Julia Barrett talks about how being carbon neutral has whetted Willmott Dixon’s appetite to go further in taking carbon out of the equation...

When we announced in 2012 that we had become carbon neutral, there was a lot of scepticism. Back then, it was said by many that companies who did this were just alleviating their carbon emissions conscience by investing in carbon offset projects rather than cutting their own emissions. In other words, buying their way to carbon neutrality.

Eight years later, it’s clear that being an early adopter of carbon offsetting started a process that led to fundamental change at Willmott Dixon. Going carbon neutral galvanised and inspired our workforce, which accelerated our own progress to make huge cuts into what we emit; by focussing on our operations, we’ve slashed carbon emissions intensity by 61% since 2010.

Winning hearts and minds

Cutting carbon cannot be a ‘top down’ approach; it requires the buy-in of everyone whose mindset, commitment and actions are vital to achieving a step change. One way we did this was to make our local businesses take responsibility for their own emissions and pay to offset the carbon they emitted each year. Doing it this way made sure that we didn’t just focus on our emissions from our building activities, but also considered those from our offices and from travelling. This meant our business units were paying twice – once to buy the fossil fuel to burn and once to offset the carbon dioxide that resulted. That focused minds!

Everyone has since embraced such initiatives with a thirst for progress across the company that led to our emissions reducing year on year. So much so that we believe by 2030 our operations will not be powered by any fossil fuels – that’s our target!

An overseas legacy of support

Our carbon offsetting has also seen us invest in overseas projects that have delivered real benefits.

How do we know? Before we choose which project to invest in, we always made sure they are high quality; transparent in what they achieve and third-party verified. Most recently, we supported the Ugandan Borehole Projects, which works with local communities to repair broken boreholes. This project was the very first programme to implement the new Gender Equality methodology from the Gold Standard, which aligned with our ambition to achieve gender equality across our business. The wider benefits of the projects also support the objectives of the Willmott Dixon Foundation.

These projects have also provided life changing experiences to our own people. For the last three years, we have sent our sustainability champion of the year to witness the impact of the projects first-hand. The stories that they have come back with, and the appreciation that climate change is a global issue - what we do here impacts people on the other side of the world - has been extremely powerful in driving change.

Working with trusted parties

The process to offset emissions by investing in projects is supported by the many carbon reduction and offset providers in the voluntary carbon market that are members of organisations such as The International Carbon Reduction and Offset Alliance (ICROA) and the Quality Assurance Standard (QAS). These will help you identify high quality projects that have verified carbon impacts and can deliver additional benefits in line with your company purpose or charitable ambitions. And of course, you can always go further and invest more to reflect your true cost of carbon; however, in the words of Voltaire “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good”: get started, act today and evolve and improve your approach as you learn.

Now or never

Scientific data from the IPPC tells us we have only 10 years to make the reductions needed to limit climate change to 1.5oC and avoid potentially catastrophic climate change.

My challenge to those businesses who have set their ambitions to be Net Zero carbon by 2025, 2030 or later is this: why wait? You can become Net Zero carbon or carbon neutral today if you're really serious.

We are proud that supporting communities in Africa has helped galvanise our people’s resolve to make a difference and helped lead to our own emissions falling. But as we start this new decade, we need to up our game - carbon neutrality or Net Zero in operation by 2030 is not ambitious enough – we are aiming to eliminate fossil fuels completely for the sake of our future generations.