Do sustainability and energy professionals have the expertise to deliver net zero?

The corporate commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050 has led to a surge in demand for a very specific set of skills for sustainability professionals. But with such an influx of new roles and responsibilities and so much pressure to deliver, do UK corporates have the right people, with the right skills, to meet net zero goals?

We recently surveyed 250 sustainability and energy managers from FTSE 250, or equivalent sized companies, and who spend £1 million or more on energy, to find out whether they were equipped with all the information they needed to be on course to reach net zero.

The results were somewhat worrying and demonstrated that some sustainability and energy professionals lack the basic knowledge to journey towards net zero. And indeed, despite many sustainability professionals’ best efforts to deliver, many businesses seem to be ‘paying lip service’ to their clean energy commitments.

With 27 per cent sustainability and energy managers admitting to feeling out of their depth in their roles, we wanted to uncover what was really going on in UK corporations.  

Limited years in the role

We first wanted to gain an understanding of how long sustainability and energy managers have worked in their role. We found that, on average, sustainability and energy managers have practised sustainability for six years. A quarter of respondents said they have practised their role for five-to-ten years and 30 per cent have done the same for four-to-five years. Only 16 per cent of those we asked said they have been practising their craft in sustainability or energy management for more than ten years.

But of course, this is perhaps to be expected. After all, the net zero agenda is in its infancy, so it may come as little surprise that very few have clocked-up more than a decade in their position.

On the job learning

We also wanted to understand the kind of training sustainability and energy managers have undertaken for their role. 41 per cent said they have studied a Bachelor’s degree at university in a subject related to sustainability, and over half (52 per cent) said they have studied a Masters degree at university in a subject related to sustainability. Another 14 per cent said they have studied a PhD in a subject related to sustainability and over a third (34 per cent) said they have completed an online course from the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability (ICRS). Finally 24 per cent said they have completed a course outside of the ICRS, whilst 9 per cent have learnt about their role via informal training.

Interestingly, a third of sustainability and energy managers have been required to learn their role on the job. We found that a number of sustainability and energy managers have been transferred from another department within the business, such as HR or finance.  We also discovered that many of the respondents feel they need, or would like, more training. In fact, more than a third said they would like more formal sustainability training in order to fulfil their role.

Out of their depth

Interestingly, we found a worrying number of respondents do not feel senior management gives them adequate support. So much so, in fact, that 26 per cent of respondents said they do not feel their role is taken seriously enough by senior management. And 25 per cent of respondents said they do not feel they get enough support from their superiors.

Given tackling climate change is one of the biggest and most important challenges of our time, this seems surprising. It is no wonder that sustainability managers feel like they are out of their depth (27 per cent).

Confusion over responsibility

We uncovered a varied understanding of whose responsibility it is to deliver the environmental agenda. For example, 34 per cent of respondents said the CEO is responsible, 33 per cent said the Board has the responsibility and a quarter believe the responsibility to deliver the environmental agenda sits with them and their team.

What was clear though, is that sustainability managers want more responsibility. 37 per cent of respondents said they don’t think they have enough responsibility, and their level of responsibility needs to increase.

Sustainability and energy professionals are clearly concerned about the reputational risk of falling short of their net zero targets. And rightly so. The UK has reached a critical point on its road to net zero and in order to aid progression we need commitment and action from the nation’s biggest businesses. Collaboration is key to this, both within the business itself between the board and those who responded to our survey, and in the wider marketplace as well.

There’s no denying that net zero and emission reduction is a big beast to tackle. Radical measures are needed, and science-based targets must be set. But, most importantly, companies need people with the intelligence and know-how to deliver. Without that, there is a very real risk to the business.

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