Etienne White and Dimitar Vlahov
Published 2 years ago.
About a 5 minute read.
Image: Johannes Plenio/Pexels
If you are truly looking for ways to maintain or establish your company as a leader in sustainability, and to minimize backlash from critical stakeholder groups, get thee to a 1.5°C science-based target as soon as you can.
We feel compelled to address two questions that we’re both being asked on a
regular basis by companies looking to set or update their climate targets: Is a
‘net-zero emissions by 2050’ commitment worthy of being labeled ‘climate
leadership’? Are targets consistent with 2°C warming good enough?
Both ‘net-zero by 2050’ and 2°C targets are associated with science-based
targets-setting, yet both have generated a certain amount of controversy — and
for good reasons. Allow us to tackle them one at a time, starting with ‘net-zero
emissions by 2050,’ and going over the most important nuances to keep in mind.
There is a fast-growing wave of brands issuing commitments to eliminate or
all of their carbon emissions (achieve net zero) by 2050. It’s worthy work — any
progress that companies make towards being more sustainable is to be applauded
and celebrated. We also recognize that many other companies are now feeling peer
pressure to join this shiny, feel-good ‘net-zero by 2050’ club — and that kind
of productive, good-for-humanity peer pressure is something to appreciate and be
grateful for, too.
At the same time, it’s a trend. Sustainability trends at best can be a rallying
cry with legitimate impacts; at mediocre, they can be a distraction; and at
shallow, they can even border on greenwashing.
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When specifically do ‘net-zero emissions by 2050’ commitments appear shallow or
bordering on greenwashing, you ask? The answer is simple and straightforward:
When the path between now and 2050 is vague or altogether missing; or when
there’s a detailed path, but it’s heavily reliant on steep cuts in the last
decade to decade-and-a-half before 2050. ‘Net zero’ risks giving us the concept
of ‘time’ that we don’t actually have. Basically, to follow the latest climate
science, you have to focus on achieving as much reduction as possible, as soon
as possible — including, very specifically, the equivalent of a reduction of 45
percent from 2010 levels by
Thus, the quality of any ‘net-zero by 2050’ commitment depends heavily on what
happens in the next 9 years or so. That is precisely why the United Nations
heralded 2020 as the beginning of the
Now, let’s look at 2°C targets. Of the 1,200+ companies that have set
science-based climate targets verified by the Science Based Targets
the majority are based on allowing 2°C warming. Only about a third of those
1,200+ commitments (410 companies as of March 2, 2021) have been based on
keeping warming to 1.5°C. It’s important to note that the SBTi was fine with 2°C
for a long time, but that changed with the IPCC
guidance issued in late 2018. SBTi is now
encouraging companies toward ‘limiting global warming to well-below 2°C above
pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C’.In 2019,
it launched a special campaign to highlight this pivot — the ‘Business Ambition
for 1.5°C’. Within
and increasingly so elsewhere as well, a 1.5°C future is referred to as
#OurOnlyFuture — which tells us all we need to know at this point.
Source: Science Based Targets Initiative
The trouble with allowing 2°C warming is that it carries seriously catastrophic
effects for life on earth. The most recent 2018 IPCC
highlights a number of negative impacts that would be avoided by limiting global
warming to 1.5°C, compared to 2°C. For examples:
By 2100, global sea level rise would be 10 cm lower with global warming of
1.5°C, compared to 2°C.
The probability of an Arctic Ocean free of sea ice in summer would be ‘once
per century’ with warming of 1.5°C, compared to ‘at least once per decade’
would decline by 70-90 percent with warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all
coral reefs would be gone with 2°C.
To be fair, 1.5°C warming still gives us huge migrations of people and mass
extinctions of animals; but with 2°C warming, everything is much worse: Insect
loss would be 3 times worse, heat events 2.6 times worse, plant and vertebrae
loss 2 times worse, and decline in marine fisheries 2 times worse. 2°C warming
means parts of New York and Florida will likely need to be abandoned,
and large parts of the tropics will see mass evacuations. In summary, planning
for climate change at 2°C is inadequate, and results in longer-lasting and
‘Net-zero emissions by 2050’ and ‘2°C warming’ pledges may create some immediate
gratification and feel-good glow for employees and shareholders; but if we
really are living in a multi-stakeholder environment now, we need to include
nature, biodiversity and future human generations in the stakeholders we serve
So, if you are truly looking for ways to maintain or establish your company as a
leader in sustainability, to minimize the risk of activist campaigns against
you, and to avoid future potential consumer boycotts of your products or
services, get thee to a 1.5°C science-based
just as soon as you can. Yes, it will be hard. Yes, it will be messy. Yes, it
will necessitate difficult conversations internally about the true purpose of
your business. Yes, it is the last, best chance we have of making it through the
climate crisis — not so that your grandchildren might thrive, but so that your
children will survive.
Published Mar 3, 2021 1pm EST / 10am PST / 6pm GMT / 7pm CET
Etienne is a marketing strategist, writer and sustainability storyteller. At SB, Etienne is the Founder and CEO of Let’s Create Possible.
Etienne runs a consulting business “Let’s Create Possible’ working at the nexus of sustainability and marketing to help make the impossible, possible, for a diverse array of B2B and B2C brands in the US and Europe. Earlier in her career, Etienne was Chief Marketing Officer at the Forest Stewardship Council, where she led the research, strategic and creative development of the global ‘Forests for all Forever’ rebranding. Before this Etienne held positions as VP Marketing for two US specialty retailers.
With more than 20 years of global brand management and marketing experience, Etienne has extensive knowledge in building both mainstream consumer brands and eco labels. Etienne began her career with over a decade in advertising (at agencies such as Fallon and Leo Burnett) leading award-winning, business-building marketing for a variety of global brands including Citibank, Nintendo, and Procter & Gamble.
Etienne is a native of London, England but now resides with her family in the US, working in her ‘spare’ time to restore and regenerate what was once a conventional farm, with her flock of free-range, grass fed, heritage breed sheep.
Dimitar is a senior sustainability and regeneration strategist, educator, executive advisor and mentor. He currently holds the following active roles: Advisor and Co-Lead, Global Content Strategy & Thought Leadership at Sustainable Brands; Senior Strategist, Content Development & Product Innovation at Sustainability Hub Norway; Executive Advisor at rePurpose Global; and Senior Content Advisor at Integrate2033. He co-led the creation of the SB Brand Transformation Roadmap, a comprehensive navigation tool mapping the whole journey from business-as-usual to a sustainable brand, and co-designed an accompanying assessment process that measures progress in five dimensions: purpose, brand influence, operations and supply chain, products and services, and governance.