Perspective  |  June 17, 2021

The world needs better climate pledges

by Jonathan Foley

Governments and businesses are looking to lead on climate change, but too many of their commitments are built on flawed “net zero” frameworks and problematic “carbon offsets.”

Authentic climate leadership requires more—a transparent and meaningful “Emissions 360” pledge that is focused on bringing real emissions to zero, helping others do the same, and equitably addressing historic climate pollution.

The world’s conversations about climate change have fundamentally shifted during the last few years. We have moved beyond old debates around whether climate change is happening (hint: it is) to more constructive discussions about addressing it.

That’s excellent news, even if we spent decades getting here.

In the sudden rush to address climate change—or at least look like we are—we have seen many companies, industry groups, and countries stake out leadership positions. Many of them have made so-called “net zero” climate pledges, complete with fancy logos and bold-sounding names.

Making and fulfilling pledges is a crucial aspect of climate leadership, but it’s only a first step. As my Project Drawdown colleague, Jamie Alexander, points out in a recent Fast Company article:

“Corporate emissions reductions pledges — however ambitious they may be for a particular company — completely miss the deeper issues that the climate crisis demands we grapple with, and only play at the edges of the revolutionary change we need.”

She calls for companies to adopt more robust climate pledges and targets, as well as push for better climate policy, support stronger climate action in the community, and be transformative climate leaders. And she’s right.

Building better pledges is the first step in transforming climate leadership
As a cornerstone of climate leadership, the weakness of today’s pledges is particularly troubling. Without clear, robust, and scientifically-sound goals, it is impossible to raise climate action to the level Earth needs.

Today it seems “net zero” pledges are all the rage. And in the lead-up to the next big climate conference—the “COP26” meeting in Glasgow—we will see even more politicians, CEOs, and celebrities make net-zero pledges.

Unfortunately, net-zero commitments—which once seemed like a good idea—have become so distorted and abused they are now largely meaningless. Sadly, the net-zero concept has been misused by bad or indifferent actors, allowing them to make bold-sounding climate pledges without really reducing emissions at all.

Misusing “net zero”
Before it was co-opted, the term “net zero” was used by climate scientists to describe scenarios when the entire atmosphere was, on balance, no longer building up greenhouse gases. Not a company or a country. The whole planet.

These scenarios describe a time in the future when the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically reduced (by 90% or more), and carbon removal projects are only used for a few remaining emissions. They did not say we should avoid cutting emissions and rely on fictional levels of carbon removal instead. But that’s exactly what many companies are trying to do.

A lot of companies have made dubious climate commitments using accounting tricks—usually relying on problematic “carbon offsets” to make the books look better than they are. And what’s worse: Of the Fortune 500 companies that have made public net-zero commitments, only ~20% have robust frameworks, and very few are reporting their progress.

Many carbon offsets are problematic
Unfortunately, net-zero pledges have become so distorted they allow for any combination of emissions cuts and carbon offsets to reach their goal. In fact, one can claim net-zero emissions by only buying carbon offsets — without actually reducing emissions at all. This is a carbon shell game, not a real commitment to climate action.

It’s quite telling that the oil and gas industry is heavily invested in the net-zero concept. They don’t plan to actually reduce the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, of course. Instead, most are buying dubious carbon offsets to cover their operational emissions (but not the emissions from burning the oil and gas they sell) while claiming to be “net zero” climate leaders. It’s complete bullshit, of course, but it makes for good PR. It looks like action, without really acting. And that’s precisely why they’re doing it.

Carbon offsets come in two flavors—either (1) paying others to reduce their emissions, who in turn give you imaginary “carbon credits” in exchange, or (2) banking on risky or non-existent carbon removal schemes to effectively “undo” your emissions sometime in the future.

The first kind of carbon offsets, where you pay someone else to reduce emissions, is a zero-sum game. In the short run, it can help pump cash into projects that may reduce emissions somewhere—assuming the offsets are genuine. But because the entire world needs to bring emissions to zero, not just a few wealthy companies, we can’t simply pay “someone else” to do it forever. At the end of the day, there’s no one left to pay.

The second kind of carbon offsets, which bank on trees, farms, oceans, and machines to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, makes a very risky bet. Yes, forests, soils, and coastal ecosystems can naturally absorb some carbon from the atmosphere, but only to a point. These carbon sinks are not infinite (and are probably smaller than many advocates claim), they take years to build, and they are only effective if we maintain them forever — never allowing them to be cleared, plowed, or burned down. And while carbon removal machines are getting a lot of attention, they are laughably small compared to the job at hand. Even a million-fold scale-up of carbon removal technology would only absorb a tiny percentage of our emissions.

Most of all, we need to see that vague promises of future carbon removal are just sneaky ways of allowing emissions to continue unchecked today. It’s no surprise that the biggest proponents of carbon removal technology are oil and gas companies, who have no interest in addressing climate change. It’s just a predatory delay tactic, which their industry has mastered.

Climate pledges that play games with net-zero math and rely on make-believe offsets may be good PR, as oil and gas companies have found, but they’re not addressing the real challenges we face. Serious climate commitments recognize that we need to bring emissions to zero, not “Net Zero”, as quickly as we can. We cannot achieve this with imaginary offsets, carbon trading schemes, or vague “pollute now and remove it later” promises.

Most pledges ignore the pollution we’ve already emitted
Another issue with most net-zero climate pledges is that they only look at future emissions and ignore the pollution they have already released.

A robust climate pledge needs to address historical emissions too. After all, most of the greenhouse gases we have emitted are still in the atmosphere—contributing to the continued warming of the planet. We can’t just forgive and forget them. In fact, we must ultimately find ways to remove our share of that pollution. Think “historic zero” instead of “net zero”.

If this sounds odd, it shouldn’t. After all, if a factory was dumping toxic sludge into a local lake, government agencies would order them to do two things—stop polluting the lake as quickly as possible and then clean up the pollution they already dumped there. Why is the atmosphere any different?

Most pledges only have faraway goals with no accountability
Another serious problem with many of today’s climate pledges is that they set very distant goals—like “Net Zero by 2050”—with no near-term accountability. Setting mid-century corporate goals, without any specific benchmarks in the meantime, is ridiculous. Many companies on Earth today won’t even exist in 2050. And it’s almost certain that their current CEOs and board members won’t be around. So, where’s the accountability?

A better climate pledge would start with bold, long-term goals. But they would also have more immediate metrics. For example, cutting emissions to zero by 2050 may be an excellent long-term goal, but it should come with intermediate (e.g., cutting emissions in half by 2030) and short-term (e.g., cutting emissions by at least 7% every year) milestones.

Moreover, every business should carefully audit and report their progress on climate goals along the way. The results should be reported as seriously as financial statements, with leaders taking real responsibility for them.

A new “Emissions 360” climate pledge framework
Moving forward, we need better, more transparent climate pledges. They are a necessary foundation for meaningful climate leadership. Here I outline a possible new framework—called the “Emissions 360” approach—that is built on five pillars.

(1) Cut your own emissions towards zero, not “net zero,” as quickly as possible.
Look hard at your own emissions, and find ways to reduce them as quickly as possible. Pay particular attention to cutting short-lived warming agents like methane and black carbon, which will help slow climate change even more than cutting carbon dioxide.

Some of these cuts will be easy and fast. But some emissions are going to take a while to phase out. Keep at it. Steady progress is what matters here.

Don’t even think about “offsets”, which can give the illusion of progress without truly reducing emissions.

Commit to short-term and long-term goals. Be transparent. Report how you’ve cut emissions and where you’re still struggling each year.

(2) Only use carbon removal as a last resort—for truly unavoidable emissions.
One of the most significant abuses of net-zero frameworks allows companies to make vague promises of future carbon removal to avoid cutting emissions today. This kind of carbon shell game is designed to delay climate action and can no longer be tolerated.

However, there may be a few areas where cutting greenhouse gas emissions will be exceptionally difficult or physically impractical.

These truly unavoidable emissions cases might justify some limited carbon removal projects. Carbon neutral (or negative) ways to make jet fuel, cement, and steel come to mind. But that’s about it. Carbon removal should only be used to offset emissions as a last resort, decades from now, after every practical means of cutting them has been exhausted.

Promises of future carbon removal can no longer be used as a dodge, avoiding the real work of cutting emissions today. In particular, carbon removal schemes should never be used to justify the continued use of fossil fuels, bad agricultural practices, or wasteful materials.

(3) Pay the “Social Cost of Carbon” for your ongoing pollution.
As your company works to cut emissions, donate significant sums of money (based on the “Social Cost of Carbon” for your ongoing pollution) to help advance the world’s broader climate efforts. Ideally, these funds would help others (especially disenfranchised and vulnerable communities) reduce their emissions, become more climate resilient, and address long-standing climate justice issues.

But, once again, don’t count these donations as “offsets” to your own emissions. They’re not, and they never were. Just do it because it’s the right thing to do. Or count it as a business cost. Either way, I suspect you will be rewarded for a more transparent, honest, and forthright way of addressing your emissions—and for supporting others around the world to address climate change.

(4) Don’t stop here: Address your historic emissions too.
Strong climate pledges should also commit to removing as much of your historic climate pollution from the atmosphere as possible. In other words, try to reach “historic zero” emissions, reflecting the impact your company has had over time. This will help reduce future climate change and address the long-standing inequities in greenhouse gas emissions seen around the world.

Lay out a plan to address these historic emissions with transparent, carefully-managed carbon removal projects. It may be impossible to sequester all of your historical emissions, of course—given the physical and technological limits of carbon removal—but we should do as much as we can.

This is one place where well-managed carbon removal projects make sense. Using carbon removal to avoid reducing our ongoing emissions is a mistake, and perpetuates a false image of meaningful climate action. Instead, let’s use this technology (and its limited removal capacity) to address historical emissions, not future ones.

(5) Carefully weigh issues of climate justice in everything you do.
Climate change presents a lens through which we can see some of the worst injustices of human history. The rich and powerful have benefitted most from the rise of the fossil-fueled economy, while other, disenfranchised communities — especially people of color and those in poorer countries — paid the highest price. And today’s generations still enjoy the spoils of a fossil-powered, high-energy world and a stable planetary environment. But unless we change our ways quickly, future generations might not see either one.

Addressing climate change requires more than restoring the balance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This is necessary, but not sufficient. Along the way, we must be careful that climate solutions do not introduce more even more inequities, injustices, and harm to people alive today—particularly the most vulnerable among us—or generations yet to come.

This piece was originally published on Dr. Jonathan Foley's Medium page June 16, 2021. Foley is a climate and environmental scientist, writer, and speaker. He is also the executive director of Project Drawdown, the world’s leading resource for climate solutions.

 

Press Contacts

If you are a journalist and would like Project Drawdown updates and/or digital assets for editorial use, please contact press@drawdown.org.

More Insights

News  |  February 6, 2023
USPS trucks
Major businesses led by Etsy and eBay praise USPS’s shift to electric delivery fleet
A group of major corporations led by Etsy and eBay is praising the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) for committing to exclusively purchase electric vehicles starting in 2026, in a letter coordinated by Drawdown Labs, Project Drawdown’s private-sector testing ground for accelerating the adoption of climate solutions quickly, safely and equitably. Etsy and eBay are among the largest e-commerce marketplaces in the country. The USPS is central to their business and to millions of small sellers who run their shops on these platforms.  The USPS is currently transitioning to an all-new fleet of 106,000 delivery vehicles. It announced in December that 62 percent of those purchases over the next five years will have all-electric powertrains and by 2026, 100 percent of newly purchased vehicles will be electric. The letter from Etsy and eBay also includes signatories Askov Finlayson, Avocado Green, Ben & Jerry’s, Clif Bar, Dr. Bronner’s, A Good Company, Grove Collaborative, Patagonia, Peak Design, Seventh Generation, Stonyfield and Warby Parker. “This decision sends a message to every business in the United States: it is possible, achievable and necessary to adopt all-electric fleets for corporate transportation and shipping needs.” said Jamie Alexander, director of Drawdown Labs at Project Drawdown. “These companies are working hard to reduce their climate impact, and this move by the USPS enables them to address the difficult-to-abate supply chain emissions. This is good news for all involved. ” With a shift to electric vehicles, the group of companies believe it will not just be good for the environment but good for business as consumers reap the benefits of lower costs and other innovations made possible by electric vehicles.  The nation and the world are quickly transitioning to electric vehicles, led by consumer demand for the many benefits of EVs, including better efficiency, easier maintenance, zero emissions and better performance. That means cleaner air, reduced climate risk and improved health across the globe. Electrifying vehicles is a key climate solution, with the potential to reduce up to 9.8 gigatons of CO2-e by 2050. “For millions of small sellers and entrepreneurs on Etsy, a modern USPS committed to innovation and sustainability is crucial for the vibrancy of their small and micro businesses,” said Chelsea Mozen, senior director of impact & sustainability at Etsy. “The USPS’s commitment to a robust electric delivery fleet is good for the postal service, good for small businesses and good for America.” “USPS’s commitment to electric vehicles is great news for small businesses like the many on our platform who rely on USPS to keep their business moving. eBay is proud to support this move toward greater sustainability and a cleaner world,” said eBay chief sustainability officer Renée Morin.
Read more
Profile  |  January 24, 2023
Drawdown Science team member Yusuf Jameel
Drawdown Science profile: Yusuf Jameel
This article is the third in a series introducing the members of Project Drawdown’s new science team. Yusuf Jameel joined Project Drawdown in 2021 as a research manager for Drawdown Lift. In January 2023 he transitioned to the Drawdown Science team as associate scientist, data science. A multidisciplinary scientist with experience in water resources, public health, data analytics, and science communication, he’s passionate about finding solutions to climate change and bridging the gap between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Yusuf obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Utah. Please welcome Yusuf as he shares his thoughts on growing up on the banks of the Ganges River, enhancing human well-being through the adoption of climate solutions, porcupine hair, and more. Q: When people ask you what you do with Project Drawdown, what do you tell them?  A. As a member of the science team, I work on climate solutions using my experience in data analysis, especially on solutions that also address the food–energy–water nexus. I also work on translating the science in a way that makes it widely accessible.  Q: Of all of the things you could be doing, why did you choose to join Project Drawdown?   A: Project Drawdown is on a mission to actually address the biggest problem the world is facing today, climate change. I was really impressed by the book. It was the first to lay out that yes, we can address climate change—it's not just about gloom and doom, it’s also about opportunity. Project Drawdown addresses climate in a way that’s multidimensional, promotes the best science, addresses the different audiences, and passes the mic. That really motivates me. Q: What do you consider some of the biggest obstacles to implementing and scaling up climate solutions?  A: First is unlocking the finance to fund climate solutions globally. We need capital from the private sector, from banks divesting from fossil fuels, and we need to invest in green solutions. Another challenge is politics. We need to think more altruistically. This is a global challenge requiring everyone to join hands, yet it has not been the case so far. The good news is, public perception is changing. Hopefully politics will change, and more capital will be funneled into climate solutions. Q: OK, time for a break. What’s your favorite food? A: I would go with my comfort food, and that’s biryani. It’s a big tradition in South Asian countries, and if you ask anyone in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, biryani is probably one of the top dishes. It’s not the healthiest dish, but it’s just so comforting.  Q: I’m sure you have many, but can you tell us about one superpower you bring to this job? A: I’m a jack of all trades. Whether it’s high-level thinking, brainstorming ideas, or actually doing the work, I’m comfortable doing it all. I’m also adaptable. If a situation requires me to step up and take the lead I can, or I can step back and follow.  Q: What's a childhood experience that relates to the work you're doing today?  A: I grew up on the banks of the River Ganges. Every now and then there would be flooding. As a result, many people would go through an annual cycle of losing crops and be entrenched in a cycle of poverty, unable to get out. This had a profound effect on me. When I started reading about climate change and seeing flooding events become more and more intense, I recognized the need to address climate and development holistically.  Q: What’s your favorite Drawdown Solution?  A: There are so many of them! I really like Distributed Solar Photovoltaics and Reduced Food Waste, but my favorite is Clean Cooking. I think that solution can revolutionize the lives of billions of people in the world, especially young girls. It not only addresses climate but also vastly improves health, addresses gender equality, and opens up economic opportunities. If we can implement clean cooking and distributed solar, we’ll see huge changes in the lives of billions of people globally.  Q: Time for another break. If you were a nonhuman animal, what animal would you be?  A: As a kid I had short hair that was like vertical hair, as if I had had an electric shock. So many of my friends called me Porcupine. People  would rub my hair all the time as it felt like velvet. Now I keep my hair long.  Q: What gives you hope?  A: I derive my hope from two things. First, we’re rapidly advancing technology—a lot of people from across the world are putting their effort into finding and implementing the best and most important solutions to address climate change. Second,  when I was at COP27, I saw that young people are really leading the movement. That gives me hope that we can do meaningful work on this very important but challenging issue. Q: Anything else you’d like to share?  A: I like nature. I especially like mountains. This is something I realized very late in life, maybe because I grew up in cities with very little nature around. When I moved to Utah, I started going to the mountains. I realized how peaceful and how nice it is, and I can’t not talk about it.  As human societies are getting more urbanized,  a lot of us, especially young people who live in large metropolises, are cut off from nature. And I hope they reconnect with nature. We need to appreciate nature and biodiversity much more than we do. Once it’s gone, it’s not coming back. We need to love it, respect it, and protect it.
Read more