Plans are nothing, planning is everything

In an earlier blog I referred to leadership as the missing element in the drive towards net zero. Now we are seeing leadership on the issue emerging, both nationally – in some countries a lot more than in the UK I have to say – and in the corporate world. Real leadership however goes beyond setting the target, it has to include driving the development of realistic, deliverable plans to achieve the target, and then driving delivery.

Achieving ‘Net Zero’ is a very clear objective, as long as a timescale is incorporated, somewhat like “land a man on the moon by the end of the decade and return him safely to earth”. Clear objectives are always useful – they can’t be fudged – you either achieve them or you don’t and as someone once said; ‘objectives are optional, constraints are obligatory’. Once leadership sets, or even considers, a net zero target the organisation has to quickly move into formulating a realistic plan of action which sets out the path to overcome the constraints and achieve the objective, otherwise it is just an aspiration. John F. Kennedy provided the leadership to get to the moon by setting the clear target but NASA drove the plan to overcome the many constraints that existed back in 1961 and marshalled the resources to achieve the target. So what are the elements of a coherent plan for achieving net zero?

Of course the first step is to ascertain the current situation, the base line. Any plan should start with a sound baseline covering Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. Clearly Scope 3 emissions are more difficult to quantify for many organisations and a degree of uncertainty is understandable in this area. For instance, how does a University measure travel of students? Pragmatic judgements based on what is possible and what isn’t need to be made.

Then a range of possible projects or interventions need to identified. Here creativity techniques like brain storming and lateral thinking can be useful. Techniques such as integrated design are critical for making major breakthroughs in energy performance and emissions rather than mere incremental gains. We need to think outside the box of conventional solutions. Once identified project concepts need to be assessed technically, economically and financially, and contextually.

Technical assessments need to consider the state of technology development and evaluate the reality which is sometimes obscured by hype. It would be unusual for many organisations to take technological development risks, for those that do the decision must be explicit with a full understanding of the risks and not implicit. Technological development is always risky.

Financial and economic evaluation needs to consider all the benefits and not just energy cost savings or reductions in emissions. Benefits with strategic value can include market positioning, publicity, an increased ability to recruit the best employees etc. and can be far more valuable than cost savings. A systems thinking approach is needed to identify and value benefits. Ultimately any plan must be financeable which requires understanding both the organisation’s own resources and its ability to utilise external finance. If external finance is to be utilised the plan has to meet investor requirements.

Contextual analysis is a vital but often neglected stage in capital project development. It is necessary to check for interactions both between projects and with other internal and external factors, for instance the long-term future of a site or a product needs to be properly considered if there is a proposed project to reduce its energy use and emissions. Some combinations of projects are additive whilst some conflict. For complex long-range plans there may be many interactions with both internal and external factors to be considered at different levels. Technical, economic and contextual evaluations themselves will often interact in an iterative process.

Any plan needs to consider risks. This should include the risks of inaction as well as the risks of action. It should start with the risks of climate change, the main parameters of which are well known at high level but as far as possible these should be localised to recognise actual risks on the organisation, physically and financially. The risks of action and inaction on all stakeholders including shareholders, employees, customers, and the supply chains should be considered.

Following concept creation and development with a sufficient degree of robust technical, economic and contextual evaluation, supported by risk analysis, a practical portfolio of projects and actions with costs and timings needs to be assembled, a process that may need many iterations. Then the plan should be stress tested before moving into delivery.

To achieve net zero definitely needs vision and leadership, but it also needs a realistic, well developed plan. Developing such a plan is far from trivial. To then deliver the plan requires hard work and long-term commitment, effective delivery may require changes in remuneration structures to drive the right kind of behaviour throughout the organisation, a change that needs to be driven by strong leadership backed by shareholder pressure.

As Dwight D. Eisenhower said; ‘Plans are nothing, planning is everything’. If your organisation needs assistance with developing a comprehensive net zero plan, and then implementing it, contact me or Alex Rathmell at EnergyPro.

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