Net Zero factory with solar panels on the roof

There is now recognition throughout governments and the scientific community that we are facing a climate crisis. 

The evidence is compelling. 

The World Meteorological Organisation reports that recent years have seen the warmest global temperatures on record, contributing to heatwaves, floods, storms, melting ice flows, and rising sea levels. The trend, if nothing is done, will accelerate, with a potentially catastrophic rise in temperature by 2.7OC predicted by the end of the century.

Net zero targets are now in place at a national level, with individual organisations also committing to step change improvements in their energy usage and commitment to sustainability. 

For virtually every manufacturer, net zero considerations are right at the top of their priority list.


What does net zero mean?

Net zero is the now familiar term for balancing greenhouse gas (GHG) production and removal. That means ensuring that the amount of GHGs being released into the atmosphere are equal to the amount being removed from it. 

The UK government has committed to bringing emissions down to 100% below 1990 levels across all energy consumers. Any GHGs produced above the target must be balanced by absorbing an equivalent amount through technologies such as carbon removal. The aim is to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 for activities within the UK and for the country’s share of international shipping and aviation.


What are greenhouse gases?

GHGs are gases in the atmosphere that trap in the heat of the sun. Without GHGs the earth would freeze, and the planet has always benefited from their naturally occurring presence. However, rapidly increasing emissions from human activities are causing temperatures to rise to record levels. The gases act like greenhouse glass (hence the term greenhouse gas), and at the current levels of increase, the impact on the environment is becoming ever more severe and disruptive.

GHGs are principally:

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2), produced naturally though volcanic eruptions, plants, humans and animals, and also by burning fossil fuels. Deforestation means less CO2 is naturally removed from the atmosphere.
  • Methane (CH4) occurs naturally through plant decomposition, as well as from cattle, landfill waste, and oil and gas production.
  • Nitrous oxide (N2O) comes from the use of fertilisers, nitric acid production and the burning of fossil fuels and biomass.
  • Water vapour (H2O) has always existed naturally in the atmosphere, but its presence increases as temperatures rise.

Various industrial gases with a fluorine component also contribute to the level of GHGs. While the amounts of these gases are small, they are extremely effective at trapping heat. 

While the path to net zero involves dealing with all types of GHGs as effectively and practically as possible, manufacturers are at the forefront of global efforts to protect our planet for the future. 


Net zero vs carbon neutral

Net zero and carbon neutral are frequently taken to mean the same thing. Both terms involve a responsible approach to emissions production and removal but there is a significant difference in emphasis.

Carbon neutral features in a lot of business plans and publicity material which state the aim of limiting future increases in emissions, and balancing current emissions with offsets, such as investment in forests. Net zero, by contrast, takes emission reduction as a primary goal, with offsetting used to balance any GHG production which can’t be avoided.

The end result of net zero and carbon neutral policies may be similar, but the former implies a much more rigorous approach to reducing emissions.  


Net zero in manufacturing

Manufacturing processes are fundamentally dependent on taking raw materials and using energy to convert them into useful products. Make UK represents 20,000 manufacturers and has developed a road map for businesses to align with government net zero targets. At the same time, Make UK is committed to strengthening the UK’s industrial base, delivering sustained growth and building resilient workplaces and work forces. PPMA Show is delighted to be working closely with the organisation on multiple initiatives.

The headline target set out by the UK government is to reach net zero by 2050, with a staging post in 2035 of reducing direct and indirect emissions by 67% from 2018 (by 78% against a 1990 baseline). To achieve the targets, manufacturers need to set out a clear set of steps in line with Make UK Net Zero Guiding Principles, namely:

  • Ambition, commitment, and action
  • Science-based and transparent
  • Innovation and systemic societal change
  • Joining forces and collaboration

Make UK are clear that the UK’s manufacturing sector has a major role to play in decarbonising operations under its direct control. The move to low carbon working will provide the products and services which allow other organisations and the public to benefit. The advantages will come from a range of innovations including: 

  • new infrastructure and equipment which reduces carbon emissions in buildings and transport
  • new electric vehicles
  • new carbon capture and storage technologies
  • new wind and power resources


Where do emissions come from in manufacturing?

The focus for manufacturers as they move to net zero is threefold:

  • Emissions directly controlled by the business (known as Scope 1)
  • Emissions from energy suppliers (Scope 2)
  • Emissions under the control of suppliers – your value chain (Scope 3)

Understanding each of the above is the basis for a fully informed understanding of how your manufacturing business uses energy and creates emissions, both directly and indirectly. We strongly recommend taking a comprehensive, audit-type approach as you would when looking at such issues as cost reduction, or equipment reviews. 

Once you’ve reviewed how you use energy on your own premises, and at the green credentials of your suppliers of energy, materials, components and services, you will be in a position to explore ways you can move forward. You will also hopefully find ways not just of meeting your aspirations for being on track with national net zero targets, but also of finding potential efficiencies and savings. 


How can you remove carbon in manufacturing?

As mentioned above, reaching net zero targets won’t depend solely on reducing the amount of fossil fuels a business burns in its manufacturing processes. The goals also depend on dealing with emissions that can’t be avoided. 

The principal removal techniques which are coming into usage are carbon sequestration and carbon capture. At its simplest, the approach is to protect existing natural environments, particularly forests and grasslands, while developing more planted environments. It is estimated that 25% of global carbon emissions are absorbed in forests and woodlands, underling the importance of existing natural environments as well as the need for further plantings on as large a scale as possible.  

Carbon emissions can also be sequestered in bogs and swamps for some 70,000 years. Oceans seas, and lakes also absorb large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. 

While the natural world does a lot of work directly in its own right, an increasing amount of effort is going into indirect means of carbon sequestration (i.e involving man-made processes) in underground geological formations and rocks. New technologies are also emerging for the production of new materials made, in part, from carbon captured from emissions.    

Carbon capture and storage (CSS) is based on taking carbon emissions from power stations or heavy industry, compressing the CO2 and taking it deep underground to be injected into rock formations where it is stored for the indefinite future. New techniques are emerging all the time, and businesses should keep abreast of opportunities through networking and trade associations such as PPMA.


Net zero targets for manufacturing

Make UK’s Net Zero Roadmap includes a breakdown by sector of manufacturers who have committed to science-based targets (SBTs). SBTs are defined by being on track with the reductions required to keep global temperature increases below 2oC above pre-industrial levels. The target was at the heart of the Paris Agreement formulated at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in 2015.  

An SBT is a formal, validated approach, with targets approved by the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi). The process starts with a letter outlining your intent to set a Science Based Target followed by presenting your approach for official validation and reporting your business-wide emissions, tracked every year.

You must start with a credible baseline. In addition to direct and indirect emissions (known as Scopes 1 and 2). You should also normally cover your value chain emissions (Scope 3).

There is nothing to stop companies being more ambitious in decarbonising – i.e by setting out to reach net zero on Scope 1, 2 and 3 well in advance of 2050.


What is the SBTi?

In order to scale-up the number of businesses adopting science-based targets the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) was set up. It is led by the CDP (originally known as the Carbon Disclosure Project), the United Nations Global Compact, the World Resources Institute and World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The SBTi allows businesses to demonstrate that their subsequent targets are in line with the Agreement and latest climate science – with more than 1,000 organisations signed up to date.


What are the advantages and opportunities of net zero?

While net zero presents a number of significant challenges for manufacturers, it also comes with a wealth of important opportunities including: 

  • Grants and funding for investment in sustainable manufacturing  
  • Improvements in process efficiency and productivity
  • Innovation to develop new products and services driven by digital technology including robotics and artificial intelligence (AI)
  • Developing new supply chains for transition from high carbon to low carbon working
  • Low carbon products and supporting services
  • Workplaces which attract top talent
  • Net zero approaches for specific sectors including food and drink, textiles, electricals, pharmaceuticals, minerals, aviation, construction, automotive, paper and print

Make UK provide a comprehensive listing of benefits for businesses, consumers and the environment in their Manufacturing Sector Net Zero Roadmap. As new approaches are developed, more and more market opportunities arise for manufacturers and service provides. Key points to consider are:

Enabling low-carbon energy generation 

For manufacturers of chemicals, glass, ceramics, metal casting, electronics, aviation, pulp and paper

Resource efficiency 

For automotive plastics and tyres, food and drink packaging and production, engineering design and materials, digital technologies, concrete and cement, ceramic, textiles, aluminium, sustainable energy infrastructure such as car charging points

Built environment

Lightweight steel, low carbon materials, energy efficient windows, updated glazing, ceramics and concrete with high thermal mass, grey water and rain water usage, intelligent aluminium building facades

Greening the supply chain

Reduced emissions in agriculture, focus on whole life carbon performance in engineering projects, leveraging the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence, biorefining for paper and pulp, water efficiencies in agriculture, electronic vehicle production


Low weight glass fibre products, electric vehicle battery production with ceramics, metal casting for electric vehicles, aluminium as an alternative to single use plastics, electric technologies and sustainable fuels for aviation, energy infrastructure projects

Improving standards

Sustainability standards in food and drink, material efficiency in engineering including re-use of materials, sustainable cement, water efficient white goods, carbon checker labelling for textiles, developing and promoting standards in for product efficiency and flexible use


Challenges of going net zero

Achieving net zero for any business involves transformation, and like any major change, comes with challenges. More than likely there will be issues to deal with around the availability of finance to see through investment in low carbon working and energy capture. It takes time to review energy suppliers and find the best partners to work with in your value chain. 

There are further challenges in finding the right people to implement your transition, whether they are experts from outside the business, or whether they are existing staff to be trained. Decisions also need to be made about choosing the right technology – different solutions are at different stages of development, and the options for businesses are changing all the time.

However, if you don’t engage with net zero, your business can be damaged on several fronts. You risk losing customers to competitors which are moving forward on environmental responsibility, and you may be a less attractive place to work for talented, staff. Investors too may shy away from your business, together with other stakeholders. 


Creating a net zero roadmap – where to start

Businesses transitioning to net zero need to create a roadmap. It’s important to remember that achieving your final goals won’t happen overnight and that you should bear in mind the timescales set down by the government. There’s nothing wrong with getting ahead of the 2035 and 2050 deadlines, but there’s no gain in rushing through the wrong choices.

  • The starting point is to commit to net zero. The case for doing so is now so strong from both a business and environmental point of view. The position for virtually all organisations is not ‘if’ but ‘when’ they embark on their emission reduction journey. It is important to let everyone involved in the business, including customers, know that you are joining the many organisations who have started towards net zero, and to communicate the benefits for all concerned.
  • Then you need a detailed review of how you currently use and source energy and materials. For many businesses, this will involve a new way of thinking, with unfamiliar considerations. How many companies, for example, know exactly what their carbon footprint is, or understand how to measure it? 
  • It is very advisable to talk to other businesses setting out on their net zero journey. The output you need from your energy audit is a measure of emissions under your control, which you can then use as a baseline. If you can do so with your in-house team you should allow them the time and resources to produce robust measures. If not, you need to engage external experts. 
  • The next stage is to identify opportunities for emission reduction and removal, and to formulate a realistic schedule for implementation. To succeed, this structured plan will need to go through the proper business disciplines of making a business case and detailed planning which covers investment, resources and possible risks as well as benefits.
  • As you move forward to delivering on your commitments, you will need to set clear staging posts, and to keep staff and stakeholders on board with clear communication about progress and benefits. As with your energy audit you will need to decide what you can handle with your own people, and where you need expertise from outside your organisation. There are many benefits from networking and speaking to like-minded organisations to help you on your way through general and specific advice. 

There are valuable online resources available at Make UK, Inspire Energy and BSI Group among others, and time spent on learning about net zero issues and approaches will prove extremely valuable. The mission is under way for the country, for businesses and private individuals – and it’s time for all to join in.