Degrees of hope, and desperation

17th December 2021 Posted by

Blog by Dr Tracey Leghorn, Chief Human Resources and Health and Safety Officer, SUEZ recycling and recovery UK.

As we approach the end of the calendar year, it’s natural to pause and take stock. That reflective mood is all the more appropriate at times like this, when we’re suspended between waves of the coronavirus and the future of our planet hangs in the balance after a somewhat inconclusive COP26 conference.

Prior to the Glasgow gathering on which so much hope was pinned, the SUEZ Group reaffirmed its commitment to combating the climate emergency and the target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

The sustainability roadmap of our global parent company, and thus SUEZ here in the UK, can be traced back a long way. But 2017 saw a significant step as SUEZ became the first environmental services company to have its strategy recognised by the Science Based Targets Initiative. Those targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions were increased in 2019 to align with the Paris Agreement – a 45% cut by 2030 (from 30% previously). And SUEZ joined the global Race to Zero campaign launched in early 2020 by the UN.

Our group also pledged to develop new services and solutions that consume fewer resources and emit less CO2. So, in 2021, our companies were able to help customers avoid 10 million tonnes in greenhouse gas emissions by producing renewable energy from waste and wastewater and by recovering secondary raw materials through recycling. 

UK and group colleagues were in Glasgow to observe the negotiations and contribute to the debate. Dr Adam Read, External Affairs Director – as president of the Chartered Institution for Wastes Management (CIWM) – had to point out how waste and resources management had been left off the agenda. Adam also emphasised how putting waste materials to good use as part of a circular economy could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 39%.

With the CIWM and others, SUEZ ran a series of fringe events in Glasgow to focus attention on this missed opportunity – and the fact that resource extraction and processing is responsible for 90% of biodiversity loss and half of the world’s consumption-based emissions.

While government policies promote only piecemeal measures, we will – as another colleague, our Sustainability and Social Value Lead Sarah Ottaway, points out – continue to make the case for more systemic change.

As we press on with our own transition to the circular economy (and support our customers on their journey), we’re guided by our commitment to the triple bottom line of planet, people and prosperity – the three dimensions of sustainability.

On the environmental front, as we recently reported, 70% of the resources treated at our facilities in 2020 were re-used, recycled or recovered in the form of energy. Our UK customers avoided more than 1.6 million teqCO2, thanks to our increased generation of electric and thermal power.

Prosperity is essential to sustain a business but also the wider economy. We have managed to grow our business and maintain profitability despite the heavy impacts of the pandemic. It means we can sustain our investment in new waste treatment infrastructure, while placing more than half (56%) of our annual total expenditure with SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises), including some £500,000 with social enterprises, boosting local economies.

We can now monitor and manage our contribution to society more accurately, using a robust calculator and an in-house app to record relevant activities. Last year the total contribution amounted to just under £2 billion – compared with £1.55 billion the year before. In other words, for every £1 we spent, our activities created £2.23 of social value.

That social contribution includes some people-related elements such as the salaries and wages we pay our employees and our joint fundraising activities for charity. In 2021 we have raised over £160,000 for our charity partner Macmillan Cancer Support.

It is not so easy to put a value on the wide-ranging progress we have achieved in relation to ‘employee experience’ but we know this has contributed to the enhanced wellbeing of our people and our business performance.

In previous posts I’ve described the expansion of our Wellness for All wellbeing support, the roll-out of training in mental health awareness first aid, our enhanced employee assistance programme, and our ongoing initiatives to advance diversity and inclusion across our workforce.

Our people share a passion for the environment – it’s a SUEZ core value and something we have to harness if we are to maintain progress towards sustainability. Businesses need to channel this enthusiasm in the transition to a circular economy.

One way we do this is through our Climate Fresco training. This is based on ‘Climate Collage’, a serious team learning activity grounded in the reports of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

The training takes the form of a fun team-learning workshop, in which our employees explore the two critical environmental challenges, climate change and pollution. They discuss the role and impact of each person, as an individual, but also as a professional and team member at SUEZ.

The feedback from our people is really positive. As one put it: “We think we know a lot about climate change, but after this workshop we realised that we don’t know as much as we should. I learnt that climate change is not linear, that one degree can make a difference, that we need to act now.”

Such clarity of purpose is essential, especially when internationally, political leaders are faltering or sending mixed messages.

In the wake of COP26 – with the 1.5C target ‘alive but on life support’ and a constant media news stream of extreme environmental events and dire warnings from climate scientists – there is a danger that the public disengage and succumb to fatalism.

Looking back over the last year, it is the everyday commitment of our people and others to making the environmental improvements they can that gives me hope. This desire is also coming to the fore in other parts of the economy, especially the energy sector. Its new recruits are, perhaps not surprisingly, targeting roles in the renewables sector, rather than oil and gas, where a majority of workers are also looking to make the switch. A survey showed it was not just career self-interest, as HR professionals identified ‘environmental consciousness’ as one of the top reasons for the sector’s skills shortages.

People want work with purpose – they want to be part of the solution, not the problem. So, must businesses and employers if we are to not only keep hope for 1.5°C alive but make it a reality.

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