21 Mar 2022

How the National Trust is turning climate ambition into action: a multi-faceted case study

Chapter Zero Fellow Orna NiChionna shares first-hand experience of how this complex conservation organisation is driving decarbonisation. She reflects on changing minds in the boardroom and offers advice on managing risk and challenge during an ambitious energy transition.

Orna NiChionna

Chapter Zero Fellow, and Deputy Chair of the National Trust from 2014 to 2022

The National Trust is as large and operationally complex as many FTSE250 companies. As Deputy Chair of the National Trust from 2014 to 2022, I’m proud to have witnessed its journey and the setting of its aggressive target to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. That is something I’m going to share with you.

Realising the ambition

When companies set targets for 2050, they create no urgency for their current leadership to do anything. By pushing its target to 2030, the National Trust galvanised its entire organisation to take important steps to decarbonise now.

Protecting the environment has been part of the Trust’s fabric since it was founded in 1895. Since those early days, it’s acquired a great variety of land and buildings and has grown into a large and complex organisation, with multiple stakeholders. It generates over £600m in turnover from membership income, retail, cafes, events, its let estate, and net gains on its endowment, which has a value of £1.6bn.

Climate change is the biggest risk to the cultural and natural heritage it protects and conserves. The Trust has already spent significant funds battling its effects, including rectifying storm and flood damage, managing eroding coastlines as sea levels rise, and fighting the impact of changing weather patterns on its buildings and collections.

The organisation simply couldn’t stand still on climate change.

Turning climate ambition into action

The Trust has been improving energy efficiency across its estate for many years. In 2019, it took a major step to accelerate that pace of change.

It created a climate strategy and ambitious environmental pledges, with a 2030 net zero target as the main headline.

The first activity was to measure the current carbon footprint of the organisation. This confirmed that the categories generating most carbon emissions are tenanted farms, the goods and services procured, the let estate and its investments.

As the Trust started on the path to net zero, it recognised it has fewer constraints than for-profit companies. For example, some of its supporters may be spurred to donate more money to help it achieve high environmental ambitions. Plus its huge land holdings (c.600,000 acres/250,000 hectares) create more options to sequester carbon.

While there were some advantages, the challenge was still immense.

Shifting the mindset of our investment committee

One symbolic decision was the divestment from fossil fuels. When we raised the issue in 2019 during my time as Deputy Chair, there was a growing debate among members and investors about getting out of fossil fuels, but our investment committee, rightly conservative, needed some convincing.

Aware of pressure from some of our members and from our own staff, the investment committee reflected on the case for change. Points in favour of divestment included:

  • Our holdings in fossil fuel companies were too low for us to influence the boards of those companies.
  • By holding those investments we would want them to do well, and would in effect have a conflict of interest.
  • Our investment strategy can afford to be very long term. After all, our assets are forever assets.

One strong point against divestment was that these assets would move into private hands with less regulation – although carbon taxes are a mechanism that could solve this.

When you view investments through a 50-year lens, you become more motivated to move out of technologies and industries that will soon become industries of the past.

We spent time engaging the committee on how climate change was already impacting our organisation. Over time we also noticed changes in committee members’ views about the urgency of climate change as extreme weather events affected places that they cared about. That made it real for them. If you really care about things, you can feel compelled to protect them

Orna’s top tips for tackling climate in the boardroom

  1. Everyone – or almost everyone – on the board must agree on the urgency of action. But many board members don’t like to admit that they don’t understand the issue. So get everyone on the same page by running a board session using a high-quality expert who can bring to life how urgent, important and relevant the subject is.
  2. Measure your emissions and set an ambitious short-term target for reductions. The long term (2050) is too far away to be motivational.
  3. Make a plan. The plan will change but if you don’t have a plan, you have nothing.
  4. Make sure your industry bodies are on the case – they can help demand policy change that aligns with what you are trying to do.
  5. The economics of renewables vs fossil fuels are changing at an extraordinary rate, thanks to technical innovation and scale effects. What made no sense last year may make sense this year. So keep revisiting investment decisions that would reduce your company’s emissions.

Reduce, adapt, capture and engage

Meanwhile the Trust came up with a plan to get to net zero across its activities.

Initiatives to tackle its Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions include generating far more of its energy needs from renewable sources situated on its land – hydroelectricity, solar farms and ground source heat pumps are among the technologies being used, alongside some biofuels, including woodchips from sustainably managed forests on Trust land. A major programme of insulation of the thousands of buildings in the let estate is also being finalised. Other programmes include the electrification of vehicles and equipment, and a reduction of business travel by its staff (by using virtual meetings more than it used to).

Downstream emissions and stakeholder engagement

Like many businesses, the Trust’s biggest challenge is reducing Scope 3 emissions across its supply chain.

Having around 20,000 suppliers providing goods and services to the National Trust comes with a high carbon price tag. It’s a complex exercise to try and bring all of that together to formulate one plan. But progress has been made, including for example an emissions assessment that will help shape decisions on food procurement. It quickly became clear that staff working in procurement need to have the right training and frameworks to help them make environmentally driven decisions.

Projects drive considerable supply chain spend as well as ongoing operating carbon emissions. The Trust has developed a Sustainable Design Tool for projects which will allow it to weigh in the carbon impacts and benefits alongside financial considerations.

The Trust has also ramped up its ambitions around land and how to manage it in a way that maximises carbon capture (for example through regenerating woodlands and evolving peatlands). As much of it is tenanted, the organisation needs to bring those stakeholders and communities along on the journey.

The power of partnership

Engagement is critical when you set an ambitious target for rapid decarbonisation in a complex organisation.

At the local level, the Trust is working with communities – particularly tenant farmers – to encourage them to farm in a way that benefits wildlife and the environment. There’s a lot of lateral pressure on them. Not just from the Trust as their landlord, but through their own supply chains and customers, particularly supermarkets.

In one example of stakeholder engagement, the organisation is working with host farms to demonstrate the value of growing different crops that support nature, the climate, and the farmers’ bottom line. These farms are open to neighbouring farmers and other groups to spread ideas and innovation more widely.
The Trust is also working closely with government and partners to encourage and develop joint opportunities for the wider transformation of our economies and industries.

The next chapter: becoming carbon negative

The National Trust has made important steps in pursuing its aim to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, but there is still much more to do in the next eight years across every level of the organisation. It will use every advantage it has to keep moving forward and ultimately become a carbon negative organisation.

The Trust’s staff are very excited by the business’ ambition and plans. They see that this is a huge challenge but all are keen to play their part. This is a case where doing the right thing for the planet is also the right thing for long-term organisational success.

Climate change isn’t going away. So there’s no time like the present to think about how you can shift the mindset in your own boardroom – and push your climate plans along further and faster.


Watch the event recording

To learn more about the National Trust and its climate journey, watch our event to see Orna discuss this complex case study with National Trust board members


Orna NiChionna

Chapter Zero Fellow, and Deputy Chair of the National Trust from 2014 to 2022

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