It pays to be ahead of the game. For 15 years Stephen Dunn has been spreading the message about the dangers of carbon emissions and helping Northern Ireland companies reduce their carbon footprint. Now, at last, world leaders are catching up.

The UK Government has been leading the charge towards a global net zero at the COP 26 Climate Change conference this November. It has promised tough measures to ensure the UK cuts emission by at least 68% by 2030, and reaches net zero by 2050. That gives Stephen and his company, SDS Energy, even more ammunition to convince business to reduce their carbon footprint. And now he has an innovative digital solution, CarbonFIT, to make that even easier.

Since the birth of the industrial revolution humans have been releasing more and more carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas, warming the atmosphere to worrying levels. But now, there is a clear agenda to take us in a different direction.

Stephen is already seeing a big change in the attitude of businesses in Northern Ireland, which creates about 5% of the UK’s carbon emissions. Business here currently contributes around 25% of Northern Ireland’s carbon emissions but Stephen believes that can improve dramatically over the next few years.

Stephen’s future role really began to take shape when he took a degree in Buildings Services and Renewables at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown. Leaving university, he took a job with a local consulting engineering company, focusing on energy efficiency.

It was good timing. The UK government was sending experts to Northern Ireland to train local engineers as low carbon consultants.

“I was one of the first in Northern Ireland,’ Stephen says. “We thought, ‘we can do this ourselves’ and, in 2006, I co-founded SDS Energy as a low carbon and energy efficient consultancy. We could see legislative pulleys coming into place, around areas like building control, as well as the European directives on energy efficiency.”

It was a hard sell at first but gradually companies began to see the cost benefits of energy efficiency as well as the environmental importance of reducing carbon.

“What was driving this was public sector legislation. Any public sector building being built or refurbished now had to be designed to be energy efficient and low carbon. By 2011 that had exploded into the commercial sector with various government incentive schemes coming onstream.”

As energy carbon consultants, SDS were employed by large corporates, all big energy users, to fulfil their carbon audits in order to propel them towards a net zero footprint and also save money. But, for Stephen, it wasn’t enough.

“We were producing reports which would sit on desks and not go anywhere. With everything going digital we thought it would be great if we had a digital platform on which we could upload all the data from the client. So about two years ago we came up with CarbonFIT, a spin-out from SDS.”

A science-based software solution, CarbonFIT has three main roles, as suggested by its last three letters. “The F is for scaling the company’s footprint measurement. The I is for initiating improvements and the T is for tracking the company’s progress to net zero.”

Since it was introduced in 2020, 15 clients have signed up, with more to follow.

Increasingly, government legislation is encouraging business to do the right thing. There is now a legislative requirement for big companies to disclose both their carbon emissions and their carbon reduction plan. This is another area where CarbonFIt can help. “We have automated this information so it can be disclosed on company’s websites and be sent at the touch of a button to their suppliers.”

The supply chain is crucial as every supplier, whatever sector a company is in, is part of the company’s carbon footprint. “Big customers of ours are asked daily for their carbon footprint but they also have to go to their supply chain and ask how green are you? If you’re choosing to buy materials from a supplier with a carbon footprint of 5 or 10, you’re now more likely to go for 5, even if they are a little bit more expensive, or you will end up being left behind.”

The situation will change even more dramatically as carbon taxes are introduced for products.

“Governments will want to know where companies purchase their goods, where they invest their money, and that information will have to be visible.”

SDS advises clients on the best ways to reduce their carbon footprint and become more energy efficient, putting that information on a dashboard on the CarbonFIT digital platform companies can access and share. “They can say, we want to install solar panels or energy efficient light, and the improvements are on their Net Zero Dashboard, thus providing a visible carbon reduction plan.”

As the world gears up to try and reach net zero carbon by 2050, one major cause of optimism is the rapid advance in technology. Stephen expects Northern Ireland, with its culture of innovative entrepreneurs and inventors, to be leading the charge.

“I do expect us to punch above our weight,” he says. “We have two world-class universities, both with centres for sustainable energy that are looking at renewables and the technology coming down the line. We already have some outstanding innovative companies working in this field; look at what is being achieved by Wrightbus, for instance.”

Stephen believes that the synergy created by the melting pot of academics, industrialists and innovate entrepreneurs in Northern Ireland will help us play a crucial role.

“If government can harness that with a clear agenda, I really believe this island can become the renewable energy centre for Europe. We need to capture people’s imaginations. There’s no point us taking gas and electricity from the likes of Russia and Scandinavia, we can do this ourselves. If you go to environmental conferences and talk to people, they really believe we can do this.”

Cautiously optimistic for the future, Stephen believes education will be the key to winning the fight. “My 13-year-old daughter came home from school and said, ‘Daddy, we’ve got to work out our carbon footprint for homework.’ I laughed and said, ‘I’ve got just the right module for that.’ She’s learning that in school, I didn’t.

"Our children and grandchildren will push this on, but we have a big role to play in educating them.”