From Nestle to Nike: Will the private sector deliver on climate?

Report says 285 companies are meeting ‘science-based targets’ by cutting 265 million tonnes of emissions.

SBTi companies
Companies have been increasing their commitments to and their targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions [Science Based Targets initiative]

A long list of 285 companies – with combined greenhouse gas pollution that totals more than that of France and Spain put together – have committed to cutting 265 million tonnes of emissions.

The step is equivalent to closing 68 coal-fired power plants and conforms with the 2015 Paris Agreement, reducing emissions by 35 percent compared to the base year.

A new report on corporate action to reverse climate change published on Wednesday by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) says that the efforts of these 285 companies show that a solid chunk of multinational firms – including McDonald’s, Microsoft, Nestle and Nike – are moving the needle. 

Arising from a 2015 collaboration among environmental groups, “science-based” implies that climate-change commitments are aligned with what scientists say would limit global warming to two degrees Celsius.

“Every company in every sector must step up and reduce their emissions in line with what science says is needed, or risk being left behind in a changing world,” said Alexander Farsan, global lead for science-based targets at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), one of the SBTi partners.

“These companies are at the vanguard in the fight against climate change,” Farsan said. “They are proof that acting on climate science goes hand in hand with a successful business and economy.”

The SBTi – which also includes the United Nations Global Compact, the World Resources Institute and CDP – aims to mobilise companies to boost their competitive advantage in transitioning to a low-carbon reality.

Using ‘brand equity’

Farsan said that a diverse range of factors is driving the broad coalition of progressive businesses to take leadership on sustainability.

“All types of network effects are kicking in,” he told Al Jazeera. “They understand that stakeholders expect these targets.”

“It’s very difficult to be satisfied while we still see emissions go up globally [in 2019],” Farsan said. “But it’s really encouraging to see that this idea has become the de facto standard for what climate goals look like.”

SBTi sectors
SBTi sectors range from the automotive and chemical industries to maritime transportation and power generation [Science Based Targets initiative]

For the nearly 300 firms included in the report – from Toyota and Tesla to Coca-Cola and PepsiCo – $18bn is expected to be spent on climate change mitigation, with investment in some 90 terawatt hours of annual renewable energy.

The companies range from the apparel and biotechnology sectors to healthcare and hospitality. Firms from high-emitting industries such as cement and steel are also represented.

Momentum has grown, with pressure on top management from investors, activists and some government officials. But the impetus is mostly from the private sector, with Japan as the first notable country to give explicit government backing to science-based targets.

Business action can stimulate the public sector to enact more far-reaching regulation and accelerate the process. Meanwhile, companies have two years to turn commitments into targets for the SBTi to validate.

Some corporations consider climate to be at the front and centre of their operational decision-making, describing it as a core part of business strategy and competitiveness.

“Regulation creates pressure; markets are changing,” Daniel Schleifer, the senior sustainability manager at industrial conglomerate Thyssenkrupp AG, said in the report. “We need to take into account long-term risks and opportunities.”

Virginia Rustique-Petteni, senior director of engagement for global sustainability at Nike Inc, said that “consumers want us to show we are a sustainable business”.

“It’s about what we do, say and how we behave – but also what we make and how we make it,” she added. “We need to be part of the conversation, and use our global reach and brand equity to galvanise.”

‘Commit to decarbonisation’

But as world leaders continue climate discussions in Madrid at the December 2-13 COP25 gathering, government action is still seen as indispensable.

Henrik Sundstrom, vice president of sustainability at Swedish company Electrolux, said that politicians need to act.

“Ultimately, we are dependent upon decarbonising the grid,” he said. “We can play our part by creating demand for renewables, but governments need to commit to decarbonisation.”

Among the companies in the initiative, most seem to agree that change will take place simultaneously within individual corporations, across industries and throughout the whole economy.

However, the consensus remains that political leaders have the last word on how this ultimately occurs.

“None of us can deliver on the Paris Agreement without significant changes to government policy,” said Jeff Turner, the vice president of sustainability at Dutch health and nutrition multinational Royal DSM.

“Even the more progressive companies like ours know we are not going to get where we need to unless the key policies are broadly in place, starting with a meaningful price on carbon,” he added. “The whole sector and the actors in our supply chain need to be lifted up, and that will only happen with legislation.”

Source: Al Jazeera