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What I’ve learned: Bernd Leven, Vodafone’s Head of Energy Performance

Bernd Leven started his career in energy efficiency research in Germany, just after the Kyoto Protocol (1997), a global framework for action on global warming, was agreed. At automotive manufacturer Daimler, he was involved in shaping the regulatory framework for the EU Emission Trading Scheme (launched in 2005) and implementing it for Daimler’s production sites.

Moving over to the UK in 2008, Bernd made a change from the manufacturing industry to the telco industry, where he shaped and delivered the energy and climate change programme. He then moved to Tesco, where he developed a strategy to significantly decarbonise the retail operations by switching to LED lights and renewables.

He joined Vodafone Group as Head of Energy Performance five years ago, and today, he leads the energy innovation activities across Vodafone globally by joining up energy supply, technology and operations between the local and group teams. 

Here, Bernd shares what he’s learned from his career, what he’s hoping will come out of COP 26, and what we can all do to be more sustainable in our daily lives.

1. Sustainability needs strong leadership

Exciting things were happening when I joined Vodafone Group five years ago. Nick Read, our CEO, and Johan Wibergh, our CTO, wanted to give a more dedicated focus to energy and so created my role.

It’s great when you have that message coming from the top, because you still have the challenge of delivering, but you don't have the challenge of convincing the board that it's the right thing to do. Over time, we have continuously strengthened accelerated our sustainability targets. We are now 100% renewable in Europe and Turkey, and we've seen a massive reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions.

My team is not only focused on strategy and programme delivery; we also help people understand how they can make a difference in their day-to-day lives. Employee engagement is so important if you want to drive change in an organisation. We now have 14,000 members following our internal social media group Red Loves Green, and lots of them are engaging actively in the conversation around how we can do better as a business.

2. Our drivers have shifted over the years – but the challenge remains the same

Early on in my career, the Kyoto Protocol and public and investor interest in climate change prompted several companies to develop sustainability targets.

But when the financial crisis hit in 2008, the focus shifted from climate change to cost savings. For energy management, this meant focusing more on efficiency than on sustainability. This still helped reduce carbon footprints; it was just driven by cost, rather than sustainability.

The Paris Agreement in 2015 helped rebalance this and drove the concept of Science Based Targets. Greta Thunberg brought the topic to the world’s attention in 2018 - and COVID-19 made people sit back and reflect on their own environmental impact.

Green recovery packages, the drive to “build back better”, the EU’s Fit for 55 package and the infrastructure bill in the US are also making a big impact. But energy price rises, along with the economic recovery, are making it more difficult for political leaders to drive the transition to net zero.

3. World leaders must help one another to decarbonise

I hope COP26 will help us close the gap towards 1.5 degrees and get us to a place where the next conference will allow us to accelerate action. It’s great to see agreements forming to reverse deforestation and reduce methane emissions.

It’s also important that we agree to support countries that depend heavily on fossil fuels. A lot of jobs depend on those industries, so it’s difficult to convince governments to stop burning coal or producing oil and gas. It’s also hard to ask them to invest in solar panels, which are often manufactured abroad and so require foreign currency, which is difficult to manage in developing countries.

If the summit could help us agree on a financial arrangement which helps the likes of India, South Africa, Australia, and the oil-producing countries to find alternative business models and employment opportunities, it would have a huge impact.

It's important that the whole world moves simultaneously and that we avoid carbon leakage - the shifting of greenhouse gas emitting industries outside the EU to avoid tighter standards and tax policies. We need to work together on this - but we're moving far too slowly.

4. We should all consume less and cut down on air travel

There’s a lot of misinformation out there, so I try to cut through the noise and help people understand what things really mean.

When people ask me what they can do to be more sustainable, I say: consume less and cut down on air travel. Food makes up about a quarter of our carbon footprint in the UK and can be cut easily by reducing meat, which is also healthier and cheaper. Household energy is important - but it makes up just an eighth of our carbon footprint. A quarter is related to travelling - mainly by car or air - and one return flight from London to New York adds around 10% to our total carbon footprint.

Put simply, spending money increases your carbon footprint. If you want to check your own carbon footprint, I recommend the WWF calculator.

5. Making a difference is what drives me forward

I became interested in energy when I was 16, in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster. I thought, there must be other ways of mitigating climate change than building more nuclear power plants. That’s how I got into this space.

I like how challenging my job is, I like working with different teams across technology, finance and sustainability, and I like how we’re always working towards optimisation and improvement. But I also like that it has a higher purpose, that it's adding to the greater good. I don’t just work to earn money; I want to make an impact and leave a better world for my children.

Moving large corporations - Daimler, BT, Tesco, and now Vodafone - towards a lower carbon footprint is something I'm very proud of. And I am very grateful to all the teams that have been working with me towards this common goal.

  • Planet
  • SDG 7
  • SDG 12
  • COP26
  • Circular economy 
  • SDG 11
  • SDG 13
  • SDGs
  • Viewpoint
  • Sustainability

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