With Government in Retreat, Companies Step Up on Emissions

Source: By HIROKO TABUCHI, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Solar panels at the Googleplex, headquarters of Google in Mountain View, Calif. Its data centers worldwide will run entirely on renewable energy by the end of this year, the technology giant announced in December. Smith Collection/Gado, via Getty Images

The Trump administration may be pondering a retreat from the United States’ climate commitments, but corporate America is moving ahead with its own emissions goals.

Nearly half of the Fortune 500 biggest companies in the United States have now set targets to shrink their carbon footprints, according to a report published Tuesday by environmental organizations that monitor corporate emissions pledges. Twenty-five more companies adopted climate targets over the last two years, the groups said.

Almost two dozen companies, including Google, Walmart and Bank of America, have pledged to power their operations with 100 percent renewable energy, with varying deadlines, compared with just a handful in 2015. Google’s data centers worldwide will run entirely on renewable energy by the end of this year, the technology giant announced in December.

“We believe that climate change is real, and it’s a severe crisis,” said Gary Demasi, who directs Google’s energy strategy. “We’re not deviating from our goals.”

There are outliers to the trend toward reduced emissions and greater disclosure.

The laggards, by far, are energy companies. Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Phillips 66 — the largest emitters of the pack — all have no specific public targets to reduce greenhouse gases, improve energy efficiency or shift to renewable energy. Neither did nine out of 10 other companies in the energy sector.

Other large corporations stand out for their lack of climate targets. Among the biggest companies, Berkshire Hathaway and Costco have no public climate or energy targets. Neither do Comcast or Tyson Foods. Costco said it was working toward maintaining its carbon footprint growth “to less than our company sales growth.” The other companies did not respond to requests for comment.

The companies’ disclosure of their greenhouse gas emissions remains voluntary, and difficult to verify independently — a problem that has also dogged countries’ pledges under the Paris climate accord, which commits nearly every country to reducing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

Still, the growing number of American companies setting targets is in contrast to an administration that appears ready to shirk them.

President Trump spoke of “canceling” the Paris accord on the campaign trail, and last month signed an executive order to reverse most of President Barack Obama’s climate change efforts, effectively ceding American leadership in the global effort to curb global warming.

Companies are big emitters and their actions can make a difference. Walmart’s reported annual greenhouse emissions, for example, are equivalent to emissions from about 4.5 million passenger vehicles driven for a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.

Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, has pledged to reduce that carbon footprint by 18 percent by 2025, and also recently committed to work with suppliers to reduce emissions by many times the scope of its own carbon footprint. In the United States, about 350 of its more than 5,000 stores have solar panels on their roofs.

Google has been a pioneer in powering its operations with renewable energy, striking deals with renewable producers and promising to buy the energy they produce with wind turbines and solar cells. Google now buys more renewable energy than many large utilities.

Companies like Walmart and Google, increasingly attuned to customer concerns about climate change, have led the effort to set targets. Procter & Gamble has also committed to reducing its greenhouse emissions by 30 percent by 2020, compared with 2010 levels.

Even companies that disclose emissions and targets may be underreporting their ecological footprints, because disclosure is not subject to the kinds of rigorous standards that would be applied to the company’s books, said Andreas Hoepner, a finance expert who has scrutinized carbon accounting at Henley Business School at the University of Reading in Britain.

“What most companies are disclosing is nowhere near their real emissions,” he said. Many companies say, for example, that they take account of emissions from the “majority” of their operations — but that could be far less than 100 percent, Mr. Hoepner said.

“Setting targets is a step forward. I’d rather know something than nothing at all,” he said. “But for some companies, reporting could be just a form of marketing.”

An initiative called Science-Based Targets has helped bring some transparency to carbon emissions. The program helps companies determine how much they must cut emissions to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, based on the size of their carbon footprint and climate science. Of the Fortune 500 companies, just 10 have set such targets.

“I’m confident we’re moving in the right direction,” said Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, the nonprofit group that led the study, along with the World Wildlife Fund.

Ceres, which works with some of the world’s largest investors on climate change issues, receives fees from companies it advises and is also funded by a grant from a foundation established by the Intel co-founder Gordon Moore.

“Investors are showing that they care. Consumers are voting with their pocketbooks,” Ms. Lubber said. “Companies are invested in this, and they’re not moving backward.”