A carbon reduction study released in mid-December shows how businesses and other organizations can connect the dots between their day-to-day greenhouse gas reduction programs and the sweeping, ambitious targets that will be needed to prevent runaway climate change.
By grounding emission reduction programs in actual climate science—an approach that is more unusual than it should be—Climate Counts helped answer one of the larger challenges on the road to a low-carbon energy future:
- Developed countries have to reduce their GHG emissions by at least 80%, no later than 2050, to have a serious chance of stabilizing the global climate. But it can be wickedly difficult to bring the big, overarching GHG reduction scenarios back down to practical, hands-on action.
- Most organizations default to doing what they can, just to get something done—whether it’s to justify a happy media release, or to genuinely make a contribution. But with no reference back to the bigger picture, it’s hard for anyone to know whether they’re doing enough, or even doing the right things, to contribute to a low-carbon future.
“If a company claims that it plans to reduce its carbon footprint 15% by 2020, is that good? Better yet, is it enough?” Climate Counts asked in its mid-December media package.
Starting with the Science
In the introduction to the report, Climate Counts Executive Director Mike Bellamente said the organization has been assessing businesses’ climate change commitments since 2007. Now, “instead of rating companies on the policies and procedures they have implemented to reduce carbon dioxide and other GHG emissions, we are rating them on their actual emissions performance relative to science-based targets.”
Greentech Media publisher Joel Makower, a member of the Climate Counts board who was not involved with the study, commented that “comparing company targets to science is a novel, even radical move. Companies don’t typically cite scientific consensus in justifying the targets they’ve set for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, some of which seem, well, arbitrary…
“This study offers a rare look at how corporate commitments square with what’s needed to address the climate challenge at the scale and scope it demands.”
Why This Matters
The methodology behind this study is important to anyone who plans to keep up the push for deep GHG reductions over the long haul, until the climate challenge is solved.
In other words, it had better be important to all of us.
At the centre of the Climate Counts approach is a “context-based metric,” originally developed by the Center for Sustainable Organizations in 2006. “Context-based metrics differ from conventional metrics in that they measure and assess performance relative to sustainability norms, standards, or thresholds,” an approach that Climate Counts said is unique to this methodology.
In this case, climate science—drawn from a scenario for stabilizing atmospheric carbon dioxide at 350 parts per million by 2100—was the fixed point against which company performance was measured.
Climate Counts found that 49 of the 100 companies in the study had GHG emissions that fell within the science-based target. And 25 of the 49 showed revenue growth, “proving that decoupling of growth and emissions is possible.”
But apart from bestowing bouquets or brickbats where due, the list of winners (Autodesk, Unilever, Eli Lilly) and losers (Weyerhauser, Molson Coors, UPS) is almost beside the point. What matters here is an effective methodology, available to researchers and visible to the public, that uses proven science to separate good GHG reduction initiatives from the ones that aren’t good enough.
As an independent benchmark of corporate performance, it’s an antidote to greenwashing.
And as an educational tool for practitioners, it’s a needed resource for companies and organizations outside the energy sector that want to do what’s right, but have no idea whether their climate change programs are enough to make a difference, or too expensive for the limited results they deliver.
But before we wax too lyrical about the Climate Counts report, here’s a measure of what it will take to bring this work into the mainstream.
The Center for Sustainable Organizations developed its context-based metric in 2006. Earlier this month, a Google search on the term yielded only 26 hits, not all of them related to climate science.
That doesn’t make the work any less exciting. But we have a long way to go to move science-based climate program assessments into the mainstream.