To coincide with Climate Week NYC, Lewis Rae, Unilever’s Safety, Health, and Environment Capabilities Manager for Air Emissions, explains why decarbonising our factories is such a vital part of meeting our climate targets.
How did you start working on climate change at Unilever?
During my final year of University, I began an internship at our Port Sunlight factory in the UK. I'm an engineer and I really enjoyed getting to apply my university learning to do something positive for the environment. We were doing a lot of energy efficiency projects in the factory, and I began to see just how big the potential is to reduce emissions within a company like Unilever; the scale of the issue blew me away and I wanted to make an impact.
Why is it important that Unilever reduces operational emissions?
Emissions from our factories, offices, and labs only account for about 2% of Unilever’s greenhouse gas emissions footprint, but it’s where we have direct control. Unilever acting to reduce its own emissions gives us credibility and a platform to influence our suppliers and partners around the world, and it allows us to advocate for greater change and faster action. There are also billions of consumers around the world who use our products, and they are expecting us to do the right thing – we’re seeing this reflected in buying behaviours.
If Unilever didn’t do anything, how would climate change impact the business?
It’s already affecting us, and we’re now investing in measures to adapt to climate change impacts. For example, our whole value chain relies on water – from farms to factories right through to consumer use – and increasing water insecurity poses a risk to our business. We've already seen the challenges this creates in some of our factories around the world, and that’s why we’re rolling out in the worst affected areas. At the same time, we’re seeing climate change impacts affecting our raw material supply and that’s why we’ve launched our regenerative agriculture programme.
What progress has Unilever made so far?
Our target is to reduce our operational emissions by 100% by 2030 against a 2015 baseline. So far, we've reduced those emissions by 64% and we’re well on track to meet our interim goal of 70% by 2025, but there's a lot still to do. We’ve already made good progress with implementing some of the more straightforward projects, so now we have to invest in newer and more complex technologies like heat pumps and electrifying our thermal systems. It's a big engineering challenge to get to that 2030 goal.
What kind of actions are being taken in Unilever factories?
We’ve pledged to source 100% renewable electricity and all the grid electricity used by our factories is now from renewable sources. We’re also transitioning our thermal energy which is the energy we use to generate heat for our production processes and for heating our factories. We can do that by using sustainable biofuels or by converting our thermal systems to use renewable electricity instead of combustion.
Along the way, we also need to focus on energy efficiency because the most sustainable energy is the energy that we don't use at all. We need to optimise our factories as much as possible to reduce our reliance on energy in the first place. Doing so makes sense for our business – we estimate that since 2008, energy efficiency has saved Unilever well over €1 billion, helping to protect us from the energy price hikes we see today.
How do you go about increasing energy efficiency?
There's a lot that we can do. Low-efficiency electrical equipment such as older motors in our factories can be upgraded to more efficient versions. There are also process optimisations, such as heat recovery - if we have a waste heat stream that's no longer a high-enough temperature to be useful, we can use heat pumps to bring that heat back up to a higher temperature, reducing our demand on fossil fuels or renewable energy sources.
Historically, factories were not designed to use heat as efficiently as possible. Now, companies such as ours are taking on this challenge.
How do you manage emissions across such a diverse mix of operations?
We're a highly motivated ‘team of teams’ with engineers, sustainability professionals, and procurement specialists. It's a collaborative effort between all those functions and more. We use data to help us prioritise action at our highest emitting sites, but with such a diverse mix of products our factories are all very different; you would likely need to use different solutions for an ice cream factory in the US than for a laundry powder factory in Brazil. The challenge is that we're working on large-scale complex systems. We need to make sure we're building up our technical capabilities in the right areas.
What emerging technologies have a role to play?
We expect things like hydrogen, thermal energy storage, and carbon capture to play a part in the future, but there are no silver bullets. We are experimenting in these areas to test proof of concept. Earlier this year there was a demonstration at our Port Sunlight factory to use hydrogen as a fuel in our industrial boiler, and we successfully proved that hydrogen can safely be used in manufacturing operations to generate steam. When made with renewable electricity or reforming natural gas with carbon capture and storage, hydrogen can be a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels.
How is Unilever considering the wider impacts of decarbonisation?
One important example is that we are very careful to only use truly sustainable biofuels. The carbon accounting rules that are followed by most companies today allow you to call any biofuel ‘renewable’, meaning it has zero net emissions. Although plant-matter absorbs carbon dioxide when growing, biofuels still release it when combusted, and they might not come from a truly renewable and sustainable source. So, when we been implementing these projects, we follow our to ensure a responsible approach.
How is Unilever encouraging its factories to get on board with climate action?
The passion that we get from employees when we launch a sustainability project speaks volumes. People see what's going on in the world and want to make a difference, and arguably the biggest impact individual employees can make is within Unilever. Personally, I'm proud of the fact that I’ve directly contributed to emissions reductions at Unilever that are far greater than the emissions that I’ll create in my lifetime as an individual.
Given the scale of the challenge, do you feel hopeful for the future?
Decarbonisation is a big challenge but none of it is impossible. Everyone has a job to do and if everyone plays their part then then we will get there. The ideas are out there, and the solutions exist today. It's just about acting on them and implementing them, quickly.
And it’s vital that we share our success stories and our challenges, because the more people talk about the actions that we’re taking on sustainability, the more we'll learn collectively and be able to make a difference.