Critiquing the Net Zero status quo

How many times have you felt in the past couple of months, despair and hope bundled together and snowballing to something larger, incomprehensible, and right in your face? I’d like to say, I have! Reading through news updates every day, and especially the ones where big corporates are committing to net zero, fills me with optimism. Yet, in many ways it worries me, urges me to ask the simple question —

How are they going to undo their doing?

Net Zero & ‘Me’

As a design practitioner, I have always contemplated my positionality and my role as a single entity — a mere mortal I must say, in contributing to this expansive realm of climate action. This motivated me, actually dared me to explore the subject of environmental responsibility in this project (in other words, Master’s thesis for M.Des in Design Innovation & Service Design at the Glasgow School of Arts).

Exploring & Connecting with the Environmental Sector

In the initial few days I was inundated with information. It filled me with anxiety and hopelessness ever so often. You would have read how climate crisis is labelled as a wicked problem — ‘open’ with no boundaries, complex, dynamic and networked with many interdependencies. Wicked in every sense! I was pretty much at the tip of this iceberg, and from there the climate crisis looked even more wicked.

Research into environmental responsibility directed me to few key drivers of change, and one of them being the role of businesses in climate action. So there I was, exploring how design might support SMEs and local businesses in their net zero journey.

Reaching the right audience: Social media call out with a post card analogy

I was searching for avenues to gather practical knowledge on the field and connect with people tackling the issues around climate change on a daily basis. So I registered for a few online and in-person events preceding and prepping for the COP26 (Conference of the Parties — 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference). It turns out that COP26 is scheduled in November 2021 in Glasgow, where I live. My quest seemed almost serendipitous!

Participating in these events, I heard the collective lived experiences of the participants who represented various organizations and communities. There were dominant cultures and sub cultures within these groups. I was able to capture what was said and not said by the participants who were coming from so many spheres of climate action. For instance, some were climate activists, while others were working with local communities to inculcate sustainable ways of working, and many others were working on climate change projects within the public and third sector in Scotland. After attending these sessions, I discovered the shared meanings of net zero, climate action and sustainability that are popular within the environmental sector, as well as the language used in the present narrative against its theoretical backdrop.

Investigating the context by interviewing people opened up a Pandora’s Box. Conversing with my participants, I concluded that Net Zero is still in its nascent state, with the Government, policy makers, energy & transportation industry, interlinked services, academia and the designers struggling to plug in the loopholes within the framework. They are either working together or in silos to ensure net zero can be implemented efficiently and widely. This gave me the assurance that my research did hold some credibility in this realm of uncertainty and might help in identifying the leverage points and unmet needs of the SMEs.

You might have heard of people using carbon footprint calculators for measuring the carbon produced by them as an individual. That’s the quantitative aspect of net zero. A new rationale emerged from the insights gathered during the interview wherein people expressed how their business pursued various value-based practices. They spoke about instances when they were involved in educating others in green technology, sharing and supporting other businesses, and finding new sustainable ways for their day-today activities. Many of these fragments of practice were an elemental aspect of environmental responsibility, and formed the core of their action. However, there is still no scale that can measure the environmental impact of these intangible value based practices.

SMEs, but why them?

SME’s role as Net Zero enablers

SME’s are the backbone of the UK economy as they account for the majority of the private sector. To meet UK’s target of net zero by 2050, these smaller businesses play a pivotal role in achieving it. The workforce within these businesses are the NET ZERO enablers, they are the key drivers of change. The UK government and policy makers are aiding the SMEs with finance, upskilling resources and knowledge to support them in their net zero journey.

Net Zero Narrative — What & Why

I found myself asking the people I connected with — What is Net Zero?

Net Zero: Language, abbreviations & jargons

Term net zero is overwhelming, yet it is ubiquitous in the present times. But what is this net zero? How much even the climate conscious citizens understand these terminologies?

Scientifically it means…
Net Zero means including Scope 1, 2 & 3

The existing framework reveals the emphasis on carbon assessment through a measurement of the carbon footprint of the business within Scope 1, 2 & 3 Quantifying the Greenhouse gases (GHGs) produced within Scope 1 or 2, and comparing it against a pre-identified baseline year, aids in extrapolating it for the coming decades. It acts as a benchmark against which areas of intervention are established and targeted for carbon reduction.

However, the other side of the coin is indicative of the social & ethical forces impacting the emergent behaviors, it is centered around the needs of people and planet, envisioning an inclusive and fair society which takes on the environmental responsibility for building a regenerative and circular economy for a preferable long term vision.

Reimagining the Net Zero narrative

My proposal urges the environmental sector to reimagine the NET ZERO narrative that upholds the values of economic viability, environmental responsibility and social equity. Through this informed narrative, I would like to encourage dialogue using a shared language understood by one and all. It also means taking shared responsibility through a medium that reduces the dependency on quantitative tools and engage in merging it with value driven practices.

Net Zero status quo — What is missing?

The existing net zero framework is skewed. The juxtaposition of present and future carbon footprint with the baseline year as the reference point can be misrepresented. The external dependencies during the baseline year may be dynamic and interdependent on many socio-economic factors.

Measuring the environmental cost and benefit through quantitative methods may get fudged due to reasons beyond the scope/capacity of the organizations.

Do you believe that planting trees is the ultimate solution for saving the mankind? I disagree. It is only a small part of the net zero strategy.

Carbon offsetting is yet another ambiguous and debatable subject. The idea of carbon market and its nuances are lingering as the unspoken unintended consequences which can further curtail the progress made so far.

Technical knowledge is not accessible by all small and medium businesses, with some of them not having the bandwidth and expertise to leap into the computational exercise.

Ethnographic inquiry led me to connect with people and experts working in the environmental sector. Attending events, conducting interviews, co-design workshops and feedback sessions helped me to map the net zero status quo. Their strong voices and opinions all directed towards the need for design-led systemic change for reframing the policies, mobilizing transformative innovation, and building a climate positive mindset.

Reframing the Net Zero status quo

The emerging insights nudged me to question and critique the quantitative methodology of measuring the environmental cost and benefit. It urged me to reframe the net zero status quo which can be scaled across different sectors, and is always focused towards a reducing mindset. My proposal elevates value driven practices and eco-centric ethos, engages with time-bound move through strategic transformations, and a place based response grounded within the social construct.

Carbon assessment starts with the business model, figuring out whether the product or service is valuable to both, people and planet or not. SME’s need to espouse these values, to be truly net zero.

These ideas are catalyzed into a tangible proposal through a structured workshop for the businesses facing uncertainty and lack of guidance about net zero transition.

COMING SOON — Blog describing the proposal of a structured workshop

Service Designer | Practicing Lighting Designer | Industrial Designer | Architect