How to Tell if Companies Are Truly Fighting Climate Change

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“Which companies are committing to fighting climate change?”

$81.​9B Renewable power investment worldwide in Q4 2019 -9.​67% Today’s arctic ice area vs. historic average

50,​820 Million metric tons of greenhouse emissions, most recent annual data 59% Carbon-free net power in Germany, most recent data +0.​95° C May. 2020 increase in global temperature vs. 1900s average

Beijing, ChinaMost polluted air today, in sensor range 0 6 5 4 3 2 0 3 2 1 0 9 0 7 6 5 4 3 .0 3 2 1 0 9 0 8 7 6 5 4 0 1 0 9 8 7 0 5 4 3 2 1 0 6 5 4 3 2 0 1 0 9 8 7 Parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere 0 3 2 1 0 9 ,0 8 7 6 5 4 0 2 1 0 9 8 0 4 3 2 1 0 Soccer pitches of forest lost this hour, most recent data

This question popped up in one of my feeds this week and I couldn’t shake it. It stood out for both its casual reasonableness — Hey, there’s a list somewhere, right? Who’s on it? — and the impossibility of answering it satisfactorily. 

Let’s take stock.

Sure, there are lists, a lot of them. Companies climb over each other to join lists and sign statements. More than 150 large companies in mid-May called on governments to ground policy in science and ensure that economic recovery from Covid-19 puts the global economy on a climate-safe footing. There’s the We Mean Business Coalition, a group of nonprofits that has attracted 1,300 businesses to help translate corporate goals into policy. Some 2,300 businesses and investors belong to We Are Still In, which supports the UN Paris Agreement on climate change as the U.S. moves toward quitting it. 

Some third-party organizations take on the arduous work of choosing environmental, social and corporate governance criteria that mark sustainable companies and score them accordingly. Barron’s and Calvert Research and Management rank the 100 most sustainable U.S. companies every year based on 230 indicators, and Corporate Knights, a Canadian sustainable-business magazine, publishes a global 100 list based on 21 metrics. With the rise of sustainable investing, some ratings agencies and analysts have begun to notice which companies are accumulating climate-related risks.

Not all the lists are celebrations of progress. U.K. nonprofit CDP asks companies to disclose their impacts on climate, forests and water security every year. Many thousands do. Earlier this month they issued a list of companies, more than 1,000 strong, that have not filed disclosures with the group in one or all of these three areas of focus.

It’s fairly easy to sift through these campaigns and rankings to come away with a population of usual corporate suspects. The real trick is trying to discern what’s going on inside a company based on what they say, what they do, what they don’t say, and what they don’t do. Until there’s a sustainability-specific “Baloney Detection Kit,” there are several questions to keep in mind when perusing companies’ climate plans. (Thanks to Jonas Rooze, chief of corporate sustainability research at Bloomberg NEF, who shared some thoughts.)

Are climate goals based on science?: The Science Based Targets initiative helps companies prepare themselves for the clean economy. Their process starts with global carbon budget and breaks it down into sectors’ responsibilities and, from there, companies’ contributions. The number of companies now a part of this effort has reached 911. 

Will the company reach net-zero emissions by 2050?: The drive toward practically eliminating emissions accelerated after climate scientists reported in late 2018 that the world’s carbon craze will have to end by mid-century. Bloomberg Intelligence analysts have identified at least 58 companies that have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by various dates, some earlier than 2050, such as Estee Lauder Companies Inc. (2020), Sony Corp. (2025) or Inc. (2040). Others, like Allianz SE or Credit Suisse Group AG, reached carbon neutrality in prior years.

Are life-cycle emissions included? “Scope 3 emissions” is climate-speak for pollution from a company’s suppliers and customers. As difficult as it is to calculate, many companies—including some oil majors and mining companies—are discovering addressing Scope 3 emissions must be in their futures. 

How much do they rely on “offsets”? Buying credits from forestry or other projects sounds like a great idea, if it works out. 

Are companies investing in climate-safe technology? Leading companies continue to green their electricity and have taken on agreements to buy 5.2 gigawatts of clean energy in 2020 through May, modestly less than last year. Amazon has driven this corporate activity, purchasing 1.2GW this year, double what second-place General Motors has taken on, according to Bloomberg NEF. Rising too are the investments made by the richest companies in new technology. Microsoft in January announced a $1 billion fund to invest in technologies that can reduce airborne carbon dioxide. Today, Amazon announced a$2 billion climate investment fund.

Are companies lobbying for meaningful climate policy? As productive and useful as it is for companies to join forces in NGO-led consortia, it leaves an eyebrow-raising question. Why are the richest, most powerful and most famous brands subordinating their influence to ad hoc campaigns? Influence Map, a U.K. nonprofit that researches corporate influence on climate policy found in October that “most of the world’s largest corporations are not strategically engaged with climate policy, “and even some of the biggest tech companies “have not translated their climate-positive messaging into strategic, consistent policy engagement.”

Companies may not have zeroed out their emissions yet, and in many cases it’s difficult to tell exactly what they’re doing. But the most aggressive ones are outpacing national policies governing energy and industrial transformation. That’s why more than 150 companies had a simple message to world governments in May: “We hope you will join us.”

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