The Role of EHS in Achieving Net Zero 

Beach Sustainability Photo

Organizations that are working to cut carbon emissions can look to their EHS Department for help. 

The United Nations has put it best: “The science shows clearly,” the UN reports, “that in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change and preserve the livable planet, global temperature increase needs to be limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” To get there, greenhouse gas emissions from human activities—mainly, carbon dioxide (CO2) from the burning of fossil fuels—must be reduced quickly and drastically, and slashed to “net zero” by 2050. 

Net zero, the UN explains, is the point where emissions are either entirely eliminated or balanced through re-absorption from the atmosphere. “Transitioning to a net-zero-world,” it adds, “is one of the greatest challenges society has faced”, but it’s also eminently achievable if governments, companies, and organizations of all kinds commit to emissions reductions and take action now. 

The question then, for those who are reading this, is what taking action should look like. If you’re with a company that’s made a net-zero pledge, how should you plan to achieve your goals? 

 The good news is that many organizations already have resources in place to help them get to net-zero. They’re working in their environmental, health and safety (EHS) department. 

The EHS-ESG Connection

When it comes to the fight against climate change, consumers, investors, and business partners increasingly all want to see the same thing: clear, objective and quantifiable environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics and reporting that shows you’re making progress toward better sustainability. 

For many companies, disclosures and reporting are already required by environmental, occupational health, and employee safety regulations. The good news is, EHS professionals—the people responsible for coaching, advising, and informing senior leadership on how to run effective programs that ensure an organization is compliant in these areas—can leverage the same tools and metrics they’re already familiar with to track and report on ESG initiatives as well. 

Using EHS software, for example, they can capture and analyze data related to environmental performance and sustainability by connecting systems and sites across the organization. They can identify those aspects of the business that have the biggest environmental impacts, and they can track data on mitigation efforts to ensure they’re effective and running efficiently. Newer enhancements also allow organizations to create models and simulate the impact of mitigation efforts, ensuring resources are applied to the most effective controls, maximizing performance and ROI. And to easily create weekly or quarterly progress reports, both for internal purposes and for sharing with stakeholders: They can build their company’s CO2-reduction targets into the program so analyses can be conducted automatically. 

Here’s a look at  other key metrics that every EHS professional should keep in mind if they’re called on to start reporting for ESG. 

Environmental Metrics

Air emissions, waste production and disposal, water effluents, chemical releases—they’re all part and parcel to the “E” of EHS, but they’re also critical to ESG, and to the overall sustainability picture. How an organization interacts with the environment——is the primary focus of climate-related ESG reporting criteria. While the metrics involved in this area vary, here are a few common examples. 

  • Carbon emissions: tracking total emissions (Scope 1, Scope 2, Scope 3) and emission-reduction goals 
  • Energy consumption: energy usage; energy-efficiency improvements 
  • Water usage: amount of water used; water conserved through efficiency gains 
  • Waste and pollution: amount of hazardous waste generated; quantity of toxic chemicals released; number of notices of violations; number of inspections; amount or percent of materials recycled; amount or percent of materials discarded; permit parameters 
  • Waste reduction initiatives across the organization and in the supply chain 

Health and Safety Metrics

While health and safety do not directly impact the environmental factors associated with climate change and reaching net-zero target, they do play a role, and signal how sustainable a company is operating. Sustainability doesn’t only apply to limiting the effects on climate but includes how enterprises reduce the effect of their operations on their communities and the workforce.  

Identifying and mitigating risks associated with company processes, tasks, activities and outputs, to reduce the risk of harm to employees is a critical factor in meeting the requirements under the “social” pillar of ESG. 

While metrics and programs within the health & safety sphere will differ depending on the organization, we offer a few of the more common ones tracked by organizations, including: 

  • Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR)Lost workday incidence rate 
  • Days away from work or Days of restricted work (DART rate) 
  • Number and amount of regulatory citations and fines 
  • Chemical exposures 
  • Control of hazardous substances (per Control of Substances Hazardous to Health—COSHH—regulations): identifying hazards, assessing risks, and managing actions to control exposures to hazardous substances from a single location, reducing the chances of legal noncompliance and lowering the risk of hazardous events. 
  • Air quality, ventilation, filters: including fuming and off-gassing procedures from facilities like refineries, crematoriums, manufacturing plants, and large-scale bakeries, for example. 
  • Chemical/substance run-off 

A Time for Change

The goal for the EHS professionals, in the context of getting their organization to net zero, is to look at the metrics for environment, health, and safety in the same light as that for ESG. Because the pillars of each overlap and in some of their details are exactly the same, moving from one to the other should come relatively easily. 

For many organizations, reducing emissions isn’t easy at all. To do so on the accelerated timeline the UN has made clear is necessary, processes may need to be changed, new people may need to be hired, new suppliers may have to be brought in, and new equipment will likely need to be purchased. To achieve net zero, at least some organizations will have to rethink and redefine their mission. 

Those companies that turn to EHS to help guide them through the difficult work ahead? While they too should be ready for change, they should also feel confident they’re positioned for success.