By Tom Idle — As we prepare for the cold days of winter, we might fondly recall the hot days of summer – some of the warmest on record for the season.
The warning signs were there, in a spring ‘warm up’: May was the 13th consecutive month to break global temperature figures, according to data compiled by the National Centers for Environmental Information. And autumn set or broke records for high temperatures in many locations around the globe.
And that has got scientists and academics extremely worried. Prof Stefan Rahmstorf at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research suggests the world is “catapulting…out of the Holocene, which is the geological epoch that human civilisation has been able to develop in, because of the relatively stable climate”.
Adam Scaife at the UK’s Met Office says that the spikes in surface temperature are “unprecedented” and “really stick out like a sore thumb”.
The hot weather experienced this year – which saw tarmac melting over people’s shoes in some parts of India – means 2016 will be recorded as the hottest year ever. And it has ignited much debate and commentary as to the influence that greenhouse gas emissions continue to have in fuelling climate changes – creating a threat that is no longer just applicable to the future.
The bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, flash floods across the UK and rapidly disappearing Arctic sea ice offer evidence that global warming is taking its toll already. “The impacts of human-caused climate change are no longer subtle – they are playing out, in real time, before us,” says Prof Michael Mann from Penn State University in the US. “They serve as a constant reminder now of how critical it is that we engage in the actions necessary to avert ever-more dangerous and potentially irreversible warming of the planet.”
What is currently clouding the climate debate is the fact greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are falling in many parts of the world. In Europe, for example, GHG levels are at their lowest since 1990, dropping 4.1% in 2014 and sitting almost 25% lowered than 1990 figures, according to European Environment Agency data. Clearly, the growing share in the use of renewables, the use of less carbon intensive fuels and improvements in energy efficiency, are helping to stem the tide.
But with much of the damage already done and many regions failing to curb their GHG output – China’s emissions increased by 0.5% in 2014 despite closing many coal plants, according to the Oslo-based Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – the science might be against us.
Bold New Alliance
At the heart of this debate is a business community, encouraged by a robust Paris Agreement that establishes national targets to reduce GHGs, and under increasing pressure to find ways of producing goods and services and transporting them that has a lower carbon footprint.
And a group of leaders have emerged, establishing goals to de-carbonise their processes and cut their reliance on dirty fossil fuels entirely. There is so much demand from corporates looking to buy green energy right now, it could ‘rock the grid’ in the US.
Now, a bold new alliance of businesses has emerged, keen to revise their carbon-cutting goals in a way that has the greatest impact on the planet. More than 150 companies have committed to science-based targets which, if met, will keep the world on course to keep global warming well within the 2°C limit, as outlined by the UN’s Fifth Assessment report.
The likes of Ben & Jerry’s, Carrefour, Honda, GlaxoSmithKline and BT have promised to establish such targets using the UN Global Compact’s initiative – known simply as Science Based Targets – as a framework. Among the companies that have already done so are Dell, General Mills and Sony.
The food company General Mills, for example, has promised to reduce absolute emissions by 28% across its entire value chain – from farm to fork to landfill by 2025, using a 2010 base-year. Sony has set both short-term (to reduce GHG emissions from its operations by 42% by 2020) and long-term (to reduce its environmental footprint to zero by 2050, requiring a 90% reduction in emissions) targets.
Using models and factors developed by the UN initiative, companies can examine things like their global gross domestic product to explore what they should include in calculating their actual and projected emissions over time, and steps to reduce them. They can choose from seven target-setting methods, designed to allow flexibility depending on the realities of specific industries.
The initiative then reviews and approves the targets set by participating companies, which have two years after signing up to come up with a game plan. The alliance of companies can also use the platform to share ideas and learn from one another – whether it’s BT’s Carbon Stabilization Intensity target work, or Mars’ Planetary Boundaries modelling work.
“In the past, companies would set targets without the necessary information or a solid point of reference,” says Galya Tsonkova, the environment manager for Coca-Cola HBC, another of the companies committed to the initiative. “They would just pick a round figure and aim for cuts of 20, 30, 40 percent, with no further justification, other than generic aspirations.
“Now, we have a target that is approved by external, credible experts, verified through relevant scientific methodology. That makes a big difference, both for external stakeholders, as well as to our management.”
Cynthia Cummis, deputy director of the GHG protocol at the World Resources Institute (WRI), one of the initiative’s partners, believes that science-based targets are quickly becoming the “litmus test used to determine whether a company’s climate action plan is credible”.
“Companies with cautious targets tend to pursue low-hanging-fruit energy efficiency upgrades. They may cut emissions, but they will ultimately remain carbon-dependent,” she says.
Start of the Journey, Not the End
Of course, setting ambitious targets is one thing, meeting them is quite another and whether companies are able to meet these bold, new voluntary targets remains to be seen. NGOs and campaigners will no doubt continue to put pressure on companies reporting poor carbon performance and missed targets, however ambitious.
As Aditi Sen, a climate policy advisor at Oxfam America, points out: “The pace at which climate science is evolving [means] current methods of science-based target setting represent the beginning of the journey and not the end.”
She points to the fact the tools for setting such targets do not account for the lower 1.5 degree Celsius threshold adopted at COP21 last December.
As recent weather events evidence, time is running out in the fight to put the brakes on the most dangerous impacts of climate change and the world’s carbon budget is constantly shrinking. The situation demands innovation. And strong, climate-based targets might just stimulate creative new ways of doing business even further