Big promises from big corporates? Don't believe the hype

I recently received an email from the taxi and delivery service Uber stating that they are pledging to become a zero emissions company by 2040.

“Hurray! Good on you!”, is probably the reaction that many people would have had upon reading this message.

Unfortunately, mine was very different. My immediate reaction was that 2040 is not good enough.

Having conducted extensive research into the climate crisis, and the possible solutions to that crisis, I know that becoming carbon neutral by 2040 is far too late to avoid catastrophic outcomes of runaway climate change.

I suspect that companies like Uber know this as well, only they are not willing to alter their highly profitible business model for the sake of the climate any time soon.

Know the science. Acknowledge the facts.

A 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) summarised the effects on our planet from an increase in temperature of 1.5oC.

These affects include mass extinction, dramatic sea level rise, ocean acidification and increases in natural disasters. The IPCC is an unbiased, unpolitical organisation that aims to be a central source for all information regarding climate change.

The report was based on information from over 6,000 peer reviewed studies, and it concluded that the world need to drastically reduce carbon emissions and non-carbon related emissions (nitrous oxide, methane and harmful aerosols) by 2030 or risk exceeding 1.5 oC of warming (2). It’s safe to say the IPCC are the world experts on climate change and we should use their advice as fact.

wildfires climate change
Unless radical action is taken to reduce global carbon emissions to net zero by 2030 we can expect to see an increasing frequency of natural disasters such as mega-storms and wildfires. Photo by Deep Rajwar from Pexels

If you were told by an expert on gas safety that you have a gas leak at your property and your home is extremely likely to explode if action isn’t taken, you would do everything you could to fix the leak immediately. You wouldn’t respond by saying “it’ll be fine, I can’t afford to fix the problem right now so I’ll do it next month”.

Yet this is the reaction we see time again from leading world brands, and even from most countries.

There is an abundance of clear, scientific evidence stating that we need to reduce our emissions by 2030, or risk devastating and irreversible global heating.

So why are so many companies still making insufficient pledges which say they will be carbon neutral by 2040 or later?

Improving company PR with 'Greenwashing'

With an increased public understanding and awareness of climate change, greenwashing has become a more regular occurrence within many companies.

Greenwashing occurs when a company embarks on an advertising campaign with focussed attention on their efforts to be more environmentally friendly, in an attempt to appease eco-conscious consumers and to make them believe they are dealing with an environmentally ethical company.

Most of the time in reality their environmental credentials aren’t nearly as impressive as they want you to believe. Some brands may also use greenwashing to hide and overshadow a host of other issues within their business such a working conditions, staff wages and gender/ racial inequalities.

It is usually the case that the main reason for leading global brands making a show of their progress on sustainability is to attract more customers and to make more money. Away from the PR campaign, unfortunately, many companies do not care much about reducing their environmental impact, nor do they want to understand the real reasons for needing sustainable business practices in the first place.

The folly of “short-termism” when considering long-term benefits for business

Another potential reason why many companies pledge unambitious climate targets is because of their focus on short term benefits over long term sustainability.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that companies favour yearly profits and increased share value over making investments into the business that would slightly decrease their yearly financial performance but benefit them greatly in the long run (3).

This is especially the case with lowering carbon emissions as it can be  costly in the short term and will not deliver an immediate tangible return. The benefits of improving energy performance and reducing environmental impact can only be viewed over longer time-frames, when long-term savings on energy bills will greatly outweigh the short-term upfront cost, and when the cumulative savings on carbon dioxide emissions can be appreciated as having had a meaningful impact.

solar panels schools Sussex
Installing technologies such as roof-mounted solar panels will deliver significant benefits to both cost-savings and carbon emissions reduction over a long period of time, typically over a 25 year period. It is important for businesses to think beyond the limits of short-term profit making. Photo: BHESco

It seems that many companies believe that spreading the cost of climate action over a longer timeframe will mean that they do not have to make a significant invesment now, yet can still present a public image of environmental responsibility. This should not and cannot be an option.

We now that the financial commitment to taking action on climate change can pose a barrier to some businesses. This is why BHESCo developed our ‘Pay As You Save‘ finance initiative, so that property owners throughout Sussex can do the right thign without worring about meeting the upfront cost of their energy project.

We know that the clock is ticking and that we cannot delay. The impact of feedback mechanisms means that even if we reach net zero by tomorrow, previous emissions stored in the atmosphere can still increase temperatures far into the future. This is why it is SO important to reduce our emissions as soon as possible, and by 2030 at the latest.

How can we overcome greenwashing and pressure brands to take meaningful climate action?

First and foremost, it is important to only support companies that you feel align with your ethical views and who are demonstrating measurable progress towards becoming more environmentally sustainable.

Your money has a lot of power, so it is important to do some research and to ensure you are confident that you are giving your custom to a reliably ethical company. Consumers the world over need to increase pressure on businesses to do the right thing and to commit to lowering their emissions by 2030.

If you receive emails or see adverts from companies with insufficient emissions targets, contact them and question them as to why they have not taken the science seriously.

Email your local MP to ensure climate change and emissions reductions stay on the parliamentary agenda.

Attend protests such as Fridays For Future and Extinction Rebellion to keep climate change in the media limelight.

And finally, you could invest in companies that are actively helping to lower emissions and to create a more equitable and sustinable society.

At BHESCo our community energy projects are already preventing 375 tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere every year, and we are always welcoming new members to our co-op to help us deliver a fairer deal for people and planet.

An investment in BHESCo is an investment into lower emissions, the alleviation of fuel poverty and to giving communities control over their own energy supply.

However big or small of a commitment you can make, every action counts.

What do you think?
Tell us your thoughts in the comments section below