

In addition, the inherent complexity of the challenge, combined with the plethora of often misaligned ‘environmental’ schemes, standards and claims already in the marketplace, has the potential to stifle progress.  It could encourage organisations and industries to operate in silos, leading to a fragmented approach, duplication of effort and loss of scalability and transparency.  It also slows down organisations’ decision-making around investment, finance and operations.

Setting net zero targets and commitments

The COP21 Paris agreement represents a major commitment to limit climate change through cutting GHG emissions, leaving individual governments to implement their own legislation, systems and interim targets. Despite recent scaling back of some interim net zero targets and investment commitments on both sides of the political spectrum, the UK is still considered one of the world’s leaders when it comes to reducing carbon emissions. 

The Climate Change Act 2008 saw it become the first major economy to enshrine a net zero emissions target into law, with official figures showing that by 2022 it was nearly halfway towards reaching its overall target.  A recent UK government report indicates that quantified emissions savings will deliver 92% of target, with the government confident that unquantified measures will largely close the remaining 8% gap.

Climate change is a global challenge requiring a coordinated response. Today, most large economies have set a net zero target of some kind. Country-level net zero targets cover approximately 90% of the world’s GDP, emissions and population, marking a significant improvement from December 2020 levels of 50-70%. Whilst mainland European countries already dominate the World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, the European Parliament recently approved the Net Zero Industry Act to strengthen the business case for decarbonisation across the European Union. 

The Act sets the EU a target to produce 40% of net zero technologies based on National Energy and Climate Plans, and to capture 25% of the global market for these technologies.  It also intends to deal with the challenges in scaling up manufacturing capacities in these technologies. In a similar fashion, by linking investment to innovation, the USA’s Inflation Act 2022 aims to reduce domestic GHG emissions by 1billion tonnes in 2030. The act represents its largest investment in clean energy and climate action, leading to more than $110billion being invested in new clean energy within its first year.

To help tackle the challenge of proliferation of fragmented schemes, standards, approaches and often unsubstantiated claims (i.e., ‘greenwashing’), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) launched its Net Zero Guidelines at COP27. By providing businesses, policymakers and regulators with a common reference point, the guidelines offer a platform for the coordination of global net zero effort, helping improve harmonisation, understanding and planning of net zero actions.

The challenge of transitioning from targets to action

Targets have to balance the competing aims of delivering the desired impact whilst being achievable. However, a target without a plan is little more than a wish.  These sentiments were echoed in the Net Zero Stocktake 2023 report which highlights that whilst a growing number of companies are pledging to reach net zero by 2050, their goal is rarely supported by a credible plan. Low quality, vague, impractical and incomplete transition plans severely limit the ability of stakeholders to assess their credibility and fails to support global net zero ambitions.

In a bid to counteract this growing trend, the UK Treasury launched the Transition Plan Taskforce [TPT] in April 2022. The TPT’s aim is to develop a model for creating detailed and high-quality climate transition plans that allow better-informed decisions to be made.  To help individual organisations interpret and apply the disclosure framework, the TPT published a draft series of sector specific guidelines in November 2023.  Similarly, to further assist the effective implementation of any transition plans, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority is currently considering amending existing UK competition law to allow greater cooperation on environmental sustainability agreements.

white electic windmill

The role of accreditation in net zero

Along with standards, measurement and conformity assessment, accreditation is a core component of what is known as ‘Quality Infrastructure’. Standards codify agreed best practice, enabling business performance.  Conformity assessment provides the means of demonstrating that good practice is being met and accreditation delivers confidence that conformity assessment bodies carrying out performance evaluations are competent and have the necessary integrity and impartiality. This is all based on robust and repeatable measurement.

Although ‘net zero’ is a comparatively new concept, Quality Infrastructure tools have long-been used to underpin organisational activities across nearly all sectors and topics. In the UK alone, thousands of organisations benefit from the accredited conformity assessment of products, services, management systems and processes linked to environmental, energy and wider sustainability requirements, impacts and activities.  

The international standard for environmental management systems, ISO 14001 is perhaps the widest recognised environmental standard, with the latest ISO survey showing over half a million ISO 14001 compliance certificates were issued globally in 2022. The same period also saw a 33% increase in the number of compliance certificates issued for the global standard for energy management systems, ISO 50001, compared to the previous year.

Many types of renewable energy sources are also covered by accreditation; from installations under the Microgeneration Certification Scheme to the inspection and testing bodies that examine solar, wave and wind farms. Emissions and emissions allowances are measured, monitored, reported and verified through the accredited UK Emissions Trading Scheme, whilst organisational carbon neutrality claims can be assessed by accredited conformity assessment bodies in line with the British Standards Institution [BSI] specification for the demonstration of carbon neutrality, PAS 2060. 

Work is also underway around additional schemes that will play directly into net zero frameworks, such as the accredited certification of carbon removal framework proposed by the European Commission. Similarly, COP28 saw significant announcements by Quality Infrastructure stakeholders on sustainability assurance standards, renewable and low-energy hydrogen certification, voluntary carbon markets and end-to-end decarbonisation frameworks.

In a net zero context, accurate measurements, reliable testing, verifiable claims and competent inspection are fundamental to both organisational success and public perception of credibility. In addition to demonstrating compliance with mandatory regulatory targets, accredited conformity assessment provides the necessary assurance that credible and impactful standards and frameworks are being applied in voluntary market-based initiatives.

Quality Infrastructure tools and organisations also support the pursuit of a socially-just transition to net zero through their reliance on global consensus-building and multi-stakeholder processes, wide and diverse outreach and global capacity building. Accreditation therefore has a major role to play in ensuring the consistency, credibility, fairness and effectiveness of both mandated and voluntary net zero action.

Harnessing the Quality Infrastructure to create consensus, clarity and credibility

The nature, scale, complexity and limited timeframe for tackling the climate challenge should not be underestimated. Achieving net zero, at scale and pace, requires the rapid development and deployment of effective and collaborative solutions, coordinated at a global level and accessible at a local level.

Tasked with asking how the UK could do better to meet its net zero commitments, the government’s Independent Review of Net Zero asserts that net zero decision-making requires action from all stakeholders involved. Similarly, the final conclusion from the Net Zero Stocktake 2023 report is that ‘the clear consensus on net zero standards and what good looks like can serve as a guiding star for both commitments and implementation.’

Conversely, a UKAS-BSI net zero stakeholder workshop in October 2023 highlighted a confusing landscape for all involved in working toward achieving net zero, managing and mitigating the impacts of climate change.  Amongst the root causes cited were the lack of a coordinated approach, the vast array of different initiatives with varying degree of credibility and impact, along with the proliferation of often unsubstantiated net zero pledges and claims.

The possibility to establish an effective net zero collaboration, a ‘coalition’ of sorts, that harnesses the well-established Quality Infrastructure and the trusted tools it deploys, was therefore a key outcome of the UKAS-BSI workshop.  Such a coalition could provide a ‘collated mandate’ for all parties involved, building upon participating organisations’ effort and remit. 

Not only could such an approach reduce fragmentation and duplication of net zero effort, it would help better coordinate and scale up ongoing stakeholder activities. A Quality Infrastructure-focused net zero coalition would offer a forum to identify, improve and create consensus around best practice and how businesses demonstrate credibly that they are meeting best practice, further encouraging global convergence and alignment of net zero policies, regulation and voluntary action. 

It would support policymakers’ and regulatory initiatives by underpinning the development and implementation of net zero transition plans, based on best practice and reflective of industry and sector needs, and regional differences. By building trust and confidence in ongoing and future net zero actions, such an approach would enhance and promote climate accountability globally.

For net zero actions to be truly effective and deliver the desired environmental, social and economic benefits they need to become ‘business as usual’, with progress toward net zero being consistently tracked, measured and reported on. Standards and accreditation can play a key role in embedding net zero thinking and practices across organisations, sectors and systems, so they become as much a part of everyday life as quality, health and safety.  Whilst it doesn’t claim to be the main contributor to all the hard work that lies ahead, the Quality Infrastructure and the collaborative, credible solutions it offers, can be an intrinsic part of the coordinated development, delivery and widespread adoption of fair, robust, transparent, trusted and achievable net zero.

Maria Varbeva-Daley is the sector specialist for energy, environment and sustainability at the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS).  With extensive experience in forming powerful collaboration and leading sustainability and energy standards and best practice development, Maria works with a wide range of stakeholders to share best practices, coordinate efforts around environmental  initiatives, including the transition to net zero, and promote the role of accredited conformity assessment in enhancing climate accountability and the credibility of wider sustainability actions.

More features: 

How financial institutions meet ESG requirements through data and analytics

Less can be more: End of the road for private cars?

The future of sustainable packaging

Images: Anne Nygård (top), Nicholas Doherty (middle)


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