The planet is in full-on meltdown, but the brands would like you to know it’s OK. They will save us.
This week—officially Climate Week—has seen a flurry of pledges, plans, commitments, vows, words, promises, sacred oaths, and blood pacts from companies including Walmart, Amazon, and Microsoft on how they will reduce their ponderous footprints on the planet. Those announcements were preceded by others last week, including from Facebook and Google, and a slew of commitments over recent months from Big Oil to reduce emissions and get in the renewables game.
The number of companies and array of pledges and timelines is a lot to take in. But corporate commitments are likely to intensify as the world hurtles toward a hotter future, so understanding the good, the bad, and the bullshit will only become more vital.
The first step to understanding corporate climate plans is that all your reasons to be skeptical are almost certainly valid. Large corporations are driven by one goal: trying to separate you from your money. And they have traditionally done that in one way.
“Corporations make money from exploiting the environment and other things,” Jessica Green, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, said in a phone call. “It’s a fundamental fact. The extent to how much stock you should put into these correlates pretty strongly with the extent you think that capitalism is commensurate with dealing with the climate crisis.”
It’s true that using resources more efficiently could save money for titans of industry, yielding ever greater profits and shareholder value. But efficient use of resources is still resources being used. And as Green noted, “the fundamental premise of all these corporations is to grow, and growing means extracting more resources, making more stuff and emitting more CO2.”
The timelines companies put forward can be another way to determine how serious they are. 2030 is close enough that companies can be held to account by both the public and shareholders. Beyond that is when it starts to get a little hazy. For example, massive utility Southern Company has committed to net-zero emissions by 2050.
“When you take these long term pledges, first of all, they are way too far in the future,” Leah Stokes, an energy expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said in a phone call. “2050 for electricity? Not going to cut it.”
Another sign a pledge isn’t as real as it seems is heavy use of carbon offset credits. Those allow companies to buy into projects that sequester carbon like, say, planting trees while continuing to pollute at home. In addition to limited evidence those projects actually reduce emissions and the fact that forests are burning down at an alarming rate globally, they’ve also been used to commit human rights abuses. So when Amazon the multibillion-dollar company relies heavily on buying offsets to plant trees in Amazon the rainforest or backs a startup using AI to track offsets, that’s usually a sign of a less-than-serious climate plan.
In some cases, though, there are genuine signs of progress. Google announced it would go 100% renewable by 2030 at its facilities. Its data centers consume an otherworldly amount of electricity to keep searches, videos, and emails available at a moment’s notice. Like most other tech companies claiming carbon neutrality now or in the future, it currently purchases renewable energy certificates, which have similar problems to the whole offset credits thing in that they don’t decarbonize the grid as much as just investing in renewables themselves. But Google’s 2030 pledge to directly power its operations is a sign of a bigger commitment, and the falling price of renewables bring it closer it a reality.
“The one company that I think is real and is doing really great stuff is Google. It’s really crazy, kind of like Bernie Sanders pledge but real,” Stokes said, referring to Sen. Bernie Sanders presidential campaign plan to get the U.S. to a completely renewable grid by 2030. “They can pull it off.”
The biggest bullshitters in the pledge game, though, are oil and gas companies as well as utilities. Perhaps it’s not surprising since they’re companies that have entrenched business models almost wholly reliant on fossil fuels. Just Wednesday, a report came out showing oil majors’ climate plans are largely smoke and mirrors. Many plans fail to address the biggest source of emissions downstream or rely heavily on unproven carbon capture technology, which means companies will keep digging up oil-based on dreams that might not exist. Utilities also play similar shell games of big promises to reduce emissions and actions that speak otherwise (including allegedly resorting to corruption!).
“Look at like Southern, they have a net-zero emissions by 2050 pledge,” Stokes said. “When their subsidiary companies like Alabama Power and Georgia Power—which are very dirty companies—actually go to decide what they’re going to build in the next couple of years, they keep proposing a lot of fossil fuels, a lot of fossil gas plants. Then when people say, ‘well, how come you’re not working towards this pledge that your parent company, Southern, has put forward?’ They say in the (permitting) proceeding that those pledges don’t apply to us.”
And that in a nutshell points to the final way to decode climate pledges. Corporations have mastered the art of saying they’re going to do good, but what really matters is their actions right now. And those actions are wildly out of step with long-term promises. Facebook has committed to carbon neutrality by 2030 while allowing climate misinformation to run rampant. Oil companies have pledged to rein in immediate emissions but refuse to do anything about the larger downstream ones when their products are burned. Amazon has kicked $10 billion into a venture capital fund that would enrich itself while also at the same time selling cloud computing software to oil firms.
Ultimately, many of these pledges are a way to stave off more meaningful regulation itself. Companies are using them to set undemocratic rules that are favorable to them and passing it off as a huge service to the planet.
“Our research shows us that the regulations in the jurisdiction where you’re headquartered make a lot of difference,” Green said, referring to a paper she published last week.
In the hellscape of American governance, where many pledge-makers are based, then, it’s vital to also look at who companies are giving money to politically to decipher their goals and how real their pledges are. And if the 50/50 split of tech corporate giving and overwhelming Big Oil largesse showered on Republicans is any indication, they’re happy with things staying just the way they are. Which bodes poorly for the planet and all of us outside of the folks churning out press releases.