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Companies made climate commitments — now it's time to stop making climate chaos

From a purely self-interested perspective, ecological collapse is just bad for business. Climate action also plays well with the public and employees, and the falling price of technologies make decarbonizing a smart financial move.

Planet Earth sinking

Last year, corporate climate commitments went mainstream. 

Climate and clean energy commitments are no longer just for trailblazing corporations with thick profit margins. Last year, a deep bench of companies got off the sidelines to take a stand on climate change. Consider: 

  • "Net-zero" is becoming the new north star for corporate sustainability. In the first nine months of 2020, the number of corporations with net-zero goals increased threefold — from 500 at the end of 2019 to 1,541 in September. The list includes more than a quarter of S&P 100 companies
  • 31 major companies have signed onto the Climate Pledge, a commitment to reach carbon neutrality by 2040 — 10 years ahead of the goals of the Paris Agreement. 
  • Corporations are demanding climate policy. Last month, 42 major companies — including utilities, banks and automobile manufacturers — signed onto a Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) statement calling on the Biden administration to act on "ambitious, durable, bipartisan climate solutions." 
  • Nearly 200 corporate leaders signed onto a letter on the "purpose of a corporation," arguing that companies have a responsibility to the environment — not just shareholders. 

It makes sense. From a purely self-interested perspective, ecological collapse is just bad for business. Climate action also plays well with the public and employees, and the falling price of technologies make decarbonizing a smart financial move (even if the survival of the planet didn’t depend on it). Everything is working together to signal now is the time to act (save for inertia).

With corporations on board with meaningful climate action, environmentalists patted themselves on the back, shuttered their NGOs and posted their resumes on ZipRecruiter. I kid. 

Corporate climate accountability goes mainstream, too

As corporations get more comfortable embracing climate action, advocates are gaining more traction by pointing out inconsistencies between words and action. 

  • Corporations are being called out for making climate goals then supporting political candidates who don’t support policy that would make those same goals law. 
  • Financial institutions are being held to account for touting decarbonization targets while funneling billions into dirty energy projects. 
  • Tech companies are facing increased scrutiny when tailoring products to oil and gas companies, including Autodesk, Microsoft, Google and Amazon.

Campaigners are also evolving tactics, holding public relations firms accountable for enabling polluting clients. A new campaign, Clean Creatives (backed by the activist heavyweights that founded, is calling out the spin doctors who weave the greenwashed narratives for major polluters. A separate campaign is pushing for companies to consider "Scope X" — the ways organizations support polluting companies, even if the pollution can’t technically be considered direct or indirect emissions. And, while ESG investments are gaining momentum, NGOs are holding asset managers to account for not doing more to push companies on climate. 

In some ways, none of this is new. Calling out inconsistencies between corporate words and actions has been a pillar of the environmental movement for decades. The term "greenwashing" — which refers to companies misleading consumers about how environmentally friendly their products and operations are — is used so often it arguably has lost its power and meaning. 

But the momentum of this moment feels different. First, climate chaos is getting personal, with states beginning to experience the first pains of the crises in the form of hurricanes, floods and wildfires. 

At the same time, climate accountability journalism moved from trade publications to staples of tier-one media. Bloomberg launched Bloomberg Green; Politico bought E&E News; The Atlantic launched Planet; Emily Atkin’s Heated newsletter is among the most popular on the Substack platform.

Finally, with the COVID crisis hitting supply chains and local economies, there is a growing consumer awareness about what it means to vote with your dollars. 

The trifecta looks a lot like the beginning of a sea change; a new era where the tolerance for corporate inconsistencies is decreasing, and not just on the fringes. After all, if the evolution of climate action has taught us anything, wherever the people lead, the corporations will follow. 

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