Green or greenwashed? How to weigh a company’s climate goals

With Earth Day just around the corner, it’s that time of year again when companies start handing out sustainability promises like candy. Unfortunately, some of those promises can be misleading. So,The edge spoke to sustainability experts for tips on determining whether a climate pledge is legitimate. They also shared advice on what businesses should pursue if they want to make a meaningful impact on climate change.

It’s really hard to distinguish stronger business climate commitments from weaker ones. Most companies are simply not transparent enough about what the climate obligations entail. And even if there’s fine print, it’s definitely not fun to scroll through.

“They’re not as simple as calories on a pack — we can look at two packs at the grocery store and say it has fewer calories and make a decision,” said Glen Dowell, a Cornell professor who studies corporate sustainability.

However, there are some databases that can help break things down for consumers. Dowell recommends the nonprofit CDP, formerly called the Climate Disclosure Project. CDP ranks companies with letter grades, A through D- (like in school), when it comes to their action on climate change. But that only includes about 12,000 companies that agree to participate and share their environmental data.

There is another tool called the Net Zero Tracker which rates nearly 2,000 companies with net zero pledges, which has information on some companies such as Amazon that have not made their data available through CDP. The tracker was created by research labs at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Oxford and a few environmental non-profit organizations. They even have a helpful Twitter bot last month that tweeted his assessments of environmental commitments.


Amazon climate justice workers lead a walk to company headquarters to demand leaders take action on climate change in Seattle, Washington on September 20, 2019.
Photo credit must read JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images

But some people may want to try their hand at assessing a company’s commitments for themselves. Here are just a few key points the environmentally conscious consumer should keep in mind when trying to avoid greenwashing promises:

What emissions are they targeting?

You may have recently seen a company set a goal to achieve “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions, or announce that it has become “carbon neutral”. But what do these buzzwords actually mean?

On the face of it, a net zero promise means the company won’t emit more greenhouse gases than it can offset or remove from the atmosphere. Ideally, for Alberto Carrillo Pineda, director and co-founder of the Science Based Targets initiative, that commitment includes all greenhouse gas emissions — from carbon dioxide to methane. On the other hand, carbon neutral obligations may be more limited. As “carbon” implies, these tend to focus more narrowly on zeroing just carbon dioxide emissions, although that term is often used interchangeably with “net zero.”

But there is much more to consider than definitions. Carillo Pineda’s initiative, a collaboration between several environmental organizations, including CDP, assesses corporate climate commitments, and broad, long-term goals such as aiming for “net zero” are just the beginning.

“There has certainly been an explosion of net-zero liabilities,” Carillo Pineda . said The edge† That’s a good thing, he says. “But we need to move beyond embracing net zero as a long-term ambition, and we need to translate that into tangible goals.”

What is the scope of their promise?

The next thing to look at is how comprehensive a particular promise is. Take Intel’s recent promise to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, for example. That target focuses on pollution from the company’s “global operations.” It includes emissions directly from the company’s own facilities and vehicles, as well as pollution generated from the use of electricity. In the industry these are called Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions resp. This is the pollution that companies refer to when they talk about cleaning up their ‘operations’, and it’s really only a small part of Intel’s total carbon footprint.

For most companies, experts say, the vast majority of their emissions come from their supply chains and the use of their products and services. These are called Scope 3 emissions. Intel’s Scope 3 emissions were over 10 times as big if the Scope 1 and 2 emissions combined in 2020.

The company says in its net zero Announcement that its strategy for Scope 3 emissions “focuses on partnering with suppliers and customers to take aggressive action to reduce overall emissions.” But those Scope 3 emissions, which make up the bulk of the company’s climate impact, are technically excluded from its net-zero target for 2040.

Intel is not alone. One analysis Last year’s Net Zero Tracker of some 2,000 companies found that less than a third of those with net zero commitments actually covered all scope 3 emissions.

Apple Builds Solar Projects with SunPower in China

Aerial view of SunPower Station in Hongyuan County, Sichuan Province, southwest China on June 24, 2015. The Sunpower Stations projects in Hongyuan and Zoige County are the first of Apple’s major solar projects in China.
Photo by Jie Zhao/Corbis via Getty Images

While cleaning up an entire supply chain for any business is a daunting task, there are tech giants who have taken on this task. For example, Apple is including all three scopes in its commitment to have a net-zero climate impact by 2030. Earlier this month, it announced it had pushed more than 200 of its suppliers to make Apple products using clean energy.

How do they achieve their goals?

When it comes to counting greenhouse gas emissions, there’s another accounting trick to watch out for in companies’ climate pledges. Achieving carbon neutrality or net zero emissions is essentially a balancing act. Companies can achieve that goal by a combination of preventing pollution in the first place and trying to negate the effects of that pollution on the climate after it’s already been emitted.

Relying on the later option is risky to say the least. So with any strong climate commitment, most—if not all—of the company’s emissions should be prevented in the first place. Carillo Pineda points to a analysis by the International Energy Agency showing that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by more than 90 percent by 2050 to prevent global warming from reaching catastrophic levels.

Other strategies, such as offsetting emissions from planting trees or investing in technology to reduce CO2, can play a role in tackling residual pollution. But that should serve as a last resort. Many experts say it should be reserved primarily for heavy industry that may not be able to use renewable energy to light a furnace, for example. In addition, offsets have a checkered past when it comes to their long-term carbon sequestration ability and carbon removal technologies have yet to be realized at a scale that could have a major impact on the climate. For those reasons and more, some environmentalists say ambitious climate pledges should drop the term “net” and focus on reaching zero emissions.

How fast are they going?

We have a deadline. The world is already warmed by more than a degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. We are already living with the consequences, such as more violent weather, intense fire seasons and coastlines sliding into rising seas. The Paris climate agreement obliges most countries to prevent global warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius. And to do that, according to the consensus of hundreds of leading climate scientists, the entire world must have net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century.

Taking early action is vitally important towards that global goal. Emissions should be roughly halved, or nearly by 2030 8 percent per year† For reference, that’s a bigger drop in CO2 pollution than what the world saw in 2020 when COVID-19 brought economies to a standstill. To make those cuts without a horrific global health crisis, economies will need to accelerate their transition to clean energy sources like wind and solar.

Is the company making progress?

Some companies made commitments years ago and it’s worth revisiting how they’re doing. Companies with climate goals should be held accountable for making consistent progress on a science-based timeline, says Carillo Pineda. “We need to focus on this research as the next step for companies, because just betting on net zero is not enough,” he says.

We’re already seeing companies that have made significant climate commitments selling themselves so green, even if their greenhouse gas emissions balloon. For example, Amazon pledged in 2019 to achieve net-zero carbon emissions for its operations by 2040. But the company’s carbon footprint actually increased by almost 20 percent in 2020. Apple, whose climate commitments cover broader emissions, also struggled to cut emissions last year. It relied on offsets and carbon removal to maintain its total emissions right

However, if a company doesn’t share any data on its emissions at all, that’s probably not a good sign. Sharing limited data on, for example, the environmental impact of specific products without data on what is happening across the company can also be a red flag. Suppose a brand wants to reduce the emissions of a particular product it makes by 25 percent. If it sells 30 percent more of that product than before, that profit is already wiped out, Dowell explains.

Draw conclusions

Now that you’ve had a crash course in reading a climate pledge like a pro, what can you do as a consumer? Perhaps this information can help you make decisions about the brands you choose to support with your purchases. It’s great to do your own homework before you buy, but don’t get too carried away with everything.

After all, nothing beats reducing our consumption. And companies have made that more difficult in the past by encouraging more shopping, for example by designing gadgets that can’t be easily repaired. Fortunately, progress has been made on ‘right to repair’ laws that can go a long way in reducing the environmental footprint of businesses and consumers.

That’s the kind of system change that is desperately needed to prevent a deeper climate crisis. You need the right mix of smart policies, concerned consumers and companies that want to do their part.


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