As with virtually all gatherings of the climate community during the COVID age, this year’s Climate Week was convened as an online event — one hosted from more than 20 countries across myriad time zones rather than its usual host city of New York.
Instead of running between Manhattan locations, attendees platform-hopped among more than 450 presentations, panels, screenings and other events, including those hosted by the World Economic Forum and the United Nations, while iconic structures such as the Empire State Building turned their lights green to recognize the urgency of the climate crisis.
As is their wont, many companies used the occasion to proclaim updated commitments — the buzzword du la semaine was "net-zero" with Walmart declaring a zero-emissions target by 2040 along with a big clean fleet promise and a pledge to "protect, manage or restore" at least 50 million acres of land and 1 million square miles of ocean by 2030. GE made headlines with its decision to stop making equipment for new coal-fired power plants to focus on its renewables business (although it doesn’t say anything about fixing the old ones).
More than 1,500 companies are committed to net-zero emissions, triple the number that had made those pledges by the end of 2019. Morgan Stanley offered its own twist with a promise to reach "net-zero financed emissions" by the critical 2050 timeframe. The intention is to align its portfolio with the goals of the Paris Agreement. (Morgan Stanley, along with Bank of America and Citigroup, has agreed to deeper disclosure.) In other words, stop financing the emitting stuff, as it has been criticized for in the past.
The biggest national-level news of the week came out of the United Nations General Assembly, where Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that the country aims to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. Given the country’s status as the world’s largest emitter, the development is essential for progress against climate change.
While words aren’t action, the commitment stands in sharp contrast with the extensive environmental protection rollbacks adopted by the Trump administration, which has announced its plan to pull out of the Paris climate accord.
At the state level, California Gov. Gavin Newsom put the transportation industry on notice with his executive order banning new gasoline-powered vehicles after 2035. Newsom also was named to a two-year term as co-chair of the Under2 Coalition, a network of states and regions looking to integrate the Paris Agreement goals with a mind to social justice.
And the mayors of 12 cities — representing 36 million residents — announced their plans to divest from fossil fuels. Among the signatories to the C40 campaign: Berlin, Bristol, Cape Town, Durban, London, Los Angeles, Milan, New Orleans, New York City, Oslo, Pittsburgh and Vancouver.
Throughout the week the heightened attention to supporting nature and biodiversity and to going beyond carbon emissions reductions was also a frequent theme — with a particular focus on the role of science-based targets in driving corporate action.
The Science Based Targets Network has created new guidance for companies interested in setting goals for land and freshwater use, biodiversity or ecosystem impacts using science-based principles, as many are doing to set emissions reduction targets.
"The best companies in the world are no longer satisfied with ‘doing better’," said Andrew Steer, president and CEO of World Resources Institute, in a statement. "They insist on ‘doing enough’. That’s what science-based targets provide them."
Wondering what you missed from your home office? Below is a curated list of notable corporate commitments and campaign updates that emerged during Climate Week.
Accounting bigwigs suggest ‘universal’ ESG metrics
Four iconic accounting firms — Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC — teamed up with Bank of America to develop and release a set of standard metrics and disclosure frameworks that companies can use to report on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues.
The new guidance, released by the World Economic Forum as part of the Sustainable Development Impact Summit, focuses on four pillars:
- Treatment of employees, including diversity, wage gaps, and health and safety
- Dependencies on the natural environment related to emissions, land and water use
- How a company contributes to community well-being, including what it pays in taxes
- Criteria for accountability
Amazon signs more Climate Pledgers, curates sustainable products shopping site
Five more companies have signed the Climate Pledge, an initiative orchestrated by Amazon and Global Optimism: retailer Best Buy; engineering firm McKinstry; professional sports club Real Betis; energy firm Schneider Electric; and manufacturer Siemens.
This gesture commits them to reaching a net-zero carbon footprint by 2040, one decade before the deadline for the Paris Agreement.
The mighty e-commerce retailer also created a new "Climate Pledge Friendly" shopping section on Amazon.com dedicated to showcasing consumer products that hold one or more of 19 sustainability certifications such as Cradle to Cradle, Energy Star and Fairtrade.
The focus is on grocery, household, fashion, beauty and consumer electronics options — and some initial brands showcased are Burt’s Bees Baby, HP Inc. and Seventh Generation. Amazon also created its own externally validated certification, Compact by Design, which will recognize products designed to require less packaging, which makes them more efficient to ship.
Jenny Ahlen, director of EDF+Business, praised Amazon’s new strategy but said it doesn’t go far enough.
"Certifications are a good starting point for companies to help shoppers make more informed and sustainable choices," she wrote in a blog about the announcement. "But to truly make progress on creating safer, more sustainable products, retailers — Amazon included — need to work with their suppliers to improve the quality of all the products they sell and share that information with shoppers. Calling out a small portion of products that have met environmental standards isn’t enough."
Climate Group tallies up more members for RE100, EP100
Beverage and snack company PepsiCo set a new global target to source 100 percent of its electricity for company-owned and controlled operations using renewable power by 2030, and across its entire franchise by 2040. (It expects to reach this goal for its U.S. operations by the end of this year.) This move could result in the equivalent of removing 2.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
Meanwhile, pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca amped up its renewable energy with a deeper commitment to addressing industrial heat by joining the Renewable Thermal Collaborative, dedicated to decarbonizing tough-to-abate manufacturing and production processes. Currently, 13 percent of AstraZeneca’s power load comes from combined heat and power, and the company has committed to identifying renewable alternatives by 2025.
Two energy-centric campaigns managed by the Climate Group welcomed new members this week. The EP100 initiative, which encourages companies to commit to higher levels of productivity and revenue while using less energy, has more than 100 members, with Japan’s Daito Trust Construction among the latest joiners. The RE100, which represents more than 260 companies committed to using 100 percent renewable power, added new signatories including Intel, ASICS (the apparel company), pharma firm Sanofi and manufacturers SKF and VELUX.
Formidable food purveyors forsake food waste
A group of powerful food retailers including Kroger, Tesco and Walmart and food service company Sodexo created the "10x20x30" initiative, which commits them to convincing at least 10 of their suppliers to halving food waste and loss by 2030.
The effort is part of Champions 12.3, a group focused on addressing the challenge of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, which calls for a 50 percent reduction in food loss and waste by the end of this decade.
One example of the actions we might see as a result is Walmart’s move to source cucumbers that use a coating provided by startup Apeel that extends their shelf life through a natural coating that extends shelf life.
"Cutting food loss and waste in half — from farm to fork — by 2030 will require ambitious, collection action," said Jane Ewing, senior vice president of sustainability for Walmart, in a statement. "The 10x20x30 initiative is accelerating progress by aligning and training shareholders across the industry on how to dramatically reduce food waste."
IKEA, Unilever, others bring 1.5 Celsius mindset to supply chains
The Exponential Roadmap Initiative in Stockholm launched the 1.5 Degrees Supply Chain Leaders initiative, a group of multinational companies that have set targets to halve their absolute GHG emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions across their supply chains by 2050 — in line with the ambitions of the Paris Agreement.
Initial supporters include BT Group, Ericsson, IKEA, Telia and Unilever. Among the commitments is making climate-related targets and performance a “key supplier purchasing criteria” by this time next year.
"To tackle the climate challenge, it is not enough for us to collaborate with the big global suppliers," said Mikko Kuusisto, senior director of strategic sourcing for Telia, in a statement. "We need to engage also with the smaller, more local and often nonlisted companies to get them to commit to halving their emissions by 2030."
To help facilitate that transition, the Exponential Roadmap Initiative teamed up with the International Chamber of Commerce, the We Mean Business coalition and the United Nations Race to Zero Campaign to create the SME Climate Hub. The website will provide a set of resources intended to help smaller suppliers take these steps, including measurement tools, best practices frameworks and services.
Mars, Carrefour giants cultivate new coalition for forests
The Forest Positive Coalition of Action, which includes close to 20 companies with a collective market value of $1.8 trillion, is a CEO-level group under the umbrella of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) vowing to address key commodity supply chains that often contribute to deforestation.
Among the actions they are advocating include joining forces for forest conservation in "key production landscapes," policy initiatives and regular reporting.
Aside from sponsors Mars and Carrefour, the list of participants includes Colgate-Palmolive, Danone, Danone, Essity, General Mills, Grupo Bimbo, Jerónimo Martins, METRO AG, Mondelēz, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Sainsbury's, Tesco, Unilever and Walmart.
The launch was greeted with skepticism by environmental NGOs including the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), SumofUs, Friends of the Earth U.S. and Amazon Watch, which notes that the involved companies so far have fallen short on deforestation commitments and on protecting the rights of Indigenous people.
"We’ve see 10 years of inaction, half-measures and greenwashing from the CGF, while human rights defenders and frontline communities have been putting their lives on the line to defend forests from rampant corporate expansion," said Brihannala Morgan, senior forest campaigner at RAN, in a statement.
Microsoft shares ‘positive’ vibes for water
Building on its "carbon negative" pledge in January, a goal that will see it remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it historically has emitted, Microsoft is applying that same mindset to its water strategy. Only in reverse.
Its new commitment will see it reduce the per-megawatt consumption of water related to the energy that powers its operations and also focus on water replenishment in 40 "stressed" regions in which it operates. The goal is to replenish more water than it uses by 2030. That will inspire measures such as:
- Wetland restoration
- Removal of impervious pavement
- Installation of on-site rainwater collection and water recycling systems across its newest offices, including the new Silicon Valley campus, the redesign at its central campus in the Seattle area and facilities in India and Israel
- A heightened focus on evaporative and "adiabatic" (outside air) cooling technologies for its data centers
- AI for Earth technologies, such as a project called Vector Center, for helping measure water risk and scarcity
It’s worth noting that Microsoft’s new strategy prioritizes not just availability but also accessibility, the issue of safe drinking water and sanitation.
Were there other announcements this week? Sure, and I'm also sure I'll get plenty of emails about what I "missed." While I am grateful for every company that commits to taking practical, meaningful, un-greenwashed action, the common thread of the visions advanced above is that they set the bar higher — even if just a little bit. That's what we need to move entire industries to support taking action on the climate crisis.