Avoiding the bystander effect in decarbonisation

Tim Rook, Chief Markets Officer at Clade Engineering Systems, manufacturer of air source and propane heat pumps, draws upon his 16 years of experience in the industrial and renewable energy sectors to address the challenge of decarbonisation.

According to the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), SMEs account for 99.2% of the total business landscape in the UK, responsible for half of the private sector’s turnover and employing three-fifths of the country’s workforce. These statistics underscore the critical role SMEs play in addressing climate change and transitioning towards renewable energy sources and decarbonisation.

As it stands, the positive news is that the broad majority of SMEs have a genuine desire to combat climate change and incorporate sustainability into their business practices. Unfortunately, these same businesses often grapple with financial constraints and a lack of awareness regarding available support mechanisms. Climate initiatives, business grants, and information on renewable energy sources like commercial heat pumps or solar panel installations are accessible to all businesses, but many remain unaware or unable to afford them.

While financial restrictions and lacking awareness are two roadblocks that can be overcome with time, effort and resources, a much larger threat exists within decarbonisation efforts across the UK – and it’s one that may be harder to spot. As it stands, SMEs across the UK may be susceptible to what is known as the “bystander effect” – which, in turn, could be placing efforts toward Net Zero in a debilitating chokehold.

What is the bystander effect?

In social psychology, the bystander effect proposes that in emergency situations, the more people present, the less likely it is for someone to step forward and offer assistance. The logic behind this suggests that, in a group of individuals, each will behave under the assumption that someone else will take action, resulting in a collective and total inaction to the incident.

When we apply this concept to the current global climate crisis and the inertia exhibited by SMEs and businesses in general regarding decarbonisation, the dangers of the bystander effect to decarbonisation begin to make sense.

The bystander effect and climate change

It is entirely understandable for individuals to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of climate change, and to question the genuine impact of individual, seemingly minor actions such as separating recyclables at home. However, we do so knowing that these small changes to our lifestyle do have a larger impact.

From a business perspective, implementing substantial changes within operations poses additional challenges that the average member of the general public would be far less likely to experience, particularly considering the short-term financial implications and the hurdles associated with adopting new methods among staff and customers. Change, in any form, consumes a business’s  time, resources, and finances.

In the context of climate change, small business owners may fall into the trap of self-reassurance, believing that their contribution to decarbonisation would be negligible compared to larger corporations around them, leading them to perceive inaction as an acceptable course of action. If the price of adherence proves too much for an SME, they may take the stance of reassuring themselves that while they can’t afford it, others can – and therefore there is no need for them to make changes.

While it is true that the impact of an isolated case of inaction might be minimal on a global scale, the real danger of the bystander effect lies in its propensity to multiply, as more adopt this mindset, ultimately impeding significant progress.

Undoubtedly, challenges lie ahead on the path to decarbonisation in the commercial sector, but reaching the goal of Net Zero emissions is imperative for our planet’s long-term sustainability.

Support for small businesses

Small business owners must strive to overcome the bystander effect and proactively engage in decarbonisation. In this regard, the government has established a sustainability hub aimed at aiding 5.5 million small businesses in their decarbonisation efforts.

The UK Business Climate Hub offers assistance to SMEs looking to transition their energy consumption to renewable sources, such as air source heat pumps, while simultaneously reducing energy costs—a crucial benefit at a time when energy bills are on the rise. Through the hub, businesses can seek guidance on cost-effective climate initiatives, carbon credits, sustainability training, waste reduction strategies, green supplier sourcing, and securing business grants.

Low carbon heat pumps as a commercial solution

One promising avenue for business owners to take substantial steps towards genuine sustainability and decarbonisation is by installing commercial heat pumps. Commercial air source heat pumps hold the potential to significantly contribute to the UK government’s target of achieving Net Zero emissions by 2050. However, widespread adoption of renewable energy sources, including commercial heat pumps, is essential for this aspiration to become a reality.

Heat pumps possess the technology required to serve as low-carbon heat providers for both commercial and residential properties in the UK. They not only significantly reduce carbon emissions but also lower energy bills simultaneously. When the benefits of such a switch are so compelling, it becomes challenging to comprehend why any business owner would hesitate to make the change.

The business benefits of Net Zero

The impact of climate change is palpable worldwide, and reducing carbon emissions has been a political priority for some time. Small businesses are pivotal to the UK’s efforts to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. For SMEs, this entails offering sustainable products and services, employing sustainable materials, enhancing workplace insulation, promoting public transportation, adopting eco-friendly distribution and shipping practices, and embracing renewable energy sources like commercial heat pumps.

The advantages of pursuing a Net Zero approach for SMEs include:

  • Enhancing business reputation: Modern consumers are more likely to become loyal customers of brands committed to sustainability and green credentials.
  • Reducing energy costs: Installing commercial heat pumps, solar panels, or other renewable energy sources can lead to significant energy cost savings.
  • Attracting investors: Just as consumers favour sustainable businesses, investors are increasingly drawn to environmentally responsible ventures.
  • Process stability: Transitioning to electric vehicles and renewable energy sources can enhance self-sufficiency, reducing dependence on volatile energy markets and disruptions.

In conclusion

While there is growing interest among businesses of all sizes in achieving Net Zero emissions in the UK, the bystander effect often discourages taking the first step when renewable energy applications remain underutilised. What is truly needed is greater influence and incentives from policymakers, coupled with collaboration with renewable energy suppliers, including commercial heat pumps and solar power, to empower businesses to make significant strides towards sustainable business practices.