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Counting carbon: why emissions targets must be based on science

Counting Carbon

Counting carbon: corporate climate targets are almost never based on climate science, writes Marc Gunther. Photograph: Info/Getty Images/Getty


Powered by article titled “Counting carbon: why emissions targets must be based on science” was written by Marc Gunther, for on Tuesday 18th February 2014 15.43 UTC

Every company that aspires to be responsible sets targets for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. General Motors says its manufacturing plants will reduce their carbon intensity by 20%. Wells Fargo says it will achieve a 35% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from its buildings. UPS aims to reduce airline emissions by 20%.

These global corporations recognize the reality of climate change and they are striving to become more efficient. While governments, including the US and China, the world’s two leading emitters, can’t agree on binding climate targets, it would seem as if some companies are doing their part.

Unhappily, most are not.

The trouble is, corporate climate targets are almost never based on climate science. They are not designed to do the what needs to be done – bringing global carbon emissions down to levels that will avert dangerous climate change. Instead, the corporate targets appear to be driven by internal considerations – what companies can achieve and afford, what their peers are doing, even what round numbers will fit into a headline or press release. No one promises to cut emissions by 23% by 2021.

As it turns out, some big companies are doing their part to curb climate change. An analysis of 100 global companies by two nonprofit groups, Climate Counts and the Center for Sustainable Organizations, found that 49 are on track to reduce carbon emissions “in line with scientific targets to avert dangerous climate change”. That may not sound bad – those 49 companies are emitting what the study describes as “sustainable” levels of carbon.

But the 100 companies chosen for the study were selected because they have been tracking their emissions since 2005. In other words, they are leaders when it comes to transparency for climate change. A broader universe of companies would, it’s safe to assume, under-perform this group. What’s more, just as the vast majority of the world’s big countries will need to co-operate to avert a climate crisis, so will the vast majority of the world’s big companies. Forty-nine out of 100 won’t get the job done.

The importance of context

More important than the specific findings, though, is the underlying message of the study: that the time has come for companies to set emissions targets and assess their performance through the lens of climate science. This study, as well as others, demonstrates that it’s possible to assign a company its “fair share” of global emissions, based on its economic contributions to society, and then to track whether it is doing its part to cut back.

Bill Baue and Mark McElroy of the Center for Sustainable Organizations call this approach context-based sustainability, which they define as “measuring, managing and reporting the sustainability performance of organizations that takes contextually relevant social, economic and environmental limits and demands explicitly into account”.

It sounds geeky, and it is unavoidably complicated, so Mike Bellamente, the executive director of Climate Counts, offers this analogy:

“Assessing sustainability performance without context provides a limited view of reality. It’s as if I were to tell my wife, ‘Hey, I’ve reduced my cheeseburger intake by 20% from last year’ without telling her that my doctor advised me to abstain from cheeseburgers altogether if I’m to avoid having a massive coronary by the time I’m 40.”

“We have to get companies to set science-based targets and get away from these arbitrary targets,” Bellamente told the Guardian.

To see how companies set their emissions targets, I asked a half dozen companies that ranked near the bottom of the Climate Counts analysis how they did so. The responses were revealing.

Companies that are ordinarily eager to talk about their sustainability efforts offered regrets. A spokeswoman for Dow Chemical said that “as Dow is fully engaged with the Olympics at this point, unfortunately the company will not be able to participate in this opportunity.” A P&G spokeswoman emailed: “Unfortunately, P&G is not available for this interview.” Said UPS: “Unfortunately, we’re going to have to pass on this particular story.”

Others sent explanations that raised as many questions as they answered.


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