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A helping hand: ‘There’s a huge opportunity for Irish businesses to make better use of EU funding to support their green transition’

Investigating the supports available to assist companies’ sustainability efforts, at local, national and EU levels

Sustainability is at the top of most people’s minds these days, and that applies to businesses too. It has become an ever-important — and regulated — metric by which to measure results and impact. For companies looking to attract and retain talent, their sustainability measures are often a deciding factor in whether someone takes a role with them or goes to a competitor.

Whether a company is already on the path to becoming more sustainable and wanting to up its game, or looking to start making real movement in the area, there are multiple supports both from Ireland and the EU to assist these moves down a more sustainable route and to help encourage staff to get on board.

Mapping the guidelines

The Government climate action plan outlines a roadmap for Ireland to halve its emissions by 2030 and achieve net zero by 2050, says Paraic Treacy, programme director, Climate Ready Academy, Skillnet. “The plan sets out legally binding emissions reduction targets that require all sectors to play a part in mitigating their impacts on the climate. Businesses play a critical role in this and there is a growing realisation of the very real and urgent need for them to change to more sustainable activities and reduce their emissions.

“This is why the Government has identified the need to upskill the workforce to support the development of green skills and talent to ensure that people are equipped with the knowledge and skills to drive future change. It’s important for businesses seeking to transition their operations, as skills shortages can be a barrier to change.”


Benefits of going green

Businesses know that taking action now will result in more efficiency and lead to better profitability, says Treacy. “Sustainability action plans often lead to lower operational, maintenance and energy costs. Companies with identifiable sustainability plans in place are likely to be better placed for tendering and procurement. As a funding option, many financial institutions now offer green loans, meaning better repayment terms for sustainable business activities.

“Overall, sustainability planning can lead to a more collaborative relationship with suppliers and sub-contractors as a combined approach is needed to manage water resources together or reduce emissions through the supply chain. Finally, having a defined sustainability strategy and vision is a great driver of employee retention as much of the workforce seeks purpose-driven companies to work for.”

Supporting sustainably

For businesses striving to reach their carbon emissions goals, there is plenty of support available. “For big businesses, there are Enterprise Ireland supports that cover audits and capital funding for energy efficiency improvements,” says Grainne Kennedy, climate action co-ordinator for Waterford City and County Council. “Business in the Community Ireland also runs a low carbon pledge for large employers. For SMEs, there is funding for audits with SEAI, and micro businesses can get support for audits through the local enterprise office Green for Micro programme.”

The SEAI has made massive investments in this area and is a great resource for businesses, says Aoife Connaughton, sustainability strategy and decarbonisation lead at Deloitte. “There are teams set up specifically for businesses, consumers and the public sector, with lots of expertise and behavioural insights.

Following the publication of the climate action plan for Ireland, further support and guiding documentation have been provided by relevant authorities to ensure that organisations are equipped and enabled to achieve the specific targets. SEAI has provided guidelines on how to create a climate action roadmap and the Environmental Protection Agency has provided guidelines on green procurement.”

Brian McDonnell, senior manager, global investment and innovation incentives, Deloitte, says there is a huge opportunity for Irish businesses to make better use of EU funding to support their green transition through the use of new innovative technology. “While EU funding is more competitive to secure, the support available is generally at higher rates than locally available grants. As part of sustainability strategies, companies need to identify where investment is needed and link this to what types of grants and incentives may be available from alternative sources instead of solely engaging with local agencies.

“In order to meet the government targets for greenhouse gas reductions seen in the Climate Action Plan, companies will need to invest significantly in the development of new, more environmentally sustainable manufacturing processes and products, says McDonnell. “This requires change across every element of their production. While identifying the changes required brings complexities, the good news is there is research, development, and innovation (RD&I) funding available from Enterprise Ireland/IDA and Revenue R&D tax credits to support.

“From an EU funding perspective, outside of Horizon Europe (which supports research-based work) and specialist-targeted funds such as Clean Hydrogen Europe, funding is available for demonstration projects. EU Life funding supports projects focused on nature and biodiversity, circular economy and quality of life, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and clean energy transition, while the EU Innovation fund is for the demonstration of innovative low-carbon technologies and will contribute to greenhouse gas reduction.”

In the last Life programme (the EU’s funding instrument for the environment and climate action), which ran from 2014-2020, Ireland’s 16 participants, secured only circa €10 million of a total budget of €1,205 million in funding. “This is the second lowest number of participants for EU member states.”

Staff uptake

Kennedy says in her experience in working with businesses, the best way to get staff on board is to lay out the challenge to them and ask them what they think. “They are the experts in their own area of work so getting their ideas is key. The last thing you want is to add this to people’s already full work schedule without getting their thoughts on it.

“The most successful sustainable businesses are businesses that frame the sustainability challenge as something that can make their business better. Giving staff autonomy can result in innovations that management might not have even considered. Many businesses also have success from making the challenge fun and competitive.”

Beating blockers

Time is always a challenge when it comes to getting staff on board, says Kennedy. “Time to consider how efficient the processes are and to work on making improvements. There is also a lot of confusing information out there that can baffle staff.

“For both reasons, this is why it can really help to get outside help in for an assessment and then have the consultants put together a plan of attack. Another blocker is sustainability falling off management’s agenda. Leadership must come from the top and be consistent.”

Knowledge, funding and resources are the three main barriers for businesses, according to Connaughton. “It’s a broad complex area and smaller teams often don’t have the depth of knowledge. But the great thing is that the solutions are well established — we’ve never known more than we know now.

“Resources like Project Drawdown are a really good place to start and there are a plethora of sustainable standards and guidelines that are accessible for staff.”

Edel Corrigan

Edel Corrigan is a contributor to The Irish Times