It's the fourth day of Climate Week NYC, and the big corporate commitments keep rolling in. On Wednesday, nine Fortune 500 companies pledged to meet 100 percent of their electricity needs using renewable sources. Later that day, nine more linked up with the World Resources Institute and WWF to spur progress on renewables.
The firms -- Amazon, DuPont, Equinix, Etsy, Intuit, Microsoft, Sealed Air, Starbucks and Starwood -- signed on to the Corporate Renewable Energy Buyers’ Principles, developed by large energy buyers as a way to advance renewables and add their perspective to the future of the U.S. energy system.
But, along with going 100 percent renewable, sustainability leaders are asking politicians and the business community to consider another number: zero.
Adding to the growing momentum at Climate Week, five global companies pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. For those unfamiliar with the term, net zero refers to limiting global carbon emissions to the point where they balance the world’s ability to absorb that CO2. In the context of business supply chains, this involves measuring emissions released against emissions saved through things like renewable energy projects, reforestation and offsets. It's a goal they call bold but necessary if we are to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.
These corporate leaders hail from different sectors and span five continents. Western readers will likely recognize consumer company Unilever and international investment group Virgin, but the rest may be unfamiliar: Chinese construction company Broad Group; African telecom Econet; and Brazilian cosmetics manufacturer Natura (which some may know as the largest publicly-traded B Corp).
But these firms do have one thing in common: They're all associated with the B Team, a nonprofit launched in 2013 by Sir Richard Branson and Jochen Zeitz with the aim of doing better business for both people and planet.
These corporate pledges are part of a broader effort by the B Team to kickstart a net-zero economy. A few months after the U.N. met for COP20 in Lima, Peru, last year, the nonprofit called on world leaders to adopt an international net-zero target. Now with COP21 -- and the promise of an international climate agreement -- only a few months away, the group is doubling-down on its calls to action.
The initial trajectory laid out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) called for net zero emissions by 2070. But the panel noted that this target would still only give us a 66 percent chance of staying beneath the 2-degree threshold.
“That’s not a gamble we would take in our businesses or our personal lives – why are we risking the planet?” Richard Branson, co-founder of the B Team and founder of Virgin Group, said in a statement.
The group ultimately landed on a target year of 2050, a goal it hopes will be part of the political process at COP21, Keith Tuffley, managing partner and CEO of the B Team, told TriplePundit.
"The one thing we're really trying to get through [to COP21 delegates] is: Business requires and has been looking for an ambitious, action-oriented long-term goal out of Paris," Tuffley said. "The idea of an intellectual 2-degree threshold or a parts per-million is no longer enough. We actually know what we need to do to get there -- and we need to get to net zero."
Calling other climate action groups like RE100 and We Mean Business "key enablers" in the low-carbon transition, Tuffley said the B Team hopes early actors will spur a larger wave of corporate commitments on climate change.
It seems some already have the same idea: On Tuesday, global industrial giant Siemens announced plans to cut its carbon emissions in half by as early as 2020 and to be carbon neutral by 2030. And it's willing to shell out more than $110 million over the next three years to make it happen.
Some may be skeptical of business commitments -- and even more skeptical of general "calls-to-action" that appear to put the onus on other groups (like government or NGOs) to take action. Just this week, as firms lined up to announce their shiny new Climate Week commitments, London-based nonprofit NGO InfluenceMap released a study revealing that 45 percent of the world's largest companies actively obstruct climate legislation.
The stark contrast between the leaders and the laggards is only becoming more pronounced. Businesses at the forefront are not only recognizing climate change risks within their supply chains, but also acknowledging climate action as a business opportunity too great to ignore.
As Branson put it: "Taking bold climate action now has the potential to unleash the full power of business and lift millions of people out of poverty. We're the first generation to recognize this and the last generation to have this opportunity."
Of course, the laggards will always be close at hand -- especially in business where profit is king. Therein lies the role of government and the importance of COP21. By creating an international standard, even slow-movers will be forced to step up, if for no other reason than to maintain regulatory compliance.
"The key piece that the government can help create is a race to the top, rather than a herd languishing and waiting for leadership to appear," Tuffley told us. "Leaders throughout business are appearing anyway ... despite the lack of a very clear long-term goal at a global level.
"[But] we're hopefully giving governments the message: 'Business is operating ahead of current political consensus. So, please create certainty to let more businesses effectively create the low-carbon economy.' The more certainty they can provide on the long-term goal, the more business and investors are going to do it for themselves."
Is net zero the future? Only time will tell. But with top firms getting bullish about the benefits of climate action -- not to mention divesting from fossil fuels to the tune of $2.6 trillion -- the potholes on the road to a bold agreement in Paris seem to be filling fast.
Image credit: Flickr/David Burke