What do Unilever Plc, Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Amazon.com Inc. have in common? Their net-zero promises do not add up to net zero, a new report says.
It’s not just these three companies, either. The report, published by the New Climate Institute and Carbon Market Watch, finds that 25 of the world’s most valuable companies, which together accrued $3.2 trillion in revenues in 2020 and accounted for 5% of global greenhouse-gas emissions in 2019, have climate plans that are weaker than how they’ve been marketed so far.
The report says that nearly half of the 25 businesses, including Nestle SA and JBS SA, don’t have specific commitments to reduce emissions by their target net-zero year. The remaining 13 plan to cut emissions across the value chain by 40% on average, rather than fully ax them as their pledges suggest. A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S, Vodafone Group Plc and Deutsche Telekom AG are the only ones on track to near-complete decarbonization, the authors find.
“Ambitious-sounding headline claims all too often lack real substance, which can mislead both consumers and the regulators,” said the New Climate Institute’s Thomas Day, a lead author of the study, in a statement. “We were quite shocked about the extent of creativity that some companies apply to claim a credible path to net zero, and the amount of effort that it takes to reveal that.”
It can be easy for companies to hide half-hearted efforts behind net-zero pledges because third-party analysts don’t know where to look. There’s no blueprint for how companies should disclose their climate ambitions and action plans. That makes it hard for outside eyes to grasp the true extent of corporate commitments.
Carrefour SA doesn’t count the emissions from its branded shops or upstream and downstream emissions, the report says, which make up almost all of its carbon footprint. Nestle and Unilever don’t offset their own emissions but they back individual consumer brands in their portfolio to do so. And JBS states its facilities will be powered exclusively by renewable energy by 2040, but the report says it doesn’t give information about its current and planned renewable energy supply.
The researchers find that the companies’ plans to offset their emissions are particularly misleading. Two thirds of the businesses are banking on CO₂ reductions from forests and other nature-based solutions to erase the effect of their future emissions. If those forests are destroyed, the logic behind their plans would also fall.
In statements emailed to Bloomberg, Amazon, Google, JBS, Nestle, Unilever and Carrefour stood by their climate plans.
Google said it clearly defines the scope of its climate commitments, acknowledging that “100% renewable energy match and high-quality offsetting is only a step” toward its net-zero goal. JBS called the report’s methodology “misleading” and said that it had “established important milestones” to net zero. Unilever welcomed “external analysis of our progress” and said it had begun working on ways to evolve its approach, while Carrefour said it is “engaged across the full scope of its indirect emissions” and had been “working for a long time to make progress” on cuts.
Among the companies to earn good marks was Maersk, which is investing in nature-based solutions to remove around 5 million metric tons of CO₂ every year until 2030, without claiming that this will neutralize its emissions. Likewise, Apple Inc. already sources almost all of its energy from long-term agreements with renewable developers and its own installations, and it also backs the creation of energy storage systems.
Most of the 25 companies are working with the Science-Based Targets initiative, an arbiter of corporate climate plans. “Unfortunately, we find that these standard setting initiatives can end up lending some companies more credibility than they deserve,” Day said. “In the worst case, this can legitimize business-as-usual.”
While many companies said that they had their plans approved by SBTi, Managing Director Alberto Carrillo Pineda said that only one company — CVS Health Corp. — has had its net-zero plan validated by the initiative. The confusion arises because SBTi has approved different plans over the years. Unilever’s climate plan has an SBTi stamp for near-term targets (typically until 2030) aligned with keeping warming below 1.5° Celsius, but it is yet to get approval for its full net-zero plan. Carrefour’s plan is SBTi approved for keeping warming below 2°C, which is a much less ambitious goal. JBS has committed to a net-zero target, but its climate plan has yet to receive any approval from SBTi.
“Scrutiny helps us to create stronger methods for assessing and validating corporate climate targets,” Pineda said. “The report also exposes important gaps in the level of transparency and integrity of corporate net-zero targets.”
(Bloomberg LP, owner of Bloomberg News, is also working with SBTi. Bloomberg Philanthropies is an SBTi funder.)
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