Here today, here tomorrow: Environmental sustainability at the RNLI

At the RNLI, we recognise that what we do today lays the foundations for the sustainable RNLI of tomorrow. We must all play our part, no matter how big or small, to ensure a more environmentally sustainable future for all. 

A pink sunset over Aith lifeboat

Photo: RNLI/David Riley

It is evident that the public, our supporters and our people care about the environment and want all organisations to reduce their negative impacts upon it. 

Elite sailor, environmental activist and long-time RNLI supporter Dee Caffari is Chair of the RNLI’s Sustainability Special Interest Group. She says: ‘The very nature of where we operate is affected by our planet’s health. Our oceans act as a barometer for that health. The RNLI wants to act as a good citizen in all its activities to ensure and sustain a secure future. How we do things is just as important as what we do, especially to our supporters and donors.’

And doing things sustainably is important to our lifesaving volunteers too. Roger Smith is the RNLI’s Area Lifesaving Manager for North Pembrokeshire and South Ceredigion, and was a lifeboat crew member at St Davids for 10 years. Roger says the crews and lifeguards on his patch are keen to do everything they can to protect the environment and mitigate climate change: ‘We all live on the coast, and we love it. Protecting the beautiful place where we live is not something new and fashionable – everybody around here is bought into it.

‘It’s not just about what the government and the UN do. Each of us can make a difference. The RNLI’s bringing in organisational policies on things like vessel speeds and waste management, but there are also things that individuals are doing at a grassroots level.’ Examples include setting thermostat limits, refillable water bottles and – our favourite – bigger packs of biscuits to cut down on unnecessary plastic packaging.

Sailor and RNLI supporter Dee Caffari

Photo: James Blake

Dee Caffari, sailor, environmental activist and RNLI supporter

Through our Environmental Policy the RNLI has committed to eliminating or reducing our negative impacts and to becoming a low-carbon, zero-waste-to-landfill and climate-resilient organisation in the future. Four key environmental ambitions form the focus for our work. We will also be working on other environmental impacts such as climate change. 

By 2024: Zero avoidable single-use plastics - Wherever we can, we need to change to a more environmentally and socially acceptable alternative. A few single-use plastics will be unavoidable – for example, those around medical items that are required to be sterile – but many can be avoided or replaced. Last year, we started mailing our supporter magazines in paper wraps rather than plastic, and people were delighted. Steve wrote: ‘I welcome the fact that my Lifeboat magazine was today delivered in a fully sustainable and recyclable paper wrapper. It is very encouraging that the RNLI has taken this important step and I hope that other publications and publishers will follow in your footsteps and make the move to a less environmentally damaging solution.’ We have a lot more work to do on less simple solutions, and support like Steve’s helps keep us energised to tackle the bigger challenges. 

By 2030: Zero waste to landfill - This means that we need to try to eliminate, reduce, reuse, recycle or recover something back from our wastes before considering disposal to landfill. It also means we aim to design out waste right from the beginning, wherever we can.

By 2040: Zero carbon from road transport - This means that our leased fleet and logistics vehicles will no longer be powered by fossil fuels and will, when in use, create zero carbon emissions and reduce associated air pollution. Through the use of telematics in our current fleet, we are beginning to better understand and plan our transition to electric vehicles and the infrastructure we need to enable that. We already have one electric vehicle that we use around our support centre in Poole, Dorset.  

Landscape shot of Porth

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

By 2050: Zero carbon, Scope 1 and Scope 2 - Scope 1 are direct emissions from burning gas and fuel. Scope 2 are indirect emissions from use of electricity. Our use of energy and fuel from gas, diesel and unleaded petrol will be reduced through efficiency measures, and supplied through renewable or zero-carbon sources. The RNLI will not use core funds to buy carbon offsets to achieve this. We continue to install renewable technologies on our own buildings, such as solar photovoltaic panels, and ground and water source heat pumps. We also continue to monitor developments and are considering what the alternative means of propulsion might be for our lifeboat fleet in the future. 

RNLI Carbon and Energy Manager Victoria Limbrick says: ‘We have been installing renewable technologies on our buildings since 2011, and since then our Estates Team have been developing the design of our buildings to be more and more efficient. Our new-build and refurbished lifeboat stations use on average 70% less energy for heating. 

‘Meanwhile, our naval architects and engineers are refining our vessel designs and looking at future lifeboat classes to improve efficiency in both fuel use and power consumption. This reduces both our operational costs and our environmental impacts.

‘Efficiency improvements and renewable technologies are the first steps in reducing our carbon footprint, but they alone will not take us to zero. The RNLI that serves future generations will probably look very different, much like ours today would do to those crews who rowed lifeboats launched by horses 100 years ago.

‘Technologies are developing quickly, some will be ready for trials in the next few years, and we are collaborating with industry, public bodies and other emergency services to support development of the high-performance, resilient, low-carbon alternatives that will power our future.’

Skegness wind farm

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Climate change adaptation 

It is evident that climate change impacts are happening right now across the world and records are being broken every year. 

We are increasingly experiencing hotter drier summers and drought, warmer wetter winters and flooding, ocean acidification, coastal erosion, and more extreme weather events. And sea levels are predicted to rise. 

These all present real risks and challenges to our continued ability to safely save lives at sea.

Dee Caffari says: ‘The biggest challenges, in my opinion, are the extremes of weather we are facing. We are seeing more flooding, and more severe storms, and this is having an impact on the coastal and riverside communities where the RNLI operates. We need to understand how we can future-proof our service.’

Working in partnership with other organisations such as the Met Office, we have begun to look at how climate change might impact on the demand for the services we provide and our ongoing ability to provide those services. 

This is the first of a series of articles on sustainability at the RNLI. We will take a closer look in the coming months at various topics, from climate change adaptation to zero waste-to-landfill. In the meantime, you can find out more about sustainability at the RNLI on our web pages.