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Dr Chris Tuppen

22 January 2008
Dr Chris Tuppen

In January 2008 The Guardian ranked Dr Tuppen alongside the likes of Al Gore and Dr Wangari Maathai as one of the top 50 people who can save the planet from climate disaster. For good reason. As BT's Director of Sustainable Development, Dr Chris Tuppen has steered BT to the top of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index in its sector for seven years running. After signing the world's largest green electricity contract in 2004, BT last year announced major plans for a ground-breaking investment in on-site wind power.

In this exclusive interview with The °Climate Group, Dr Tuppen discusses how BT, the information and communications technology (ICT) sector as a whole, and a BT-championed electricity labelling scheme are powering people and systems toward a low carbon future.

What influenced BT originally to be such a pioneer in environmental sustainability?

Our focus on some aspects of CSR goes back a long way, back to our days when we were part of the Post Office. We tackled climate change early too: I remember setting our first carbon targets back in 1992. Championing CSR reflects the values of our people. It also represents BT's recognition that, by taking leadership on sustainability, we add value to the business as well as delivering benefits to society and to the wider environment. We take a long-term view within the business to deliver future value.

Can you tell me more about BT's efforts to reduce its emissions?

The electricity used to run BT's network and data centres dominates our carbon footprint. Other big areas include the fuel and electricity that power our office estate, and the fuel to run our vehicle fleet and business travel - but electricity dominates. This is why we signed the world's largest green electricity contract in 2004. This is a critical component to cut our footprint. In 2007 we also announced the development of wind power on our own sites. Up to 250 megawatts of wind power will be produced by large turbines and will represent an investment of £250 million. Once it is up and running in 2016, about one-quarter of our UK electricity consumption will come from our own dedicated renewable sources.

We are also looking toward efficiency improvements. We have done a huge amount to reduce the cooling requirements in our main telecoms network; we now seek to apply that knowledge and technology to our data centre activities. This is something that could be replicated by much of the industry.

Does BT anticipate cost savings from these initiatives?

We are comfortable that we are not going to make a loss on these projects. Any savings will depend on the cost of carbon in 2016. No one really knows what this will be - but if the cost of energy and carbon continues to increase then these initiatives will deliver a return to BT. Already we have seen real cost savings in BT's use of conferencing to replace business travel: in 2007 alone we avoided 850,000 face-to-face meetings; 97,000 tonnes of {CO2} emissions; and over £200 million in travel, hotels and wasted time costs.

BT has pledged to reduce emissions in its UK operations between 1996 and 2016 by 80%. Already BT has made great strides toward accomplishing this. How have you achieved this? How do you plan to achieve the last leg of reductions?

Our success to date derives from big and small efforts. In addition to the big initiatives I've already mentioned, BT does a lot to encourage employees toward sustainability. Across BT, employees have set up over 60 carbon clubs. Efforts to help reduce consumption on the ground, all around the business; their small efforts in aggregate; can be as important as the big initiatives. We try to come at it from both directions.

Looking ahead we are learning from the CBI Climate Change Task Force, which was chaired by Ben Verwaayen, our CEO. We are constructing a {CO2} abatement-cost curve for BT, much like the one McKinsey constructed for the UK. The cost-curve approach enables companies to assess the costs and benefits of {C02} savings. It identifies the initiatives that provide the biggest return on investment through to those that will cost the company money. It basically allows companies to achieving the biggest potential {CO2} reduction at least cost.

How have you achieved such strong support, from employees and corporate leadership both, for these initiatives?

Having a CEO chairing the CBI Climate Change Task Force certainly helps! We have real board-level engagement in the issues. BT's Chairman, Sir Michael Rake, chairs a board-level committee which oversee our CSR strategies, of which climate change is one of three key strands. BT also has a climate task force composed of a team of senior managers from around the business; our Climate Change and Environment Champion chairs its monthly meeting. A centralised team oversees the program, sets objectives and targets, and follows up on these.

BT has a very strong corporate communication program that works at all levels. For example, we have made energy and climate change an adjudication criterion in our procurement processes. Suppliers now know that their climate change strategies are a weighted consideration in determining who we will win a contract. We are always trying to embed these strategies into the core processes of BT.

It's also a serious consideration in BT's risk assessment processes, both in terms of how we are preparing ourselves to adapt to a changing climate, as well as the mitigation activities that we've been primarily talking about. I think we all need to spend far more time working out how we are going to deal with the climate changes that are inevitably going to happen. 

Do you think other businesses can replicate the bottom line success of your climate initiatives?

In terms of things like business travel, definitely! There is often low-hanging fruit. BT, for example, placed an amnesty on server applications. We offered a reward to people who 'owned up' to those projects and services they no longer needed on our servers. We switched off equipment and reused it for other things. We invested £64,000 in rewards - and achieved over £1 million in savings - just by switching off kit that was no longer needed. Most businesses can do things like this. Once you get people thinking around climate change, they see things in different ways. A bit of competitiveness and peer pressure between business units can help too!

Do you think CSR strategies are really having an impact today?

Social responsibility is strategically more important in business today than it was in the early 90s. My sense is that we are entering a new generation of CSR. A lot of companies got involved in CSR originally because they were embarrassed into it - for example through exposés of bad practice in their supply chain. More traditional corporate citizenship activities often centred largely around brand and reputation-building. Now I think we're on the cusp of a new generation - not that the other two will go away - but I see companies building sustainability far more into their products.

We see the beginnings of this in BT's Sustainable Economic Growth Programme and in Marks & Spencer's Plan A. If customers support these initiatives, then sustainability will truly enter the market economy. And if that happens we will really see sustainability go into the mainstream.

You have recently been trying to rally the UK government to support a system-wide A-G electricity labelling scheme. What would this scheme achieve?

Electricity is one of the highest carbon content items we buy; we would like it to carry a label just like nutrition labels on yogurts and emissions labels on cars. Companies need this information to properly account for their carbon footprint. Current standards set by the GHG Protocol and DEFRA guidelines, for instance, calculate emissions at zero when you buy renewables and at the grid-average when you don't. As more people buy renewables, this grid-average becomes increasingly inaccurate. It's important for those people who are buying coal-fired generated electricity to see the true carbon content of that electricity. Ofgem has proposed a similar voluntary label for renewables; we're keen to see it as a label required on all electricity.

Why is BT taking a lead on this issue?

BT has invested a lot in terms of setting our targets and contracting to purchase renewable electricity. If the rules change we would no longer be able to account for the renewables we buy. It's not about saving money: it's about full transparency, about proper carbon accounting and making sure we continue to incentivise the generation of renewable electricity. But ultimately we believe - and everyone we've spoken with agrees - it's just the right thing to do!

Will public education really play such a pivotal role in achieving a low carbon society?

Absolutely. The recent CBI task force report breaks down the UK's total carbon footprint: one-third of it sits directly with consumers. The consumer directly influences another third of the footprint, through our food and retail and consumer purchases. The final third lies so far down the supply chain that it's very difficult for the consumer to directly influence. So consumers' purchasing decisions directly influence two-thirds of the UK's carbon footprint. Consumers therefore have a very important role to play. But let's not forget that business has an equally important role to play in bringing low carbon products to the consumer's attention.

How can future ICT technologies help further emissions reductions?ICT technologies can be used in many ways to help other sectors reduce their emissions. For example, smart buildings are one of the biggest areas where the application of ICT can help climate change, through things like smart meters, more intelligent heating and cooling systems, smart appliances and by providing the management and billing systems for distributed energy generation. We will be seeing a lot more of this in visionary cities, like Dongtan in China. Travel and travel substitution is another big area where ICT makes a difference. We are already seeing major interest in the application of ICT for audio and video conferencing, transport logistics, supply-chain efficiency improvements, flexi-working and tele-working. Smarter industrial processes are another area where ICT can improve efficiencies.

It's always important to take holistic, non-compartmentalised views across the urban environment. BT is looking toward building a sustainable work/home/life community at our research labs on the outskirts of Ipswich, Suffolk. We want to refurbish the entire site, taking a holistic view of transport, energy flows and heat distribution. We're looking at re-using excess heat from servers, biofuels from nearby forests, recovering energy from sewage systems and use of ground source heat pumps. We have a very exciting long-term vision!

Anything hot off the press?

BT has just unveiled a new range of more energy efficient phones, heralding the start of a £2 million commitment to improve the energy efficiency of its entire home-phone range. More than 90% of the entire home-phone range supplied by BT will be more energy efficient by July 2008 at no extra cost to the consumer.

We estimate that the replacement of all our DECT cordless and fixed-line phones with more energy efficient power supplies will result in an overall reduction in {CO2} emissions in excess of 195,000 tonnes over the next three years - the equivalent of taking 57,000 cars off the road for a year.

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