Giving Compass' Take:

• Emily Pontecorvo discusses the Science Based Targets initiative to make a net-zero pledge gold standard that incorporates all of the elements of a meaningful program. 

• What role can donors, investors, and businesses play in encouraging CSR plans,  including net-zero pledges, that are meaningful?

• Learn about sustainable investing.

The past year has seen an explosion in the number of companies announcing they are now “net-zero” or “carbon neutral,” or at least plan to be in the next 30 years. Unilever, Uber, and Facebook are just a few of the recent additions to the club, and even major oil companies like BP and Shell say they are on board. If you’re rolling your eyes and thinking this is just the latest PR stunt, you’re not wrong — if you read the fine print, companies have defined those terms for themselves in a number of different, and often not very meaningful, ways.

But you’re also not entirely right, because “net-zero” is more specific than “sustainable” or “eco-friendly.” It’s measurable, at least in theory. At the most basic level, net-zero means that a company (or state, or country) has reached a point where it doesn’t put any more carbon into the atmosphere than it takes out. And it’s a crucial metric for staving off the most catastrophic effects of climate change. In 2018, a groundbreaking report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the world’s best chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C over pre-industrial levels is by cutting emissions nearly in half by 2030 and zero-ing out the rest by 2050. If every company has a different idea about what net-zero means and how to get there, that chance could soon slip out of reach.

New efforts are emerging to try to vet these claims and make them easier for people to understand. Last week, the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), a collaboration between several major international environmental nonprofits that helps companies align their emissions reduction goals with the Paris Agreement, announced they planned to create a global standard for corporate net-zero pledges.

Net-zero plans can include cutting emissions by improving energy efficiency or switching to renewable energy. For most companies, it also involves purchasing carbon offsets or investing in carbon removal to “neutralize” any remaining emissions. That may take the form of sequestering carbon in trees and soil; carrying out projects that lead to “avoided” emissions, like capturing methane from a landfill; or using machines to suck CO2 directly from the air. But while net-zero may sound like a simple calculation of inputs and outputs, companies are twisting the math in a few common ways that SBTi is aiming to address.

The emissions companies are ignoring
One common shortcoming with corporate pledges, Pineda said, is that they don’t account for all the emissions the company is responsible for. For example, Google has been “carbon neutral” since 2007, but that label only applies to the company’s offices, data centers, and employees’ commutes and business travel. Those activities make up just 27 percent of Google’s annual contribution to climate change, according to data the company disclosed to CDP in 2019.

Reducing is more important than offsetting
An even more common failure of net-zero pledges is that companies focus on going “carbon neutral” without planning to make deep cuts to their emissions. It can be a lot easier, and cheaper, for companies to simply purchase carbon offsets than to make changes to their products, operations, and supply chains. But Pineda said that models for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C show that simply compensating for emissions, without reducing them, is dangerous.

Read the full article about a meaningful a net-zero pledge by Emily Pontecorvo at Grist.