Criticism of corporate climate pledges ramps up
Corporate climate pledges are increasingly coming under the microscope, with outside groups saying that a number of companies are relying on shaky math to fulfill their vows.
Environmental groups and activists pressing for action on climate change say the failures will only raise the pressure for governments to take action on global warming.
“I think that corporations should be taking responsibility for the role that they’ve played in this, and that they absolutely should be pushed to make actual meaningful commitments,” said Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“But at the same time, they’re not going to happen, and they’re not going to be effective if there is not also a regulatory push to actually hold corporations accountable for their pollution,” she added.
One area of criticism has been the role of offsets, in which companies can pay for activities that pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, like planting trees, instead of cutting their own emissions.
“If they’re going to put out a pledge that says we’re going to target this level of absolute reductions from our operations, that’s great,” said Tim Donaghy, a senior research specialist with Greenpeace USA.
“Too many of the climate pledges are talking about ‘net-zero,’ which I think kind of obscures the real issue here which is that continuing business as usual but purchasing offsets is not going to get us to where we need to go.”
Net-zero refers to when a company’s total emissions combined with its activities that take emissions out of the air add up to a result of zero emissions.
Offsets have particularly come under scrutiny amid reports that they may not be effective as they purport to be.
A 2019 ProPublica review looked at 20 years worth of offset projects and found a number of cases where they either didn’t deliver the reductions they were supposed to or that their impacts were eventually reversed.
“Permanence is a big issue,” Donaghy said. “If you say, ‘I’m going to continue polluting from my factory, but I’m going to buy an offset to plant a forest or prevent a forest from being cut down’ and then 10 years later, the forest gets cut down anyway, what have you done?”
Others note that many climate change pledges are based on costly or unproven technologies, and there’s no guarantee that those will mature or cheapen over the years.
“Even in those cases where the plans are better thought out, they almost invariably rely on commercial-scale deployment of technologies that are, if we’re lucky, in demonstration phase and many of them much more nascent than that, things like hydrogen,” said Margaret Peloso, lead sustainability partner at the law firm Vinson & Elkins.
“And so, one of the real challenges for companies when they make a net-zero pledge, is that you have to then set up systems where you can very carefully monitor what you think your progress is like versus what you expected so that you can figure out at what point in time, the company might need to make some corrective disclosure to prevent that net-zero pledge from being misleading to the market,” she added.
Peloso argued companies should project the amount of money they need to invest to cut their emissions and commit to investing that money.
Long-standing critiques of corporate climate pledges were compounded last week when NewClimate Institute released a report describing many corporate climate pledges as inadequate.
Analyzing promises by 25 large multinational companies, it found that while many had promised to reach “net-zero,” their promises really only encompassed about 40 percent of all of their overall climate change contributions on average.
It found that at least five of the firms it looked at would only really tackle 15 percent of the full scope of their emissions.
It also highlighted a number of “bad practices,” including companies not setting clear targets to switch to renewable energy and pushing less-climate-friendly infrastructure or products onto subsidiaries to improve the image of the parent companies.
It also critiqued companies whose plans only encompass emissions that directly come from their operations, but exclude a category of emissions called “scope 3” that would include the use and processing of their products as well as emissions from their investments.
The report particularly highlighted companies including Amazon and Walmart as having “low-integrity” pledges.
Those companies pushed back at the criticism. In an email, an Amazon spokesperson highlighted as goals its plans to use 100 percent renewable power by 2025 and deploy 100,000 electric delivery vehicles by 2030. Walmart spokesperson Aman Singh said via email that the report “does not accurately characterize Walmart’s climate goals” and said the company is on track to meet “science-based goals” for emissions including scope 3.
Climate pledges from fossil fuel companies have particularly come under fire in recent days, given that the burning of fossil fuels is the main driver of climate change.
In a House hearing last week, Democrats and experts critiqued climate plans from oil companies ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Shell, as the companies claim to have net-zero goals while continuing to sell fossil fuels.
Exxon and Chevron particularly received heat because their climate plans only make net-zero promises for operations, like drilling, but not on the selling their products, which is where most of their climate contributions actually come from.
“ExxonMobil is really like a tobacco company which pledges to prohibit smoking in their factories in 2050 while continuing to produce and sell cigarettes,” said Mark van Baal, founder of Follow This, which seeks to use shareholder action to push the oil companies to be greener.
Asked for comment on the general criticism, Exxon spokesperson Erin McGrath highlighted the company’s commitment to “lower-emission” projects including those using hydrogen and biofuels, as well as technology that seeks to capture emissions from power plants when fuels are burned.
McGrath said via email that these technologies are “important pathways for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”
Hydrogen and carbon capture are still developing and costly, and many argue that hydrogen energy, which can be produced from clean or fossil sources, is only good for the planet when made with clean energy.
A Chevron spokesperson directed The Hill to its climate plan, which says that the company hopes to lower the amount of planet-warming gases released into the air from the burning of its products. It said that this metric provides “transparency and replicability in calculations and data with information from financial statements and emissions disclosures.”
But during the House hearing, experts also criticized the idea of making their fossil fuels cleaner while using more of them, with one comparing it to eating a greater quantity of lower-fat potato chips in an attempt to eat less fat.
In general, climate activists say that the issues with corporate plans bolster the case for further government action.
“The big picture that we would advocate for is roughly the Green New Deal idea where the government is putting a plan in place saying here are the resources we need to get from Point A to Point B,” said Donaghy, of Greenpeace.