Companies Are Making Major Climate Pledges. Here’s What They Really Mean.

It seems like every company is now pledging to tackle the climate crisis and do its bit to save the world ― while still selling you stuff, of course. At least a dozen major companies have made headlines this year announcing bold climate targets. In September alone, AT&T, Facebook, Walmart and Morgan Stanley all pledged to become carbon neutral within the next couple of decades.

These are desperately needed commitments given government inaction on climate change, experts say. And they’re long overdue. 

“The public sector has failed to take as much leadership as many, many people think we need to take,” said Michael Vandenbergh, co-director of the Climate Change Research Network at Vanderbilt Law School. “I think these efforts, overall, are essential.”

But it’s important, he added, to look behind the corporate-speak and dissect these initiatives to determine if they truly have teeth and to hold companies accountable for actually fulfilling their promises. In a sea of impressive-sounding pledges, each using slightly different language, it can be hard to tell what’s meaningful and what’s greenwashing. To try to decode what these pledges really mean, HuffPost asked climate experts to help guide us.

What’s the main way companies plan to tackle climate change?

The most common pledges set net-zero targets, sometimes described as going carbon neutral or climate neutral. What this usually means is that the company plans to address the problem of planet-heating emissions by offsetting its own emissions. Net-zero targets may focus on carbon emissions specifically or include all greenhouse gas emissions. (You often need to look at the fine print to determine which the company means.)

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Amazon employees have long been campaigning for the online giant to do more to fight climate change.

To understand the net-zero approach, think of a bathtub where the water is running, and the tub starts to fill up. This represents the emissions a company is releasing. But then you open the drain and water starts to flow out. This represents the company taking steps to lower its climate impact. Net-zero is achieved when these two things ― filling the tub and draining it ― are balanced so that the water level neither increases nor decreases.

For a company to reach net-zero, its own operations and its entire value chain (suppliers, manufacturers and so on) must not release more emissions into the atmosphere than they’re able to remove. 

Hundreds of companies around the world have set themselves net-zero targets ― from Molson Coors to Target, Ralph Lauren and even cigarette company Philip Morris International. Last month Facebook announced its aim to have net-zero carbon emissions from its operations, supply chain, employee commuting and business travel by 2030. Apple plans to be net-zero carbon by that same date, while Amazon hopes to be carbon neutral by 2040.

Why we should be cautious about offsets.

A company can offset its climate impact by using technology or nature-based solutions.

There’s been a lot of hype around negative emissions technologies, which include sucking carbon out of the air and storing it deep underground, creating building materials from plants, and sequestering carbon in soil. The majority of these ideas, however, are still in the developmental stages, meaning their potential to deploy at scale has yet to be proven. 

We’re not going to offset our way out of this problem. We actually have to reduce emissions.Bill Wiehl, executive director of ClimateVoice

Planting trees has a much more established climate benefit, but it still comes with caveats. “Forests are not necessarily a permanent carbon sink and climate change causes them to burn,” said Zdravka Tzankova, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University. “We will run out of [space on the] planet if every company decided to offset their emissions by having a nature-based solution of some sort.”

All the experts agreed that relying solely on offsets is bad. These strategies definitely have a place, said John Sottong, senior associate at the World Resources Institute (WRI), but the companies are still releasing emissions into the atmosphere.

“[Offsetting] is not automatically a bad thing,” agreed Bill Wiehl, executive director of the grassroots campaign group ClimateVoice. “But if that is the bulk of how they are eliminating their impact in terms of emissions, I think that is a problem. We’re not going to offset our way out of this problem. We actually have to reduce emissions.”

Are any companies actually trying to reduce their climate footprint?

Rather than just balancing their climate impact, some companies are aiming to stop releasing CO2 altogether. This is called going “zero carbon.” 

If a company is “truly saying zero carbon and they really mean that, that means they’re not relying on offsets,” said Wiehl. 

Ashley Cooper/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

Offsetting emissions by planting trees is one way a company can address the climate crisis. As they grow, trees absorb and sequestrate carbon.

In September, Google promised to power its operations with entirely carbon-free energy by 2030. 

That same month, Walmart announced that it plans to reach zero carbon emissions across its operations by 2040 without relying on carbon offsets. To help achieve this goal, it aims to power its operations entirely with renewable energy by 2035 and switch over to electric transportation vehicles, including its long-haul trucks.

Finally, there’s “carbon negative,” which means that companies are offsetting more than they’re emitting. The goal here is for the corporation not only to release fewer emissions but to help draw down the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere to a safer level than it is currently.

Microsoft ― which has been carbon neutral thanks to offsets since 2012 ― made waves when it announced in January that it would go carbon negative by 2030. By 2050, it said, it will remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to make up for all of its emissions released since it was founded in 1975. It plans to do this through decarbonization ― phasing out the use of fossil fuels ― as well as investing funds to help “accelerate the development” of new carbon reduction technology.

Check whether a company is looking at all of its climate impacts. 

When assessing a corporate climate pledge, experts say one of the first things to look at is whether the company is talking about emissions just from its own direct operations (“scope 1” emissions), or if it’s also tackling the indirect emissions that come from generating the electricity it uses (“scope 2”), as well as all those other indirect emissions associated with the materials and services it uses (“scope 3”).

For instance, if a grocery store chain has set a climate target, is it just running its stores with greater energy efficiency? Or has it promised to also power its shops and warehouses with clean energy? And beyond those scope 1 and 2 impacts, is it tackling the climate effects associated with producing the food it sells or the pollution caused by packaging and transporting that food?

“For a lot of contemporary corporations, scope 3 emissions are actually the largest percentage of total emissions,” said Tzankova.

AP Photo/Michael Sohn

For years, environmental activists have been facing off against companies that lobby against climate action.

Apple, for example, is promising to tackle scope 3 emissions by making its products and supply chain carbon neutral by 2030. To achieve this, it plans to source “low carbon aluminum” to make its phones and laptops, to use more and more recycled aluminum, and to prioritize suppliers who use hydropower, rather than coal, to run their facilities.

By committing to reduce emissions along its supply chain, a company can have far-reaching impacts. “It’s pushing its commitment, its carbon reductions, all around the world, even absent an international agreement,” said Vandenbergh. “So that begins to change the incentives of manufacturers and ultimately countries.”

Beware behind-the-scenes lobbying.

There are lots of things that companies do that don’t show up in their climate commitments but that can have a huge impact on how the world faces the climate crisis. Namely, lobbying and public relations.

Companies spent more than $2 billion lobbying against climate change legislation in the United States between 2000 and 2016, outspending the renewables industry and green groups 10 to 1. Many utility, transport and fossil fuel companies also have a long history of spreading climate denial through misleading marketing campaigns, hiring their own scientists to help spread doubt, and funding think tanks that disparage climate science.

And it’s not just what individual companies are pushing, but also what the trade associations they belong to are doing. Major trade groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Legislative Exchange Council (better known as ALEC) have long sought to undermine climate action. 

Earlier this year, BP and Royal Dutch Shell publicly quit a handful of industry groups known to lobby against environmental regulations. However, as a HuffPost and Unearthed investigation recently revealed, both oil giants still remain members of several state and regional trade associations that have fought climate action.

“It’s vital that companies decarbonize their own operations and their supply chain. But even more importantly, we need to decarbonize how society works,” said Wiehl. To do this, he said, companies must “become really vigorous advocates for the kinds of public policy that can drive economy-wide, rapid decarbonization.”

DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

In February 2020, BP announced that it aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, although it was vague on how it planned to hit the target.

Experts agree that if companies truly want to fight climate change, they should also be advocating for governments to do more. 

In the past several years, more businesses have been calling on lawmakers to tighten states’ clean energy standards and to loosen power utilities’ stranglehold on options for cleaner electricity, according to Tzankova’s research. These companies include Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s, Target, Apple and Microsoft.

“Every company, regardless of what it does in its operations, has political influence. And using it to delay action, I would argue, is bad,” Wiehl said. “Choosing not to use it is basically being complicit with the really loud, powerful voices that have been working to delay action for decades.”

How skeptical should we be of fossil fuel companies setting climate targets? 

This is a “difficult one” said Sottong, “because you want them at the table, and you want them making serious commitments. [But] unless a fossil fuel company just comes out and says, ‘You know what, we’re just going to change our business model entirely,’ … then they’re going to fall short.” 

Fossil fuel companies that have climate targets but still plan to expand their production of fossil fuels are doing little more than leaning away from outright climate denial, Wiehl argues. Ultimately, it’s a “delaying tactic.”

BP, Shell and Total have all said they will reach net-zero by 2050, but none of them have committed to cutting their oil and gas output over the next decade. Instead, they will be relying on offsets to achieve net-zero within their own operations.

BRITTANY HOSEA-SMALL/AFP via Getty Images

The world needs to rapidly decarbonize in order to limit the devastating impacts of climate change, like the wildfires that ravaged the West Coast of the United States in August and September 2020.

Most experts agree that it’s good these companies have taken the first step in acknowledging something needs to be done. “But I don’t think we should be satisfied,” said Vandenbergh.

“Ultimately, we need to see those companies developing business plans and becoming financially successful by doing something that doesn’t emit massive amounts of greenhouse gases,” he said.

How can we tell if a company will stay committed to its goals?

Experts say companies must be transparent about the steps they’re taking ― and the progress they’re making ― to achieve their goals. In addition to having a clear plan when announcing their targets, companies should release regular reports that outline what they’ve achieved so far and how much they’re emitting. 

Microsoft is a leader in this space. Not only does it publish its own annual sustainability reports, but it also shares its data with carbon disclosure nonprofit CDP to analyze independently.

Partnering with other companies and nonprofits also shows a willingness to be held to account. In July, a group of corporations including Nike, Unilever, Starbucks, Danone, Microsoft and Mercedes-Benz launched the Transform to Net Zero initiative to share resources and strategies for achieving their targets.

“Industry-NGO partnerships and similar types of ‘green clubs’ is a good sign,” said Tzankova. “It makes the commitment more public and builds an additional layer of accountability. Plus, it gives companies access to more and better resources and a network that can help with attainment of the more ambitious commitments.” 

It’s also a good sign, experts say, if companies have joined the Science Based Targets Initiative ― a collaboration among CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, WRI, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the We Mean Business Coalition ― which works to define best practices and offer guidance to companies looking to align their targets with the latest science on climate change. Currently, 992 companies are part of the group.

That gives the companies’ commitment “credibility,” said Sottong, because it shows that they have studied their emission impacts and that experts have helped ensure “their targets are, indeed, aggressive enough.”

“There will be laggards and there will be leaders,” said Wiehl. “And the leaders need to go way faster than the average, if they can, to compensate for the laggards.”

Some industries ― such as cement and steel production ― will move more slowly because the main strategy for decarbonizing them relies on technology like carbon capture and storage that is not available at scale yet.

But we shouldn’t let the slow movers off the hook, said Vandenbergh. While we scrutinize all companies’ pledges and push them to do more, he said, “we want to make sure that we don’t direct all of our criticism and activism towards the firms that are trying to do the right thing or at least sticking their necks out by making commitments. … [Don’t] let the others just lie in the weeds and avoid scrutiny.”

HuffPost’s “Work in Progress” series focuses on the impact of business on society and the environment and is funded by Porticus. It is part of the “This New World” series. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from Porticus. If you have an idea or tip for the editorial series, send an email to thisnewworld@huffpost.com.

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