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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

28 October 2021 - This business briefing explores the potential role and opportunities for payments networks in the transition to a net zero economy.

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Watch a recording of the launch webinar, hosted by VISA.

Countries and regions around the world (including the UK and EU) have adopted regulation committing to net zero emissions by 2050 amid a growing body of evidence indicating that failure to do so will lock the world into the accelerating and irreversible impacts of climate change. The transition to net zero will require far-reaching social, economic, regulatory and technological system changes. The payments industry has adapted to enable large-scale socio-economic changes in the past. But what will its role be in this significant transition?

This report - underpinned by 15 stakeholder interviews and existing research – explores this question and highlights opportunities offered to the payments industry in the transition to a net zero economy.

The research highlighted enthusiasm for payments networks playing a leading role in the transition. This included leveraging core products and services, as well as alternative assets such as brand trust and data. Citizens can play a key role and evidence suggests they are willing to play their role, provided the solutions are affordable and convenient.

There are four roles that payment networks can play to bridge this ‘opportunity gap’ by enabling net zero solutions: 

  1. Empower citizens - through product and service innovation, as well as the provision of information and choice architecture
  2. Provision of data-driven insights - payments data-driven products and services 
  3. Collaboration and partnerships - shaping and creating new services and solutions with others
  4. Narrative and advocacy - using corporate influence to shape the broader landscape for the net zero transition.

The report explores four areas of focus for net zero enablement via payments capabilities, as well as several opportunities for each. These areas represent the potential overlap between payments capabilities and enabling the significant decarbonisation of the economy.

  • Low carbon urban mobility
  • Sharing economy
  • Sustainable retail banking
  • Data-driven sustainability services 

Significant benefits were identified for payments networks that enable the net zero transition, ranging from increased and diversified payment flows through to strengthening trust and relationships with key stakeholders.

The report highlights the following steps that payment networks can take to begin to capture the value and positive impact from enabling the net zero transition:

  1. Identify net zero as a strategic opportunity for the core business
  2. Identify and test potential net zero solutions, and the role of payments, with a broad range of stakeholders both including and beyond the four-party model.
  3. Use influence and assets to create the external enabling conditions for the net zero solutions.

Citing this report

Kellard, B. and Verhagen T. (2021). Payments for Net Zero: How the payments industry can contribute to the transition to a net zero economy. Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

Find out how CISL is working with organisations to develop solutions for a net zero economy. 

Published: October 2021

Authors and acknowledgements

Ben Kellard, CISL and Thomas Verhagen, Senior Associate, CISL.

This report was funded by Visa. With thanks to Jessica Lennard and Tulsi Parida from Visa for their insights and contributions throughout the project. We are grateful to all the stakeholders thatwere interviewed and consulted as part of this research. A list is provided in the appendix.


Copyright © 2021 University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). Some rights reserved.


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL or The University of Cambridge.