59% of UK organisations will miss Government 2050 net zero target without urgent action on carbon reduction, research reveals

Just 41% of UK organisations are on track to meet the Government’s target for net zero carbon emissions by 2050, according to new research released yesterday by Dr Chris Brauer, Goldsmiths, University of London in partnership with Microsoft.

The findings reveal strong ambition and strategic vision on sustainability within UK organisations, but most leaders are struggling to translate that intent into action, with almost three quarters (74%) described as having “one foot in and one foot out” on sustainability.

Based on surveys of 1,707 UK leaders and 2,153 employees, the research report includes insights from leading British organisations, as well as prominent sustainable business experts from across government, industry and academia.

The ambition-action gap has not gone unnoticed by UK workers. According to the survey, the majority (69%) of manufacturing employees feel that environmental sustainability should be a top priority for businesses over the next five years, yet only 22% report that their employer implements their current sustainability plan efficiently.

Tellingly, only 15% of manufacturing employees believe their work premises are as environmentally friendly as their own home. This is important, as 45% of manufacturing employees surveyed said the strength of an organisations’ sustainability plan would impact where they choose to work.

The challenges for manufacturing leaders and a blueprint for net zero

The report points to the most pressing sustainability challenges identified by UK leaders in meeting net zero goals and outlines a practical blueprint of short- and long-term actions to overcome them. When asked to identify their most pressing challenges in the next five to 10 years, the top challenges highlighted by organisations surveyed in the manufacturing sector include:

  • Actioning the strategy – Concerns about having a clear organisational sustainability strategy (44%)
  • Guidance – 44% of manufacturing respondents cited clear government guidance, but the report points to the need for whole systems thinking, including collaboration between government, commerce, academia and NGOs to collectively address barriers to net zero
  • Skills – Having in house expertise and skills to support a sustainability strategy (38%)

The Sustainability Leaders

The research team developed a scorecard against which to benchmark UK organisations’ progress on environmental sustainability. Based on the results, organisations were categorised into one of three groups:

  • Sustainability Leaders – just 11% of UK organisations – distinctive in their ability to unlock funding and develop technology to meet sustainability goals, with highly supportive leadership and strong stakeholder buy in. This group is on track to meet net zero targets.
  • Aspirational – 74% of organisations – better at raising their ambitions and designing strategies for sustainability than executing them. They have the operational potential to reach net zero, but faster transformation is needed.
  • Stragglers – only 15% of organisations – have embedded sustainability within their strategy but are currently making very slow progress on goals. This group are unlikely to reach net zero by 2050, unless ambition becomes genuine action.

One factor setting the Sustainability Leaders apart is their ability to harness the potential of technology to amplify and accelerate their net zero strategies. Three quarters of this group are investing in R&D for new technologies (76%), including tech to measure carbon emissions (76%), and many are also building the in-house skills needed to make the most of these technologies.

Technologies enabling manufacturing sustainability

The report also explores the role of technology in the journey to net zero. Where the business case is proven to make a meaningful contribution to sustainability, organisations are investing in the greenest solutions. Examples in manufacturing include business productivity software (92%), collaboration technologies (63%), cloud (60%), Robotic Process Automation (RPA, 35%), analytics and big data (35%), and carbon emissions measurement technologies (34%).

68% of manufacturing leaders say technology will play a critical role in helping meet their organisation’s sustainability targets. And there is appetite for increasingly sophisticated technology over the next five years to reduce carbon emissions. Manufacturing leaders will shift their focus to more intensive use of carbon emissions measurement technology (61%), machine learning (58%), ‘digital twin’ technologies (54%) – a rapidly growing territory for digital simulation of business processes and strategies at scale without the real-world waste.

Richard King, Head of Manufacturing, Automotive and Aerospace at Microsoft UK, comments: “Accounting for nearly a third of the world’s energy consumption, the manufacturing sector has a disproportionate ability to influence for our improving environmental sustainability. Thankfully, today’s research findings highlight strong appetite among UK manufacturers to drive change and harness innovative technologies such as RPA and ‘digital twins’ to reach net zero goals. But to successfully move the needle on climate change, the sector must now turn positive steps into giant strides.” 

Visit aka.ms/UKSustainability to download a copy of the report.


Sustainability is a major theme of this year’s Digital Manufacturing Week, including Smart Factory Expo and Manufacturing Leaders’ Summit.

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