The ghost of carbon past: Velux Group's Ingrid Reumert on tackling historic corporate emissions

Cecilia Keating
clock • 7 min read

Velux Group's vice-president of sustainability reveals what it takes to address emissions from the present, the future, and the past

Velux Group's sustainability team had been plotting a 'lifetime carbon neutral' decarbonsiation concept for more than a year when, some 5,000 miles away, Microsoft garnered headlines around the world last January by dropping a similar plan to compensate for all its historic emissions.

Any disappointment about being pipped to the post by the tech giant was short-lived, Velux Group's vice-president of sustainability Ingrid Reumert remembers. "We would have liked, of course, to be the first ones in the world," she tells BusinessGreen. "But then we thought, this is also great. Microsoft is huge, and it's not bad company to be in. Quite the opposite."

Anyway, the hope had always been that Velux's innovative 'lifetime carbon neutral' concept - a plan to invest heavily in nature-based solutions that would offset all the carbon dioxide produced throughout the firm's near 80-year history - would be emulated by other companies, Reumert says. "We believe that if companies have the possibility, they should not only reduce their emissions dramatically going forward, but look over their shoulder and see what the company has left behind," she argues. "We are working with CO2, but for other companies it could be other types of pollution, such as plastic waste."

The Danish window manufacturer eventually unveiled its bold plan in September after more than two years of planning, setting out how it would work in close partnership with green group WWF on a number of forest conservation projects that should settle the company's historic carbon debt of 5.6 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2041. Velux also announced that, moving forward, it would be aligning its operations and full value chain with the more ambitious 1.5C warming scenario recommended by the Paris Agreement, an ambition that will require the company to overhaul the way it manufactures, sources, and transports its windows.

Reumert places the strategy within a grand historic context, arguing that Velux's commitment to take responsibility for its historic emissions is part of a broader trend towards accountability at the heart of both the #MeToo movement and growing calls for countries to reckon with their colonial pasts. "It's in line with the general trend towards taking responsibility for your past actions, and seeing what you can do to mitigate that," she says.

And the concept of taking responsibility for historic CO2 is by no means novel in the climate sector, either. The Paris Agreement is founded on the conceit that wealthy, industrialised nations must lead on climate action because they have historically released more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than poorer nations. It follows that as the world's first industrialised continent, Europe is one of the largest historical contributors to climate change, and must act accordingly. 

Reparations do not come cheap for Velux nor Europe. To compensate for its past carbon emissions, the window maker is reportedly set to invest DKK1bn (£120m) in the partnership with WWF, alongside other sustainability schemes and projects, in the next decade.

But Reumert emphasises that dealing with the company's historic emissions is not the hard part of Velux's strategy, especially now that the terms of the 20-year deal with WWF have been agreed. "The difficult part is living up to the science-based targets, the 1.5C scenario we have signed up to," she says. "That requires really profound transformation within our product development and our whole value chain and working with suppliers. That is the complex part." In order to meet the science-based targets, the firm must reduce its direct emissions to zero by the end of the decade and halve its value chain emissions in the same time frame.

With 94 per cent of the company's carbon emissions produced outside of its direct operations, reaching these goals involves "intensive dialogue" with suppliers to encourage them to reduce their own carbon footprint, Reumert explains, most notably the companies that supply the wood, aluminium, and glass in Velux windows. Early conversations are already underway with key suppliers on the steps they can take to reduce their carbon footprint, she says, with the real work set to kick off in January when the 20-year sustainability programme begins in earnest.

Meanwhile, the company will be reevaluating its internal processes to establish whether and how materials with high carbon footprints used in production processes can be substituted for greener alternatives, and how the products the company sources can be specified differently, Reumert explains. This will involve close collaboration between the company's product development and supply chain divisions, she says, noting that "it is a big job, which requires governance and all that".

But implementation of the strategy will be made easier thanks to a strong sense of ownership of the strategy that crystallised during its two-year creation, Reumert says. The plan was created with very few external consultants, she explains, and in close collaboration with senior management, product development teams, supply chain managers, and the company board. "It was really home grown," she says. "And the good thing about that - apart from the pride that it gives to our people - is that the people who are responsible for the implementation of the strategy have been part of ensuring the alignment, deciding on the targets and measurements."

Advocacy is another key element of Velux's sustainability push, Reumert notes, pointing to the firms "strong legacy" of demonstration buildings that provide blueprints for the "sustainable buildings of tomorrow", in addition to its work with politicians, industry, and authorities to promote a more climate-positive built environment.

As vice-chair of a public-private climate partnership convened by the Danish government to explore how the country's construction sector can decarbonise in line with the national goals, Reumert is actively helping to shape building sector climate policy. The group recently submitted 63 recommendations to the government for how the building sector can help the nation achieve its goal of reducing its emissions by 70 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

"The building sector is unfortunately quite conservative, and it's also quite fragmented," Reumert reflects. "I believe there is a lot can be done within the building sector to create a truly sustainable built environment." In Europe, the bulk of the work that needs to be done is on retrofitting old buildings to make them fit for modern purpose, she says, arguing that all nations should introduce "clear renovation strategies" that set out roadmaps for how each type of building segment - from schools and offices to private homes - will be retroffited to become more sustainable.

In order to deliver buildings that are truly sustainable for future generations, governments and industry leaders should resist the temptation to zero in myopically on carbon as they craft net zero policies, according to Reumert. Sustainability targets set out in the aforementioned strategies should therefore stretch beyond energy to cover lifecycle emissions and include requirements "based on comfort parameters", she counsels. "Buildings are not just about consuming energy and lowering energy," she explains. "It's also about creating new work environments which we can be productive, schools that are fit for learning and homes where you can have good air quality and good daylight levels."

More than 30 full-scale demonstration buildings built by Velux around the world are a form of public advocacy, Reumert claims, in that they provide proof that comfort, energy, and environmental performance can go hand-in-hand. "They really show what a sustainable building looks and feels like," she muses. "It's difficult to transmit that through a PowerPoint." For example, in the UK two semi-detached demonstration homes co-developed by Velux in Northamptonshire in 2011 were among the first in the country to meet the government's Zero Carbon Standard for Homes. The skylight-adorned homes have solar panels, air-to-water heat pumps, and rely on natural ventilation for cooling and a mechanical ventilation system that recycles heat from the kitchen and bathrooms to other rooms during winter.

Reumert argues that by embedding health and comfort criteria in renovation policy frameworks, policymakers are more likely to clinch public support for the transition ahead, a mandate critical to convince consumers to foot some of the significant costs associated with updating unsustainable housing stock. Market research run by Velux invariably demonstrates that home owners are far more likely to pay for decarbonisation measures for their property if they make their home more comfortable and liveable, Reumert notes. "If they are to going to spend money on renovating their homes or building, then improving the quality of life or improving the quality of the building is a big, big trigger," she explains. "People are not necessarily driven by lowering the energy bill a bit, they are much more driven by creating a nice family home. It's a big driver."

"It's definitely all about taking a sustainability approach to building, not just an energy approach to building," she concludes. It constitutes a holistic approach that should help Velux and its partners slash their emissions now, in the future, and in the past.

This article is part of We Mean Business' partnership with the Net Zero Festival 2020

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