Policy, Government and the Voluntary Sector

What can the non-expert charity do about Net Zero?

Simon Hopkins from Versus Arthritis discusses the sector's pathway to net zero.

I think about Net Zero pretty well every day. That’s not because I’m a scientist (I’m not) or because I work for a charity operating in the field of climate change (I don’t). But, assuming we accept the testimony of the experts, it’s impossible to ignore the conclusion that this affects all of us. As a call to action, even at an individual level, there is little that is more compelling. 

A few years ago, we were lucky enough to visit the Canadian Rockies, and were taken onto the Athabasca Glacier in Alberta. This is a seriously big natural feature and it is a striking moment when you stand there and process the sheer scale of the thing. Sadly, what is equally striking is the huge, discoloured area at the foot of the glacier which shows in a graphic way its vast retreat over the last 100 years. In geological terms, 100 years is the blink of an eye. If ever I needed to see at first hand the impact of climate change in terms of both scale and speed, I saw it that day.  

(Here’s the Athabasca Glacier in Alberta. This photo shows the extent of how much the glacier has retreated in the last 125 years.)

The issue I have been trying to wrestle with recently is the question of what I can do about this at the professional level. How can I influence internal policy and decision making in the day job to make a positive contribution? As a CFO I have a fair degree of influence within the charity that employs me. 

My instinctive response is that doing nothing is unacceptable, but that is accompanied by inevitable doubts. I can rewrite the procurement manual to try and catalyse better supplier behaviour, but is the impact so small in the global scheme of things that it is little more than a conscience salve? I can recommend changes to the investment strategy, but might this end up being seen as little more than posturing or greenwashing? I can update the environmental policy, but might I be accused of getting distracted from the charitable objects? 

As a non-expert, I don’t have a super-neat answer to these questions, but at the same time, simply putting it into the ‘too-difficult and we have no agency anyway’ pile feels like a cop-out. After all, we are still businesses and thus subject to properly addressing growing standards around ESG in general. In fact, it is conceivable that public expectations for social businesses might be relatively higher. 

Instinctively a big part of the answer lies in collective action. In May, I attended a great conference on the wider ESG agenda and threw out the challenge that we have to find ways of pooling our efforts around common standards on Net Zero. I was massively reassured by how many other attendees expressed not just similar concerns but also a genuine enthusiasm for this approach. As a sector, we spend almost £90bn a year. We hold over £170bn in investment assets and over £70bn in own-use assets. One estimate calculates that civil society drives around £200bn of economic activity in the UK. When we look at this at the consolidated level, that’s quite a lot of leverage. We are actually very good as a sector at building collective standards voluntarily – the development of the Charity Governance Code, Charity Digital Code and impact reporting standards bear witness to this. 

It is reassuring that a lot of us are clearly thinking the same way and we need to turn that into action. Those organisations with the ability and track record of convening this sort of thing have a key role to play. I don’t know what the specific vehicle is going to be that starts to bring our collective bargaining power together. But when it starts, count me in. 

Join us at our Going Green conference on Thursday 21 March 2024 to discuss the ways that your charity can actively address climate change. Register here.