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COP26: Not just for world leaders and corporates - what can you do?

A blog by Russell Burton at Hillside Environmental Services

We look at what SMEs and the further education sector can learn from COP26. Two sectors that are often overlooked when it comes to climate change, but have a considerable impact.

As leaders from around the world gathered in Glasgow this month, climate change hit the media once again. The onus is often on Westminster and wider governments, plus larger businesses, particularly corporates, to make the changes needed, but several sectors have more influence than they may believe. For us, SMEs and the education sector are the future change-makers.

COP26 is a conference that encourages world leaders to promise more ambitious cuts in warming gases if we are to prevent greater global temperature rises. And, we are often told to watch for the promises made by the world's biggest polluters, like the US and China.

Whilst COP26 places a large emphasis on government policies (and sometimes not all world governments agree to a common goal), change will only be made by wider society taking action. Every institution from SMEs to the public sector is critical to decarbonisation. Governments can stimulate and support, but smaller institutions will come together to act as a greater force for change.

Something rarely mentioned is the benefit small-medium organisations will feel by decarbonising, too. Yes, it is good for the planet but it can also play into organisational objectives, too. Whether they are financial, brand-building, or social.

The investment

Gone are the days where organisations had to choose between being sustainable or profitable. The financial sector has recognised the criticality of their investment and is mobilising the capital to progress green projects, providing funding at pace and scale to enable this to happen. Making the transition to more sustainable practices has become more accessible through Green Finance schemes. There are many investment options to help gather the funding required to make sustainable changes - our guide explains all of them in simple terms.

The skills

The UK is gearing up for a green future as we speak - earlier this month, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, announced a range of measures in a speech at COP26, to deliver world-leading climate change education through a model science curriculum, which will be in place by 2023. The key change - embedding it into young people's lives in a practical way. As well as via theory, this enables the next generation to adapt for the future. A critical part of the program is the projects that deliver change in their local communities.

Education has been recognised as a key pillar in the move to net zero. Schools and colleges have strong connections to business partners in their communities and their teaching is critical to the development of businesses in their vicinity. One example is the need for more electric vehicle-trained mechanics. In only May this year, the RAC stated that just 5% of the UK's 202,000 vehicle technicians are qualified to work on electric cars.

The education sector developing a pipeline of eco-ready talent as well as SMEs moving to decarbonise is a huge step in the right direction that doesn’t rely on government initiatives.

Role models

At Hillside, we have supported SMEs, schools, and colleges alike in improving their environmental impact. Their efforts are profound, not only as they have reduced their carbon footprint, but as they have protected their organisations by mitigating risk and ensuring longevity.

Further Education

Gloucestershire College is establishing itself as a community beacon and role model in the education sector by pledging to be carbon zero by 2030 (20 years ahead of the UK Government’s commitment to 2050).

How will they do this? Through the installation of innovative technology and renewable energy systems, which you can read more about in another blog we have written here.

Our team supported them in submitting an application that secured £2.8m of investment for the £4.8m energy retrofit. With a 20-year business model, we have shown that the college will recover its investment within the life of the project plan and enjoy a substantial period of free green energy.

The college is leading the way in its communities by taking action that will combat climate change for good. They’ll reduce their carbon footprint by 63% in year 1 and, following the decarbonisation of the UK national grid, by 95% in 2030.

Of course, the above is the most critical outcome of the project but there are commercial and social benefits, too...

There is growing pressure from the younger generation for institutions to reduce their effects on the planet. PR coverage will help to market Gloucestershire College to bright, new students in their local communities. Thanks to their eco-credentials, the college can successfully onboard a growing number of students who are passionate about sustainability.

They’ll also practice what they preach. As the market is pushed to become green, so will the job market. The curriculum will move to train future generations to lead the way in eco-friendly technologies. It’s important that colleges providing these skills are credible

Find out more here, including more examples from the sector.

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