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Top corporations have vowed to fight climate change. Researchers say their plans fall short.

A study by the New Climate Institute says companies aren’t doing enough to meet climate targets and eliminate carbon emissions

A cargo ship owned by Maersk arrives at the New York City harbor in 2018. The Danish shipping company was praised in the new study for vowing to reduce emissions from terminals by 70 percent. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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Some of the world’s best-known corporations have clamored to show how seriously they are taking climate change, with an increasing number pledging to eliminate their carbon footprints in the decades ahead. But many of those firms are not yet doing nearly enough to back up their promises, according to a new analysis by the New Climate Institute, an independent organization based in Germany that promotes measures to slow Earth’s warming.

The group examined the climate plans of 25 high-profile corporations, from Amazon to Volkswagen to Walmart, that have vowed to slash their emissions to net zero. The study found that, on average, existing plans would reduce emissions by about 40 percent — significant, but not enough to prevent the worsening effects of a warming planet.

Moreover, eight of the 25 companies excluded the type of emissions created when customers use their products, such as when motorists burn gasoline. Those emissions — known as “scope 3” — typically account for 70 percent or more of corporate emissions, according to MSCI, a financial information firm.

“We went in naively optimistic about what we might see,” said Thomas Day, an analyst at the New Climate Institute and lead author of the study, which relied on information from the companies themselves. “We were disappointed we didn’t find a lot more creativity that we expected to find.”

Some of the companies reviewed, however, took issue with the study and complained that the New Climate Institute overlooked key considerations.

Although the study did not bestow its top ranking of “high integrity” on any of the companies, its second-tier ranking went to Maersk, the Danish shipping company, followed by Apple, Sony and Vodafone. But a dozen corporations fell into the lowest level, with “very low integrity” and largely lacking credible plans for getting to net zero in the time frames they have promised.

Some of the corporate pathways to zero can succeed only by purchasing credits from projects that take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, the analysis found. These credits, or offsets, can include expanding forests.

The Swiss-American pharmaceutical firm Novartis, for instance, earned praise for reporting emissions from its own purchases of goods and services, and for buying renewable energy. But the study said that Novartis will have to opt to offset 65 percent of its emissions with what the New Climate Institute calls “nature-based carbon offsets.”

“Carbon neutrality claims that are based extensively on offsetting have the potential to mislead and their integrity is highly contentious,” the report said.

In an email, Novartis said that complete data about its scope 3 emissions would be published in the first half of this year. The company also plans to map out a strategy by year’s end for eliminating emissions by 2040. “We appreciate the efforts of the New Climate Institute to drive ambitious and tangible action against climate change,” said a spokesperson, Julie Masow.

The study also found that some companies fail to promise significant reductions until close to their self-imposed deadlines.

GlaxoSmithKline, another big pharmaceutical firm, has set a “glidepath” that it argues will bring the company to net zero by 2030, an ambitious target. Under its current plan, more than a third of its emissions will be cut in the final year, and half in the final two years, the company’s public materials show.

Evan Berland, a company spokesman, said GSK’s pathway to net zero was tied in part to a planned corporate restructuring this year. He also noted that the delay in emission reductions was because GSK is working on a new low-carbon inhaler designed to reduce 34 percent of GSK’s carbon footprint. Currently, inhalers for treating asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease rely on propellants that use hydrofluorocarbons, potent greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. But the new inhaler still has to go through clinical trials and regulatory processes, so the impact on emissions will be felt only later.

Even as national governments face increasing pressure to do more to slow climate change, the corporate world is feeling similar pressures from activists, investors and customers. As a result, the number of new pledges has soared in the past several years, bringing both optimism and scrutiny.

“There has been such a proliferation,” said Jesse Jenkins, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering specializing in climate change at Princeton University. “It is fair to take a critical look at these commitments and what they mean and what concrete actions they entail.”

Maersk, which last month sped up its target and said it plans to reach net zero emissions across its entire business by 2040, won plaudits for vowing to reduce emissions from terminals by 70 percent. In addition, the company, whose ships run mainly on bunker fuel, would “leapfrog to net-zero fuels” instead of using liquefied natural gas as an interim measure, the study said. The company in 2021 ordered eight carbon neutral vessels that will set sail in 2024.

The report also praised Google for developing innovative tools to procure high-quality renewable energy. It takes aim, however, at Ikea, the giant furniture retailer that has donated half a billion dollars to join with the Rockefeller Foundation in a high-profile effort to close coal plants.

Ikea has said it would be carbon positive by 2030, meaning that on balance it would be removing carbon from the atmosphere. The retailer says it plans to take used furniture and refurbish it, thus effectively storing carbon dioxide in new chairs, sofas and beds. It is also storing carbon in land and by planting trees. Ikea’s sustainability report says that “through a circular economy, we will ensure that carbon remains stored in our products and materials for longer.”

But the New Climate Institute criticized that approach, saying it would provide only temporary carbon storage.

“Carbon dioxide removals can only be considered a credible neutralization of a company’s emissions if the storage has a high certainty of permanence,” the study said. “IKEA recognizes that by storing carbon in its products, it will delay their release into the atmosphere by on average just 20 years. The release of stored carbon negates any climate impact from the original sequestration.”

Ikea could not be reached for comment.

In addition, all but one of the 25 companies will likely have to rely on offsets of varying quality, the study said. It found that “at least two thirds of the companies rely on removals from forests and other biological activities, which can easily be reversed by, for example, a forest fire.”

Amazon, whose plan for net zero emissions was dubbed “low integrity” by the report, said in a statement that it was committed to hitting its net zero target by 2040, 10 years ahead of the date that world leaders set in the Paris agreement. In the interim, it said it will power its operations with 100 percent renewable energy by 2025, deliver half its shipments with net zero carbon by 2030, and deploy 100,000 electric delivery vehicles by 2030. (Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

“Most companies are going through a three-step process — set the goal, get a plan to meet the goal, and take steps against that plan,” said Sarah Ladislaw, a managing director at RMI, a nonprofit devoted to eliminating carbon emissions from the economy. “The first two are much easier than the third. Many companies are taking on new challenges they genuinely haven’t solved before and that can take some time.”

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