The 4 Types of Net Zero Commitments
The United Nations has bestowed upon humanity an ultimatum: collaborate together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible (net zero) by 2050, or face the consequences of an unlivable planet. Gulp.
And yes, it’s important but the bottom line is reaching global net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 isn’t going to “save us all.” Still, it’s an essential guiding light in helping us reduce emissions as quickly as possible.
Everyone should understand net zero commitments since everyone has a role to play, including everyday individuals who should keep those most responsible for the climate crisis accountable.
Who is responsible, you ask? A select few countries and large companies.
“The top three greenhouse gas emitters — China, the European Union and the United States — contribute 41.5% of total global emissions, while the bottom 100 countries only account for only 3.6%," according to the World Resources Institute.
“In 2014, researcher Richard Heede found that over 60% of cumulative global emissions could be attributed to just 90 global ‘carbon majors’. More recently, a CDP analysis revealed that since 1988, 70% of global emissions can be traced to just 100 firms.” - Net Zero Tracker
And it’s no secret that two things have become more mainstream in the past month: despising Kanye West and setting net zero commitments.
According to Net Zero Tracker, as of October 2022, more than one-third (790) of the world’s 2,000 largest listed companies (by annual revenue) has a net zero target of some kind. Additionally, the larger the company is and the more public a company is, the larger likelihood it is that they’ve pledged net zero or similar target.
But not all net zero commitments are made equal. And in the spirit of keeping organizations accountable and also supporting them in joining the global effort to achieve net zero by 2050, I have outlined four types of net zero commitments I’ve noticed as a sustainability professional.
I get cheeky with it but at the end of the day, I’ve curated them to educate on what’s out there so that no matter what your stake is in this collaborative call to action, you’re better informed.
1. The Not Zero Net Zero Commitment
The essence of a “not zero” commitment is one that claims they’re going to reach net zero emissions but plans to do nothing in the short-term to actually reduce emissions other than perhaps buying some offsets (tree planting usually) for a small scope of their emissions.
Image Courtesy of Climate Action Navigator
An energy company, for example, can claim zero emissions by offsetting the emissions from their “direct operations” or scope 1, without even considering the downstream polluting destruction of burning gasoline and natural gas.
In essence, a “not zero” commitment doesn't do anything to change its actual operations and is banking on offsets and perhaps a carbon capture technology in the future that they can throw money at last minute. Those who create not zero commitments are often intentionally profiting off a “green image” without making any meaningful action.
2. The Grower Not a Shower Net Zero Commitment
This type of commitment showcases a transparent and science-based (or at the very least data-based) net zero commitment across usually scope 1 and 2, but has not yet shared a clear roadmap of how they’re going to get there. This type of commitment may include some proof points of ways they’ve evolved their operations, but the “how” they’re going to reach the scale of net zero is vague or nonexistent. Given that the “how” in reducing emissions is complex enough, it is going to take time for this commitment to really feel comprehensive.
3. The Tricky Scope 3 Net Zero Commitment
The tricky scope 3 emissions which account for other sources outside the “value chain” like transport of the products, account for the largest share of most companies’ GHG emissions, and investors report that scope 3 estimates are useful for informing their financial decisions. It is in-part due to these facts that everybody’s favorite regulatory agency, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently proposed a rule that would require publicly traded companies to disclose climate-related financial information including scope 3 emissions which did it’s job of making many sustainability professionals stomachs churn. Although of latest, the SEC might be softening this rule a bit.
Companies and organizations that not only include scope 3 emissions in their net zero commitment but have already started partnering with the folks along their value chain to start reducing emissions TOGETHER are ahead of the game. The “tricky scope 3 net zero commitment” I’m defining by this ambition, but also for general transparency and a plan for achieving net zero outside of offsets. Companies who have this type of net zero commitment are large and obviously more future-facing and strategic.
Does this mean it’s perfect and that they’ll definitely reach it? NO. But it’s sustainability. Nothing is perfect and nothing goes exactly to plan.
4. The Never(?) Zero Net Zero Commitment
A repeat of a statistic you perhaps skimmed over earlier - more than one-third (790) of the world’s 2,000 largest listed companies (by annual revenue) has a net zero target of some kind. That’s not a lot.
There are a ton of large companies who haven’t even bothered to make a basic commitment to reach net zero or even reduce emissions. It’s not to say that they aren’t scrambling to do so now.
There are thousands of companies signing up to net zero but it takes time to get right. Delivering on a net zero commitment longer requires a fundamental rethink of how business works, and figuring out what emissions targets to even set in the first place require expertise and external verification from organizations like the Science Based Targets Initiative.
Given that I am hopeful and a bit of an optimist (you have to be one to some extent to be in sustainability), I think collaboration is more important than ever in reaching net zero and helping those behind us reach the finish line with us.
I invite you to reflect on these types of commitments and think about the role you play. And next time you see or set a net zero commitment, maybe you’ll be able to categorise it and think more holistically about its function.