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Welcome to the carbon culture club

July 22, 2022

How we can embed a carbon conscience culture into capital delivery across the water sector

By Maire Lenihan, Becky Clarke, Chris Sutton, Andrew Bent-Marshall

There was a range of emotions, feelings, and reactions at a recent sprint event when participants were asked how they felt about climate change: action; scared; doomed; more motivated than ever; fully empowered; pressing; concerning; belief we can make change happen; we have to take this seriously.

Each year, Northumbrian Water Group (NWG) hosts their Innovation Festival, tapping the potential in the water industry to face and address a wide range of challenges. This year’s theme focused on embedding a carbon conscious culture into capital delivery to empower everyone to help us achieve net zero. Our sprint—hosted by Esh-Stantec and Northumbrian Water before the festival itself—set the scene for how we envision our carbon culture future.

Following the change management model, ADKAR (Awareness; Desire; Knowledge; Ability; Reinforcement), we heard from guest speakers, learned global examples of culture change, and brainstormed innovative ideas. Thirty-five participants joined the sprint, from a range of organisations operating in the water sector. After three days of inspiration, we then set out to present our key messages, strategy, ideas, and tactics to the Capital Delivery Executive Leadership Team at NWG.

Northumbrian Water Group hosts its Innovation Festival each year to tackle key challenges in the water industry—this year’s theme focused on a carbon culture.

Our carbon story so far in capital delivery

The journey to advancing a capital carbon culture over recent years has included developing a whole life-cycle approach to reduction, setting emissions targets, launching an executive leadership and steering group, and the drafting of a strategy. Next on the roadmap is entrenching a culture that is knowledgeable and empowered to make a change at all levels of the organisation. 

But is the problem also about the terminology we use? Is ‘climate change’ understood or overused, with less of a real impact? Do people understand that it is more of an emergency than they realise?

How we communicate the issue is crucial to how we find solutions and harness passion and determination. And this point was woven all through our approach to the sprint and challenge ahead.

Embedding carbon standards and governance

One of the starting blocks to embedding a culture is building the foundations to work from, such as a formal process around carbon through standards and governance. Ofwat requires companies to report operational emissions from 2022 onwards and embodied capital carbon emissions from 2023. Other regulators are expected to follow suit, and so our direction of travel must be to improve carbon accounting and make low-carbon decisions.

In terms of standards, PAS 2080 is a specification for whole life-carbon management and promotes a governance structure to record, manage, and reduce carbon opportunity. We discussed how the standard to be adopted should be led by our sector, but in the interest of a climate emergency, we should take those big opportunities to drive carbon down now, while bringing in our consistent approach.

Governance is needed throughout the capital delivery process and within tactical planning. As we approach PR24, we need to follow its requirements and assurance process and rely upon enhanced baseline standards. But the same level of carbon governance should be in place for base costs as for enhancement—and we believe this needs to be included at tactical planning stages as well as strategic. 

Water companies are required to report operational emissions from 2022 onwards, and embodied capital carbon emissions from 2023. Our direction of travel must be to improve carbon accounting and make low-carbon decisions.

Creating healthy cultures

To embed change, we need to look at the key principles of focusing and involving people early on, during implementation, and our long-term approach to improve processes, products, and services. While organisational change strategies continually adjust, continual improvement strategies occur gradually and make incremental changes over time.

Underpinning all this is the need to create a relationship with the people involved and engagement to ensure a project is successfully implemented, accepted, and becomes business as usual. Initiatives need buy-in, first from leadership as owners or sponsors to smooth out stumbling blocks and to lead by example. And with that, we can continue with early engagement, keeping change visible and communicated, and seeking feedback to improve.

Leadership at all organisational levels

The ambitions of senior leadership can be seen already in Northumbrian Water Group’s organisational target of net zero emissions by 2027. Their buy-in for net zero carbon emissions culture has been obtained, and now greater focus is required to filter awareness and passion throughout the whole business and partners. We can do this by developing a network of new steering and working groups, across capital carbon and operational carbon. With a funded project to develop capital carbon measurement and reporting, we can set the governance to consistently keep activities and progress aligned.

But that’s not all—we need the enthusiasm of carbon champions, around all levels of the organisation, to build a network for ideas, consistent messaging and support. Champions across other areas have shown to be effective in supplementing C Suite messages and leadership, through knowledge transfer and influence on projects.

A network of champions also ensures joined up agency and stewardship, meaning that the policies we set are actionable on the ground. Through governance and reporting, checks and measures ensure these policies are exercised, correctly and consistently—with a culture change at the forefront. Let’s repeat that: policies we set are actionable on the ground—today.

During our sprint, we discussed the separation of carbon champions from the remit of those already in environmental champion positions—the scale of the carbon challenge is too large to be combined with other environmental organisational challenges.  

A network of champions has shown to be effective in supplementing C Suite messages and leadership, as well as ensuring joined up agency and stewardship.

Putting carbon conscious thinking first

Global environmental awareness can be seen in the words and phrases emblazoned across websites and materials. Can we adopt a carbon mantra that resonates as strongly as our corporate values about safety, health, and integrity? One that shows how we support a greener future and live by it, so that carbon consciousness is put on the same level as health, safety, well-being, inclusion, and diversity.

But setting a carbon mantra is not enough without the understanding behind it. How can we encourage all our employees to see that their roles, no matter their function, has an impact on our carbon? Carbon training could be rolled out at all levels of the organisation, not just necessarily for new starters, joiners, graduates, and apprentices. And at regular intervals—if we’re serious about carbon being an embedded value—shouldn’t we refresh training as often as we do with ethics, safety, mental health, and unconscious bias?

Communicating our successes, failures, and lessons

The cornerstone of culture change is how and with whom we communicate each stage. Communication doesn’t mean relying on communications professionals to share messages. It means leaning on our carbon champions and each other to share best practices and failures to learn from.

With a step-by-step approach, we can celebrate achievements, reward success, and improve areas flagged. Our sprint shared ideas and tactics for internal and external communications that would be fun, engaging, and link across other areas of consciousness in the organisation (such as well-being and health). But crucially they could keep us accountable, help with recruitment, and contribute to our reporting. 

Carbon training could be rolled out at regular intervals. If we’re serious about carbon being an embedded value, shouldn’t we refresh training as often as we do with ethics, safety, mental health, and unconscious bias?

All about data, and action

During the week’s sprint we covered the need to consider whole-life carbon costs, not operational or embedded in isolation, but to take a TOTEX carbon approach. There is also a requirement to start growing our dataset—capturing data from this very moment, rather than waiting for polished solutions. Showcasing our evidence will outweigh any rumours; let’s build on fact and demonstrate where carbon solutions have cost less financially. In turn, this will lead to our concentration on designing less carbon to reduce financial cost.

Action; scared; doomed; more motivated than ever; fully empowered; pressing; concerning; belief we can make change happen; we have to take this seriously—those emotions again. By the end of our weeklong sprint, it was unanimously agreed that we should be more scared of doing nothing. Any attempt at action is better than inaction.

Our sprint was also a run to the start; embedding a carbon culture into capital delivery really is a marathon. But with governance, policies, passionate carbon champions, existing assessment tools, allocated budgets, and job remits we can drive early considerations across our project solutions to build our greener future—and to repeat ourselves for the final time, policies we set are actionable on the ground, as in today. 

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