COP 28: Zero carbon is an opportunity not an obligation 

Mike Cross says the need for urgent action on climate change, if grasped, presents an opportunity to transform and grow.

As the world watches Dubai to assess progress in addressing global climate change at COP28, it is timely for organisations to reflect on their own efforts to reduce environmental impact.

We're certainly doing that at Willmott Dixon.

This COP marks the first ‘Global Stocktake,’ evaluating progress towards the collective goals agreed under the Paris Agreement eight years ago to limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Alarmingly, the United Nations warned in November that the planet is heading for a temperature increase of 2.5-2.9°C.

As things stand, the world is on track to reach a global average temperature not experienced in over 100,000 years by the end of next year1. Without acceleration of climate plans worldwide, emissions are only set to reduce by two percent by 2030. We must rapidly change course if we are to avoid the irreversible and chaotic effects of severe global warming.

Our urgent mission

Our own sustainability strategy Now or Never is aligned with the same science-based targets agreed back in 2015 at COP21, helping us play our part in limiting warming to 1.5°C. We work to achieve this against clear annual targets on carbon reduction, carefully monitoring and reporting our progress each year to make sure we are on track to meet our commitment to become a zero-carbon company by 2030.

Buildings are responsible for 39% of global energy related carbon emissions: 28% from operational emissions like energy needed to heat, cool and power them, and 11% from materials and construction. Our mission is to enable customers to deliver buildings resilient to the impacts of our changing climate, conserve natural resources, use responsible, low-carbon resources and minimise carbon emissions. It’s an approach we take to our own performance, making a point every year to understand exactly where our carbon emissions come from, how we can reduce them and reporting them publicly.

Taking stock of performance

Willmott Dixon’s report card shows we are on the right trajectory. We’ve almost halved our absolute carbon emissions since 2018, more than halved avoidable waste and operated as a carbon neutral company since 2012.

The contention over whether to “phase down” or “phase out” fossil fuels at COP28 appears to be a question of how far to kick the can down the road. We are committed to eliminate fossil fuels from our operations by 2030. We already run fossil-fuel free sites and source 100% natural electricity from sustainable sources for our offices.

But of course, it is not that simple, our supply chain partners produce 99 times more greenhouse gases than we do through their activities on our projects. These scope 3 carbon emissions remain one of the greatest challenges facing our company and our industry. We also have to do more to reduce, reuse and recycle the waste brought on to our sites, particularly plastics. The key is to continue to choose partners who share our values, to support new ways of operation and drive behavioural change.

Encouragingly, we see a growing number of likeminded customers and partners who agree with our approach and see the opportunities ahead. Since 2020, we have completed or begun working on 54 low-carbon and net-zero projects worth more than £1.4bn.

Bold steps

The stark reality outlined by the UN is that global emissions must be reduced by 45% by 2030 to stay within the 1.5°C limit. Achieving net zero demands substantial governmental actions; we need giant strides not baby steps.

Whatever the outcome of COP28, the imperative for businesses like Willmott Dixon to assume a leadership role in securing a sustainable future for us all has never been more pronounced. Confronted by the unsettling reality of irreversible catastrophic climate change, substantial government action is needed. But the onus extends beyond national decision makers; we need more companies, communities, and individuals to become architects of change. Identifying solutions is the easy part; the challenge lies in effecting behavioural change and implementing new ways of operation to make a difference.

Our progress toward net zero is not just about leaving a positive environmental legacy, it’s also about creating a blueprint for business success, driving growth, stimulating innovation, increasing efficiency and improving resilience.

Beyond the balance sheets, embracing sustainability also proves to be an effective recruitment and retention strategy, demonstrating to our people that we are invested in a future that goes beyond profits – a future where each person contributes to a meaningful cause.

Make no mistake, we’re at a defining moment where environmental responsibility intertwines with business prosperity. This is not only an obligation but an opportunity to shape a future where sustainability is not an option but the only way forward.