The starting gun was fired on the Race to Zero campaign in June 2020 to drive net zero commitments ahead of the COP26 summit in Glasgow — the biggest climate summit to take place since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015.

The UN-led campaign is about rallying leadership and support and is the largest ever alliance committed to net zero by 2050. The campaign is asking cities, businesses, universities, investors, regions and more to hit net zero emissions.

As part of this global campaign the UK has launched its own domestic campaign, ‘Together for our Planet’, which is completely aligned with the Race to Zero.

There is a public engagement strand called ‘One Step Greener’ which has been showcasing how small actions culminate in large collective action and everyone can have an impact from engineers working on offshore wind farms to local initiatives encouraging children and parents to walk to school.

Andrew Griffith MP was appointed the UK’s net zero business champion to support the country’s business community to make credible plans to net zero by 2050 or earlier and his remit covers three strands.

The Big Business campaign is engaging companies in the FTSE 100 and already more than half have signed up. A Global Investment Summit attended by some of the world’s most powerful executives and heads of major institutions and hosted by the Prime Minister and members of the Royal Family has just been held to show how the UK can shape the future of green investment.

The third strand is focussed on persuading small businesses of the potential benefits of halving their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050 – and pledging to work towards that.

“For businesses this means getting to know where their emissions are coming from because we appreciate that many small businesses in particular aren't really familiar with net zero as a concept,” said Catherine Westoby who is leading this campaign.

“What we're trying to do is communicate in a really clear, really straightforward way and focus on exactly what it is we're asking businesses to do to become net zero businesses. What does that actually mean in practice? Our campaign is very much centred around the business benefits of net zero and about becoming a better business, not just more responsible but more sustainable, more resilient, attracting new customers and saving money which is obviously a key focus right now when we're looking to recover from the pandemic.”

She said that no two small businesses are the same and a small restaurant is going to have a very different emissions profile from a small law firm and what they want to do is help provide tailored insights and suggestions as to where business owners might look to cut emissions.

Transport and recycling are among the obvious areas but switching to LED bulbs, for example, will have an immediate impact on emissions and bring immediate savings on energy bills.

“Those are the sorts of small first steps that we want businesses to take,” she said.

A starting point for businesses can be a visit to the UK Business Climate Hub website where they will find information and tools to help them understand their emissions profiles. The Climate Hub provides a way for small businesses to join the Race to Zero.

It is asking businesses of up to 250 employees to join the fight against climate change by making the SME Climate Commitment which is to sign up to achieve the target emissions reductions and to disclose their progress annually.

“We want businesses to be proud of taking that first step of signing up to the SME Climate Commitment which brings a host of benefits which allow them to showcase that they have joined the Race to Zero,” Catherine said.

“This is really the only direction of travel because we're only going to become cleaner and greener and businesses need to appreciate that. We are encouraging them to get ahead of the curve and take action now, before regulations introduced.

“All companies bidding for government contracts worth more than £5m a year must now commit to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and the UK is the first country in the world to put such a measure in place.

“While small companies not might in for those £5m contracts immediately larger companies will be and they must sign up to net zero targets. They are naturally going to have to engage with their supply chain and encourage those small businesses to produce their own carbon reduction plans and move at a similar pace.

“It’s absolutely vital that we communicate to small businesses that there are going to be potentially lots of benefits in getting ahead of their peers here.

“Net zero is good for business. Many of the actions we are asking businesses to take will benefit them, if not immediately then over a very short payback period. It’s really important that we look at this collectively and see the sheer power of small businesses.”

This message was reinforced by Terri Vogt, Circular North-east project manager, who is currently leading a series of Net Zero North East workshops which are giving 30 SMEs a step-by-step insight into their emissions and how to reduce them.

She said a recent survey by the Chamber showed that 81% of businesses believe achieving net zero is extremely or moderately important to their business but only 25% have set a target.

“It's really important for SMEs to understand what their baseline is, what they have control over, what they don't have control over and to be able to communicate this effectively. This training course is aiming to demystify this whole agenda and explain to people the concept of net zero. They are learning where they should focus as an organisation and how they can work with their supply chain.

“Net zero is the point at which a balance is achieved between the amount of greenhouse gas emissions emitted to the atmosphere and the amount removed from the atmosphere. The role of carbon removal in the form of nature-based solutions and carbon capture and storage will also be discussed.

“It needs to be recognised that net zero has not been on the agenda for long and many businesses might have had environmental management systems and targets based on incremental improvements, This will no longer be adequate and work is ongoing within a range of organisations such as the Science Based Targets Initiative to better define how a business can measure progress to net zero.

“Net zero is suddenly pushing people from an incremental process with no defined endpoint to a very clearly defined endpoint, but probably with a very unclear process as to how to actually get there. So, it's a big shift in thinking.

“We have a range of businesses on the course from energy and waste management to construction and design with less than nine employees to over 100.”

The workshops have been funded by the Scottish Government through a £14.3m North East Economic Recovery and Skills Fund. The funding will provide opportunities for more than 3,000 individuals in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire through training and enterprise projects across a number of sectors, including entrepreneurship, tourism and energy transition and includes a climate emergency training programme to help businesses transition towards net zero, and a scheme to support employers develop business plans to ensure long-term sustainable jobs.

“The hope is that the training will support companies to take action, not just support companies to become more knowledgeable,” added Terri.

“Those businesses which embrace net zero will be better able to assess risk and opportunity and be more resilient to the changing business environment that will evolve in the future.

“SMEs may not be as well equipped to really respond to this agenda as large companies which have dedicated resource. The fear is like that if small companies are not equipped to reduce their emissions it could put them at a disadvantage in the long term. This is about risk management, about making these small businesses more robust to be able to respond to this agenda. It's also about them understanding how they could change their processes or their offerings or services to reduce emissions and to recognise that these services and offerings may not be attractive in the future, because they're very high carbon.

“They need to understand where their vulnerabilities are in a net zero world. For some businesses the biggest impacts may be in their products or services. For example single use products are likely to be phased out and a business may need to adapt to take account of this.

“COP26 is ensuring that there is a focus on climate change globally but it is vitally important that local companies act now, and not just for the environmental benefits but in the interest of the success of their businesses.”