Easy targets

UnknownHow do companies set their climate reduction targets?

I wondered about that after reading an analysis of 100 global companies that was published last year by Climate Counts and the Center for Sustainable Organizations. The companies had all been measuring and reporting on their global greenhouse gas emissions at least since 2005. In that regard, they are climate leaders, at least in terms of their transparency. Yet the study found that only 49 of the 100 companies are on track to reduce carbon emissions “in line with scientific targets to avert dangerous climate change.”

Companies, it would seem, are setting climate targets, meeting them and yet not doing enough. Could there be  something wrong with their targets?

That’s the topic of my story that was posted today on Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

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 companies are doing their part.

Unhappily, most are not.

The trouble is, corporate climate targets are almost never based on climate science. That is, they are not designed to do the job that 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 percent by 2021.

The story goes on to chronicle my efforts to get companies to explain how and why they set their targets–a question that led mostly to answers like “sorry, we’d rather not discuss that,” even from companies that are ordinarily more than ready to promote their green good works.

What this points to is the need for what some advocates are calling “context-based sustainability,” that is, setting targets that are shaped by science-based thresholds. Want to know more? Read the story, here.


  1. says

    Excellent concept! At Nestlé we believe that you can only create value for shareholders over the long term if you create value for society at large. We therefore aim to establish targets – and measure our impacts – against societal norms, including those informed by science. Even though we are a top scorer in CDP on climate change, we are most advanced in the area of water where the context is defined by the level of water scarcity in the different watersheds we operate. For each of our 465 factories we have assigned a water scarcity score, which in turn defines our water use reduction targets and investment levels. This may lead over time to “zero water withdrawal” factories in the most water-constrained areas. We are now exploring ways to apply the Climate Counts / CSO concept, and related emerging methologies such as the “Natural Capital Leaders index” developed by Trucost, to other important environmental impacts such as greenhouse gases and deforestation.

  2. says

    Thanks, Marc, for your attention to this important point. I have also written about this approach for CSRwire: In an in-depth conversation I had with Climate Counts director Mike Bellamente (http://www.csrwire.com/blog/posts/1156-in-new-science-based-approach-climate-counts-ranks-the-top-100-companies-on-sustainability); in an article about how one company is applying context-based sustainability metrics (http://www.csrwire.com/blog/posts/522-practicing-deep-sustainability-cabot-creamery-context-based-sustainability-metrics) and in another article on how this method could improve the IIRC Integrated Reporting Framework (http://www.csrwire.com/blog/posts/952-the-iirc-integrated-reporting-framework-context-based-sustainability-a-conversation-with-bill-baue). So thanks so much for opening up this conversation to more readers.

  3. Ed Reid says

    One might as easily ask: “How do governments set their climate reduction targets?”; or, “How does the global community set its climate reduction targets?”

    One might also ask why we have any interest in “climate reduction”.

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