Funnily enough, putting a plan of action together to achieve Net Zero isn’t a particularly easy feat. But nothing this important is ever going to be simple.
As MSQ’s Chief Sustainability Officer, it’s my job to ensure that MSQ are doing our best to be leaders in sustainability and to pave a way for us to get there. Because it’s critical for our business… and because it’s the right thing to do.
Although every organisation’s take on how exactly we get to Net Zero is going to differ, I’ve simplified MSQ’s strategy into four pillars that we use together to put us in a position of ecological responsibility. Now you’re experts on the sustainability basics, we can dive straight into why each of these pillars holds importance, but also acknowledge their issues and how we do our best to deal with them.
Pillar 1: Reducing
To put it simply, the strongest way to tackle the problem is to stop it at the source. If we’re putting less carbon out into the world to start with, then the amount of carbon we have to worry about removing becomes less too. It’s a bold task, and a crucial one; emissions have to be cut by at least 90% to reach Net Zero so the main focus of any science-based strategy is always going to be very significant reduction.
As part of our Net Zero strategy, we measure emissions using a carbon calculator that uses conversion factors, which turns our spend data, gas and electricity used in offices, and staff survey data into a CO2e amount – the total of these forming our scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. We use the carbon calculator to understand the emissions from each of our agencies individually and then combine them to work out MSQ’s overall figure to gauge the most accurate result as possible. The more accurately we measure our figure, the more we can do to start reducing it.
How to reduce? Changing staff behaviour’s a decent place to start. Staff schemes such as Giki Zero help, as MSQ employees can calculate their personal carbon footprint, become aware of the areas where they’re producing excessive emissions and take the necessary measures to halt this. Things as simple as cycle to work schemes really do make a difference by stopping the problem in its tracks (so if you were looking for a sign to get that bike out from the back of the shed, let this be it!) and choosing to find more sustainable methods of transport to attend meetings and events can move the needle too. Making business changes by moving offices away from using gas and towards 100% renewable energy suppliers, as well as offering a broader range of green transport options, are key for a strong reduction strategy.
Pillar 2: Removing
What about all that carbon dioxide we can’t help but produce? There are ways to physically remove it from the air – technologies like Direct Air Capture (DAC) will do the trick, and if more companies invest in carbon removal those small steps will start to become giant leaps.
So why aren’t we all doing it? Unfortunately it comes at a hefty cost. When I say it’s expensive, I mean ‘a thousand pounds per tonne’ kind of expensive. My calculations suggest that even for MSQ, as a relatively small professional service business with a very low carbon footprint, we’d be looking at around £4m to remove our current carbon footprint. Imagine what that figure is for other organisations (and that’s before you get in to wider debates on whether carbon removal is actually a scalable solution at all)!
What we can do is start to understand removals and front-load them; removing however many tonnes that represent some of our direct emissions from the gas we have in the offices, or through innovative projects like our Bow Street Window Covent Carbon Capture project.
Front-loading removals is great because by prioritising them now rather than waiting until 2040 to get rid of the ‘Net’ part in ‘Net Zero’, we’re putting our money in the right place. Yes, there are concerns around speed of development and whether anything of the sort can be quick enough to help save us from the climate crisis, but my opinion is that the technology is only going to get better, so it’s an aspect we’re definitely better off focusing on than not for our Net Zero status goal.
Pillar 3: Offsetting
A couple of years ago MSQ became the first global marketing group to become Carbon Negative, a status achieved by offsetting more carbon than we generate across all thirteen of our global offices. We’re compensating for our own emissions by funding climate solutions that prevent greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere.
Although this is definitely a good thing, offsetting is perhaps the more controversial pillar when it comes to tackling climate change. The main argument against offsetting is that some could view it as a cop-out; why are we focusing on something that isn’t necessarily ‘fixing’ the problem? It’s a lot easier to offset than to remove emissions, but a lot of offsetting runs off the basis of a predictive model, which will never be accuarate enough to be completely effective. Meanwhile the jurisdictional approach to offsetting also invites claims to appropriating land, causing post-colonial narratives around offsetting too.
But once again, I want to focus on the benefits. With the right tools and the right partners supporting the right projects, they’re a perfectly good thing to do. Bodies and organisations like Ecologi have invested a lot in researching credible offsetting projects over a long period of time – they’re working on improving trust, identifying suitable projects and ensuring everyone who gets involved is above board. I don’t doubt some people’s cynicism, but providing offsetting is part of a business’ sustainable strategy rather than the whole, it can be an excellent thing to do.
Pillar 4: Tree Planting
If deployed at scale, Nature-based Solutions like tree planting could save over 10Gt of CO2 emissions per year. For instance trees aren’t just great at absorbing carbon, they do so over a long period of time too.
But we need to collectively do more than scratch the surface. Investment in Nature-based Solutions needs to triple by 2030 and increase four-fold by 2050 as part of a system-wide transformation for a safe and just future.
Businesses also need to be mindful of the controversy around tree planting – funding projects that protect rainforests when they’re the same (or similar) businesses who could be accused of killing the planet at a far more rapid rate than we can protect it. And yes, the press is rightly full of scams, cons and bullshit calculations given by many a business when it comes to their tree planting approach.
But the worst thing we can do during a time of crisis is turn around and say “let’s all stop doing that”. What we need is greater reform, greater spotlight on Nature-based Solutions and genuine time and goodwill spent on finding the right partners for this space.
At MSQ we have a clear plan in place. We’re proud to take part in the Million Tree Pledge, and we plant trees at every opportunity we can, whether that be to celebrate a birthday or following a big pitch, with a goal of 100,000 trees a year at minimum. Once we hit that target of a million trees, the pledge will then spin off into plenty of other wonderful Nature-based Solutions. It’s an important aspect when it comes to forming a strong environmental strategy, but one that can’t work half as effectively on its own without other aspects in place.
You’ve probably gathered the gist that there’s no one straightforward method that’s going to swoop in and save us from the climate crisis. It’s a complex jigsaw puzzle – we’ve got to be reducing, thinking about removals, including Nature-based Solutions and offsetting. By using all the pieces in the right way, we have to believe that, one day, we can hopefully step back and see a much brighter finished picture.
James Cannings is the Chief Sustainability Officer of MSQ
For more on MSQ’s Covent Carbon Capture project, visit coventcarboncapture.com