If you are truly looking for ways to maintain or establish your company as a leader in sustainability, and to minimize backlash from critical stakeholder groups, get thee to a 1.5°C science-based target as soon as you can.
We feel compelled to address two questions that we’re both being asked on a regular basis by companies looking to set or update their climate targets*: Is a ‘net-zero emissions by 2050’ commitment worthy of being labeled ‘climate leadership’? Are targets consistent with 2°C warming good enough?*
Both ‘net-zero by 2050’ and 2°C targets are associated with science-based targets-setting, yet both have generated a certain amount of controversy — and for good reasons. Allow us to tackle them one at a time, starting with ‘net-zero emissions by 2050,’ and going over the most important nuances to keep in mind.
There is a fast-growing wave of brands issuing commitments to eliminate or offset all of their carbon emissions (achieve net zero) by 2050. It’s worthy work — any progress that companies make towards being more sustainable is to be applauded and celebrated. We also recognize that many other companies are now feeling peer pressure to join this shiny, feel-good ‘net-zero by 2050’ club — and that kind of productive, good-for-humanity peer pressure is something to appreciate and be grateful for, too.
At the same time, it’s a trend. Sustainability trends at best can be a rallying cry with legitimate impacts; at mediocre, they can be a distraction; and at shallow, they can even border on greenwashing.
When specifically do ‘net-zero emissions by 2050’ commitments appear shallow or bordering on greenwashing, you ask? The answer is simple and straightforward: When the path between now and 2050 is vague or altogether missing; or when there’s a detailed path, but it’s heavily reliant on steep cuts in the last decade to decade-and-a-half before 2050. ‘Net zero’ risks giving us the concept of ‘time’ that we don’t actually have. Basically, to follow the latest climate science, you have to focus on achieving as much reduction as possible, as soon as possible — including, very specifically, the equivalent of a reduction of 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030. Thus, the quality of any ‘net-zero by 2050’ commitment depends heavily on what happens in the next 9 years or so. That is precisely why the United Nations heralded 2020 as the beginning of the #DecadeOfAction.
Now, let’s look at 2°C targets. Of the 1,200+ companies that have set science-based climate targets verified by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), the majority are based on allowing 2°C warming. Only about a third of those 1,200+ commitments (410 companies as of March 2, 2021) have been based on keeping warming to 1.5°C. It’s important to note that the SBTi was fine with 2°C for a long time, but that changed with the IPCC guidance issued in late 2018. SBTi is now encouraging companies toward ‘limiting global warming to well-below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C’.In 2019, it launched a special campaign to highlight this pivot — the ‘Business Ambition for 1.5°C’. Within that campaign, and increasingly so elsewhere as well, a 1.5°C future is referred to as #OurOnlyFuture — which tells us all we need to know at this point.
The trouble with allowing 2°C warming is that it carries seriously catastrophic effects for life on earth. The most recent 2018 IPCC report highlights a number of negative impacts that would be avoided by limiting global warming to 1.5°C, compared to 2°C. For examples:
- By 2100, global sea level rise would be 10 cm lower with global warming of 1.5°C, compared to 2°C.
- The probability of an Arctic Ocean free of sea ice in summer would be ‘once per century’ with warming of 1.5°C, compared to ‘at least once per decade’ with 2°C.
- Coral reefs would decline by 70-90 percent with warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all coral reefs would be gone with 2°C.
To be fair, 1.5°C warming still gives us huge migrations of people and mass extinctions of animals; but with 2°C warming, everything is much worse: Insect loss would be 3 times worse, heat events 2.6 times worse, plant and vertebrae loss 2 times worse, and decline in marine fisheries 2 times worse. 2°C warming means parts of New York and Florida will likely need to be abandoned, and large parts of the tropics will see mass evacuations. In summary, planning for climate change at 2°C is inadequate, and results in longer-lasting and irreversible changes.
‘Net-zero emissions by 2050’ and ‘2°C warming’ pledges may create some immediate gratification and feel-good glow for employees and shareholders; but if we really are living in a multi-stakeholder environment now, we need to include nature, biodiversity and future human generations in the stakeholders we serve today.
So, if you are truly looking for ways to maintain or establish your company as a leader in sustainability, to minimize the risk of activist campaigns against you, and to avoid future potential consumer boycotts of your products or services, get thee to a 1.5°C science-based target just as soon as you can. Yes, it will be hard. Yes, it will be messy. Yes, it will necessitate difficult conversations internally about the true purpose of your business. Yes, it is the last, best chance we have of making it through the climate crisis — not so that your grandchildren might thrive, but so that your children will survive.
DIMITAR VLAHOV & ETIENNE WHITE