Amazon, Walmart, and other megacorporations aren’t even close to meeting their climate goals

We need to cut emissions. Companies are cutting corners instead.

Amazon delivery truck seen in South Edmonton.
On Friday, January 21, 2021, in Edmonton, Alberta, Can...
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Just 100 corporations — the giant, multinational conglomerates eating the world — are responsible for 71% of all greenhouse gases emitted since 1988. Getting those companies to change their ways is essential to reducing our overall emissions and making sure the planet remains inhabitable.

The good news is that many corporations, from big oil firms to airlines to the largest food makers in the world, are starting to say the right things and make promises to push toward net-zero emissions in the coming years.

The bad news is that their word isn’t worth shit. A new study published by the nonprofit NewClimate Institute tracks the progress of 25 companies that have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The findings are far from encouraging. They are already well behind the curve in curbing their emissions and are projected to achieve just a 40% reduction in emissions by midcentury, which is basically the deadline that scientists have given us to prevent the planet from warming to unsustainable levels.

The analysis looked at companies including Amazon, Ikea, Nestlé, Walmart, and Unilever. None of them impressed. At the moment, the group of 25 megacorporations is on track to reduce their collective emissions by just 23% by 2030. That simply will not cut it: Experts suggest we need to cut emissions by 50% before the 2030s hit if we want to stave off the worst effects of climate change. Without immediate, drastic short-term improvements, we may be facing more extreme weather and natural disasters, even if we do eventually reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Scientists are already warning that we may temporarily climb above 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming if we’re too slow to shift toward emission reduction this decade.

Worse is that the reduction in emissions that most of these companies have achieved has been through shortcuts, rather than an honest effort to actually change their ways. Twenty-four of the 25 companies analyzed by the NewClimate Institute are counting on carbon offsets to combat their emissions. Carbon offsets allow corporations to pay for carbon reduction products, like planting trees, instead of actually cutting emissions — but the key word is “offset,” which is quite different than actual emissions reduction.

On top of the half-assed attempt at lowering emissions on paper without actually having to do the work of changing their very harmful business practices, some of the corporations studied are using fuzzy math. Eight companies excluded emissions from their value chain, which includes much of the work done to actually produce a product or service. NewClimate Institute found that the value chain can account for up to 90% of a company’s total emissions. Other companies, like CVS Health, selected years with abnormally high emissions as their baseline, meaning they can make it look like they’re achieving greater reductions than they actually are.

Currently, corporations are tackling their climate pledges like they do taxes: They might recognize that it is their responsibility to deal with, but they’re going to do everything within their power to minimize their burden. Unfortunately, Mother Nature is unlikely to be as forgiving as the IRS.