What’s a next-gen climate commitment?

What’s a next-gen climate commitment?

Checklist over the sky

This article is adapted from the VERGE weekly newsletter, running Wednesdays. Subscribe here.

I’ve never been big on pom-poms or uniforms, but I’m a cheerleader at heart — celebrating all that’s going right in the world of sustainable business.

That said, many of us in sustainability find ourselves increasingly straddling two worlds. On one side, celebrating bigger, bolder and unprecedented corporate sustainability commitments. On the other side, nearly all major indicators signal that we’re not getting far enough fast enough towards climate tipping points.

It got me thinking: What should the next generation of corporate climate commitments look like? Given that we have the solutions we need, that the business case is more compelling than ever and that urgency is paramount, what will it actually take for company commitments to meet the scale, scope and speed needed?

First, let’s take stock of where we’re at. This week, we’re running a story compiled by my colleague Heather Clancy on the recently published Corporate Climate Tracker — a database synthesizing where Fortune 500 companies stand when it comes to participation in seven of the leading clean energy and climate leadership initiatives: Advanced Energy Economy, Ceres, Climate Group, the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, the Science-Based Targets Initiative, We Are Still In and the We Mean Business Coalition.

The results include a mix of surprising and somewhat unsurprising insights. As Clancy reports: Only 109 members of the Fortune 500 are on board with at least one of these seven programs, as of mid-February. And when it comes to leadership in the technology sector, only one company, Salesforce, has committed to all of them, with five more — Adobe, Microsoft, Target, VF Corp. and Walmart — each committing to six.

So, I got digging — specifically for patterns across actions being taken by so-called climate leadership companies. I read through many public declarations made by companies as part of the Mission 2020 Step Up Declaration — a group comprised primarily of large technology companies, led by Salesforce, that publicly have committed to accelerating progress, both in their immediate spheres of influence and also collaboratively, across all sectors of society.

21 companies, including Akamai, Bloomberg, Cisco, HP, Tech Mahindra and VMware proudly boast an impressive array of the kind of corporate actions companies can, ought to, and frankly must be taking: transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy; moving towards science-based targets that align with the Paris Agreement; making energy-efficiency improvements across global building portfolios; expanding beyond Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions reductions into absolute emissions across supply chains; eliminating wasteful cooling in data centers and telecom facilities; building fully battery electric, zero-emission vehicles — and the list goes on. It mirrors precisely the kind of stories that companies announce at our events and that we serve to tell on GreenBiz.com about how companies are embracing climate change as an innovation and business opportunity.

And yet, consider this: What if all these actions — even in aggregate and laudable as they are — instead represented the baseline of corporate climate action? What if the commitments we’ve been applauding as "climate leadership" are instead what we really ought to be considering the minimum?

I pose this with deep respect for all those who work tirelessly to advance these agendas, and in no way to undermine the efforts that every one of these companies and others are taking. But it’s worth considering whether the bar we’ve set really qualifies as "leadership" on corporate climate action.

"At the end of the day, what’s needed is a much higher-level of ambition and engagement in collective action," said Bill Weihl, former director of sustainability at Facebook and green energy czar at Google, when we caught up recently. "Don’t get me wrong: All of this has been real leadership and we need to keep it up. But if it’s all we do, we’re dead."

Let’s agree that Weihl doesn’t mince words, which is one of his many gifts.

So, what should leadership look like? Here are three questions I’d pose to any company committed to being a climate leader:

  1. Are you setting and tracking towards science-based targets? The world has committed to decarbonizing our energy systems by 2050. Anything short of that goal is substandard.   

  2. Are your company’s lobbyists in sync with these commitments? Silence is not neutrality — it’s acceptance of the status quo. Company leaders need to use their voice and power to engage in what Weihl calls the "messy but essential world of policy making."

  3. Are you on a path to be net-positive or regenerative? We need to move beyond "sustaining." To meet the needs of future generations — who are increasingly stepping up and speaking out for climate action — we’ll need to restore the air, water, soil and other natural systems upon which human life, not to mention our economies, depend.

I leave you with a closing thought, inspired by a conversation Joel Makower and I had last week with Patrick Flynn, vice president of sustainability for Salesforce. As we sat atop the stunning 61st floor of the new Salesforce Tower, taking in the breathtaking view of the San Francisco Bay Area, he shared with us the evolution of his company’s sustainability strategy — specifically, flipping its focus from 80 percent internal and 20 percent external to 20/80. That is, in addition to setting leadership commitments around energy, water, transportation, buildings and supply chain, Salesforce is using its voice to accelerate public policies and company collaborations that align with a just transition to a low-carbon economy.

His mantra? "Focus on what the planet actually cares about." After all, Earth doesn’t care if your company lives or dies. It cares about the health of its ecosystems, and all who inhabit this precious blue dot we call home.