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Amy Brown headshot

Why It Makes Sense for Companies to Scale Back Unrealistic Net-Zero Targets

With growing evidence that nearly all companies will miss their net-zero targets unless they double emissions-reduction rates, some companies are biting the bullet and revising their targets. But is that necessarily a bad thing?
By Amy Brown
limate protester holding sign that says act now or swim later - net-zero emissions

Demonstrators at the 2020 March for Science in New York City. (Image: Chris Boese/Unsplash)

With growing evidence that nearly all companies will miss their net-zero targets unless they double emissions-reduction rates, some companies are biting the bullet and revising their targets. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the new goals  are backed by action.

Comfort shoe manufacturer Crocs drew attention for pushing back its commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030, after its emissions increased by more than 45 percent last year compared to a year earlier. The company now aims to reach net-zero by 2040 instead. Oil giant BP also recently lowered its 2030 emissions reduction goal, from a range of 35 percent to 40 percent in the initial target to 20 percent to 30 percent as of February

These companies are not outliers. More than 60 percent of the companies surveyed in a 2022 Accenture report have set targets far into the future or have no clear target date.

Coming clean on out-of-reach net-zero targets is a likely situation for many more companies as they get closer to 2030 or 2040 milestones on reducing their greenhouse gas emissions in line with global agreements to limit climate change. There are many reasons why companies might revise their targets — for example, a mismatch of ambition with the reality on the ground and slower-than-expected progress, or more accurate carbon accounting.

Ultimately, net-zero targets are only as good as their implementation plans. 

Investors want transparency 

The good news is that more companies are aiming for net-zero, even if they haven’t discovered the best path to get there. “Net-zero commitments now cover one-fifth of the world’s largest corporations and 68 percent of global GDP, compared to 16 percent in 2019,” according to the World Resources Institute.  

Setting net-zero targets can be tricky, as Crocs and other companies have discovered. There is no standardized approach for setting a net-zero target, leading to a lack of transparency on the scope and boundary of the targets and how organizations will reach them. From that perspective, companies owning up to a target that can’t be met isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  

"Many companies, even some of the leaders, are seeing gaps between where they can go with current strategies and initiatives and where they need to get to,” Meryl Richards, director of food and forest at the sustainability nonprofit Ceres, told TriplePundit. 

Some companies have opted to set ambitious targets and figure out how to meet them as they go, while others prefer to know exactly how they will get there before making a commitment, Richards said. “I don't think one is necessarily more valid than the other. We need companies that are comfortable getting out in front and being leaders and setting the standard and encourage that ambition."  

Given the need for ambition in the short term, she doesn’t think it’s a terrible thing for companies to adjust course as they go — as long as they stay on track to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. "What investors are looking for is transparency around why a company had to adjust its net-zero strategy,” she said.

What would cause concern is if a company had to continually readjust its targets because it was experiencing growth. “That's where the forward-looking strategy is really needed to plan how you're going to integrate your emissions reduction strategy with that growth," she explained. 

Why companies need a climate transition action plan

All of this trial and error is why investors want to see climate transition action plans, Richards said. “What investors are looking for [are] ambitious, science-based targets for companies to reduce their own emissions and an action-oriented plan for how to get there."

Climate transition action plans, also known as transition plans, clearly define how companies will take action in the near-term to meet the long-term goals necessary to limit global warming. In 2022, Ceres, the We Mean Business Coalition, CDP, the Environmental Defense Fund and Ramboll Consulting created a framework to help companies create and implement these transition plans. 

Defining a clear path forward with transition planning can help to avoid a “scenario as we had with 2020 deforestation targets, where a number of companies committed to zero deforestation by 2020 and none of them met that goal because they didn't have implementation plans,” Richards said. “It was a target with no plan behind it.”

Yet a recent Ceres study indicates those lessons are not yet being applied to net-zero targets. In a March assessment of 50 large food companies, Ceres found only 27 had plans in place to reduce their Scope 3, or value chain, emissions. None of them hit all the marks for climate transition planning in their disclosures, according to the analysis. 

How to ensure real net-zero progress

Along with setting science-based targets, companies need to integrate their climate strategy across every aspect of their operations to ensure realistic progress toward those targets, Richards said. 

“For example, when we get on a call with a company to discuss a climate transition action plan, and they’ve got representation from procurement, [research and development] and sustainability, we know they’re serious about it,” she said. “The leading companies are getting granular about their sources of emissions," and they're transparent about gaps and how they will bridge them.

“Along the way, companies also discover opportunities like meeting consumer preferences for lower-emissions products,” she said. “Having the right plan in place is what will help companies avoid 2029 backpedaling.”    

Image credit: Chris Boese/Unsplash

Amy Brown headshot

Based in Florida, Amy has covered sustainability for over 25 years, including for TriplePundit, Reuters Sustainable Business and Ethical Corporation Magazine. She also writes sustainability reports and thought leadership for companies. She is the ghostwriter for Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Industry and the World. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn and her Substack newsletter focused on gray divorce, caregiving and other cultural topics.

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