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Study: 51 of 100 Top Companies Emitting Unsustainable Levels of CO2

Mary Mazzoni headshotWords by Mary Mazzoni
Investment & Markets

If a company pledges to reduce carbon emissions by 15 percent by 2020, is that good? Better yet, is that enough? Climate Counts and the Center for Sustainable Organizations just released what they call the "world's first" science-based company rankings, aiming to answer questions like these.

The study assessed the emissions performance of 100 companies from 2005 to 2012 within the context of climate science to identify the number of companies on a sustainable emissions path. By looking at factors such as emissions output and contribution to GDP, researchers assigned a company-level carbon budget to evaluate self-reported emissions data.

Nearly half of the 100 companies analyzed rated sustainably in the study, meaning they are on track with science-based targets that seek to limit climate change to 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Autodesk, Unilever and Eli Lilly came away with the top three spots in the rating, but the list gets a bit more surprising as you move on.

While one might assume that all oil and gas companies would score unsustainably due to the nature of their products, one of the primary caveats is that only direct emissions and emissions from the purchase of electricity, heat or steam (known as Scope 1 and 2) were analyzed for this study, not indirect emissions from the supply chain and product use. This puts the likes of Chevron, BP and Halliburton above burgeoning sustainability darlings Marks & Spencer and IBM, though only two out of five oil and gas companies analyzed were rate sustainably.

Five of Fortune 500's top 10 companies appeared in the rankings, but big earners like Walmart and Amazon are notably absent, as the study is limited to companies that have voluntarily disclosed their emissions through the Carbon Disclosure Project. Also worth noting is that while it's surely appropriate to applaud companies for their efforts to reduce climate change, it will take much more to move the needle on a global scale.

New studies analyzing and forecasting energy demand in the developing world, particularly Southeast Asia, suggest that reducing global emissions enough to avert climate change may prove extremely difficult, if not impossible. Climate Counts researchers seem aware of this footnote to their rankings and wrote about it the study.

"In the seven years since Climate Counts’ inception, we’ve seen continuous improvement of scores at the micro level, while at the macro level, climate change marches on unabated, according to empirical evidence," researchers wrote.

"Mother Earth doesn’t seem to give a hoot about board-level climate committees and executive compensation linked to sustainability initiatives. What matters more is the thermodynamic reality of an atmosphere overloaded with globe-warming carbon."

Rather than a definitive ranking of the world's most sustainable companies, Climate Counts hopes the study will add another layer to sustainability measurement, "linking micro-level shifts to the necessary macro-level transformations" to "truly move the needle forward," researchers wrote.

While there's no one true ranking when it comes to corporate sustainability, customers respond well to companies that do good for both people and planet, and top earners are taking notice. According to recent research by Andrew Winston as part of the PivotGoals project, more than a quarter of the Fortune Global 200 – including Nokia, Vodafone and Coca-Cola – have set goals (purposefully or coincidentally) on par with science-based emissions reduction targets of roughly 3 percent per year until 2050 - which can only mean good things for mitigating the effects of climate change.

For more information on the methodology behind the study, check out this story on Triple Pundit detailing Climate Counts' new approach to measuring sustainability performance, called "context-based sustainability."

Image credit: Climate Counts

Based in Philadelphia, Mary Mazzoni is a freelance journalist who frequently writes about sustainability, corporate social responsibility and clean tech. Mary also contributes to Earth911; her work has appeared on the Huffington PostSustainable Brands and The Daily Meal. You can follow her on Twitter @mary_mazzoni.

Mary Mazzoni headshotMary Mazzoni

Mary Mazzoni, Senior Editor, has written for TriplePundit since 2013. She is also Managing Editor of CR Magazine and the Editor of 3p’s Sponsored Series. Mazzoni’s recent work can be found in Conscious CompanyAlterNet and VICE’s Motherboard. She is based in Philadelphia.

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