City Science's Net Zero 2024 Commitment

July 5, 2022

At City Science we believe that talking a good game simply isn’t good enough; we must also take our own medicine. I urged everyone to make 2022 a year of meaningful action on climate change at the start of this year, and I'm pleased to announce that City Science has now committed to reaching Net Zero by the end of 2024 - that’s just two and a half years away (and counting).

Three hard truths about achieving Net Zero

As part of our commitment to helping others take action, we’ll document our journey and share the ups and downs we experience along the way. There will be lots of details and specifics to come, but to begin, I’d like to set the scene by outlining some hard truths about what it actually means to be Net Zero.

  • 1) You can’t just buy a ‘Net Zero’ badge:
    To begin, a word of caution: if you are reading this in search of simple solutions, you have come to the wrong place. This is not about appearing to be environmentally friendly or greenwashing. You cannot simply purchase a badge or certificate. This is about doing it for real, and if you truly intend to do so, it will be difficult. It is critical that you understand and accept this prior to embarking on the journey, as it is likely to be both difficult and costly... but also necessary and, we believe, worthwhile.

  • 2) You’ll never have all the information you feel you need:
    One of the biggest barriers to taking action is dealing with uncertainty about impact. Let’s say you have a big factory with a core process. You might know about the overall energy that’s used in that process, but you might not know which are the most energy-intensive parts of the process. You either act on incomplete information or wait until you know more. Because of the urgency to tackle climate change, we have to take immediate steps to move forward, even if there is some uncertainty. Our approach is to recommend taking the best action you can on what you can see today, and then as more information becomes clear, you can adapt where necessary. It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion. You’ll always be pulling back layers, revealing deeper truths, but with Net Zero you also have to take action based on the layer you can see now. This is uncomfortable because we like to have certainty. We don’t like the ambiguity of carbon emissions being + or - 50%. But when you embark on this journey, you’ll have to start like that. You’ll get better quality information along the way, but you have to start where you are now. So be aware of that uncertainty, but also be comfortable with it.

  • 3) There’s no finish line in this race:
    Another uncomfortable truth about Net Zero is that it is not something you just achieve and then stop. Until complete countries and supply chains are decarbonised, there is no endpoint for companies. Every new business decision has to consider whether it will add or reduce carbon. As a business, things are very fluid, changing constantly. For example, imagine your team is working from home and you hire a new employee. Obviously, you haven’t assessed them on their carbon footprint (nor should you), but, if you allocate emissions from home-working in your company baseline, then their emissions become part of your organisation’s Net Zero calculation, and your calculations may no longer balance. Or maybe things are going well and you scale up the team. Very quickly your carbon account will look very different. As change happens, your net emissions - especially with a broader scope - will change too. So it’s important to understand that this never ends, you don’t get to the peak of the hill and stop.

Our starting point at City Science

We’re a consultancy and research business with 30-plus employees at the time of writing. We now have two offices, but most of our staff work flexibly. Direct emissions come mainly from energy consumption and travel although, as outlined below, we need to consider the impact of our supply chain too. A significant challenge for us is that we are doubling employees every year and expect this trend to continue. That means the journey to Net Zero is going to be really hard. It’s not just about where we are now, or next year. We have to think about where we’ll be in five years time and ask how we can secure Net Zero forever. I believe this process will get easier for organisations over time, but right now, for the early movers that we are striving to be, it’s a real challenge. We have to accept that it’s an ongoing process that won’t be easy, and we have to refuse to let that be an excuse for not acting on it now.

Defining the scope for Net Zero - what does it actually mean?

There are lots of standards that can be used to define the scope for Net Zero. I’m a Fellow of the Chartered Institute Of Management Accountants and have dealt with lots of standards over my career. But what standards often miss are critical business realities and practicalities but also some of the more fundamental moral questions about what claims of Net Zero actually mean. Let’s think through an accounting approach. If an employee works from home, you would work out what percentage of their home energy is allocated to your business, then you’d account for that in your Net Zero calculation. But in my opinion - and I speak as an accountant - in practice these sorts of exercises can become incredibly contentious without delivering a huge amount of accuracy. You might include, for example, the 4Kwh they use for their laptop, but what about the kettle, or their heating? How much do you account for? For Net Zero to be achieved, we need their whole home to be net zero. Who decides what falls into the company’s scope vs. the individuals? If you pay them more and they buy a gas-guzzling diesel car – does that fall into your scope? So our starting point at City Science is that we don’t believe we can claim to be a Net Zero company unless our staff are Net Zero too, and that raises the stakes considerably.

The City Science objective - Net Zero by the end of 2024

Our commitment is to be Net Zero by the end of 2024 and net negative carbon by the end of 2030. Our aim is to do it properly, which means not claiming we are Net Zero if our employees and suppliers aren’t. But we also know that it becomes extremely difficult to do that. As a thought experiment, we have run the numbers as best we can and we believe the cost of including various levels of contribution for our employees works out roughly as follows:

  • our corporate carbon footprint = 1X
  • contribution to wfh = 10X
  • full net zero for employees = 25x
  • full net zero for employees and their households = 100X

We know this is going to be anything but easy, but we want to show what’s possible and help inspire others to take significant action now.

Concluding thoughts

As an organisation, we aren’t making this commitment to delivering Net Zero by 2024 lightly. As CEO, I wear many hats as I think about the journey: my accountant’s hat for the finer details, my owner’s hat when thinking about the costs, my HR hat when thinking about impact on our staff, and so on.

But I want to be Net Zero in the most ambitious way possible, and have a pathway to be carbon negative. Accounting Net Zero is a step on the way to true Net Zero. Wish us luck - we’ll keep you posted as we go!

By Laurence Oakes-Ash