When jubilant government negotiators signed the Paris agreement in 2015, they agreed to hold a global stocktake at the end of 2023 of how the fight against climate change is going.
That time has now come and the verdict is not good. The UN climate chief Simon Stiell told reporters last month “we are far from where we need to be as a global community” and the “window of opportunity is rapidly closing”.
He called for a “course correction”. Governments will debate what that entails at the Cop28 climate summit 30 November-12 December.
But it’s not just governments that will decide our fate. Businesses have the power to get the world’s emissions down too. And part of the response to the global stocktake is increasing transparency and accountability around corporate action.
Kaveh Guilanpour is a vice president at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “2024 really needs to see an effective response to the outcomes of the global stocktake so that it doesn’t remain words on paper,” he said.
Governments may agree at Cop28 to triple renewable energy capacity and double energy efficiency by 2030 and phase out fossil fuels by mid-century.
“The corporate world needs to see that clear signal,” Guilanpour said, and could work with governments and organisations like the International Renewable Energy Agency to map out those transitions.
Equally, voluntary corporate initiatives like RE100, under which members commit to getting 100% of their electricity from renewables, bolster political will to aim high. The initiative calculates its 400+ members collectively use more electricity than France. They’ve got buying power.
As the head of climate solutions at business research firm Morningstar Sustainalytics, Anya Solovieva talks often with investors and the upper echelons of the corporate world.
Over a full English breakfast at a private members club in London’s financial centre, she told Climate Home that “there is an awareness of the global stocktake, I think investors are watching”.
But, she added, investors see 1.5C as “a minimum as opposed to a goal” and for them “it actually doesn’t necessarily have that big of an impact if we move from 1.5[C] to 1.6[C], the reality is that the transition is happening”.
For the people that will suffer from the extra climate disaster, the difference between 1.5C and 1.6C matters hugely. But for either target, the solution for businesses is the same – get emissions down as fast as possible.
Solovieva said that corporations’ managements are aware of this need to reduce emissions to net zero.
The UAE’s answer
For most companies, that is a decades-long project which will far outlast any CEO or sustainability lead.
That’s why initiatives have sprouted up in recent years asking businesses to commit to setting and meeting targets.
The latest comes from the United Arab Emirates’ Cop28 presidency, which is asking firms to sign a Net Zero Transition Charter (NZTC).
In a statement, the Cop28 presidency said the charter follows September’s technical report from the global stocktake “which showed that the world is off track to keeping the goals of the Paris agreement alive”.
By signing the charter, companies are promising to “publicly set 1.5C-aligned, science-based, credible and transparent net zero 2050 and interim emissions reduction targets”.
This can be through a “net zero-aligned national pledge” or by signing up for an existing programme like the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi), Race to Zero or 2050 Pathways.
Over 250 companies have already registered targets judged 1.5C-compatible by SBTi including beer brewer Heineken, toy-maker Hasbro and fashion brand Burberry.
To be compatible with the NZTC, they must also produce a “credible” net zero transition plan within a year of Cop28 and publicly report their emissions and progress on their transition plan.
Companies that do this will be praised on the Cop28 website and will be able to boast of their involvement in their marketing materials.
Cop28 president Sultan Al-Jaber said “the private sector’s engagement in Cop28 – their resources, expertise, and commitment – is vital in driving real-world action”.
The charter will further enable them to ” take meaningful action on climate, track progress and be held accountable”.
The NZTC builds upon the work of a 16-person taskforce convened by the UN chief Antonio Guterres to tackle corporate greenwash.
At Cop27 in Egypt last year, the taskforce launched its recommendations. Its chair Catherine McKenna told a packed tent that “too many of these net zero pledges represent little more than empty slogans and hype”.
Some recommendations from the McKenna taskforce have been adopted by the Cop28 presidency. Both say that firms should should support a just transition, align their lobbying with their climate commitments and leave trade associations whose activities aren’t compatible with 1.5C of warming.
Other taskforce recommendations are absent from the NZTC. The taskforce said that companies “cannot claim to be net zero while continuing to build or invest in new fossil fuel supply”. The Cop28 presidency left this out.
Cop28 president Sultan Al-Jaber is the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. The company has a net zero by 2045 target but only for its operational emissions – not the much larger carbon impact of customers burning its products. It is set to spend $1 billion every month this decade on oil and gas production.
Bill Hare was one of the members of the UN taskforce. He accused the NZTC of being soft on investment in fossil fuels, use of carbon credits and of relying on weak voluntary standards.
“It’s a mild form of greenwashing,” he said. “They’re providing the opportunity for companies to do yet again what they’ve done in other context – to claim they’re going to net zero when no one really knows whether they are or not.”
Building on UN taskforce
After the McKenna taskforce reported, the UN’s head Guterres asked the UN climate change arm to move forward on its recommendations.
They tasked Bing Leng from China and Sarah Bloom-Raskin from the USA to lead consultations on how to do that and they will report back at Cop28.
At the same time, the UN is developing a climate action portal. This will be a website which aims to put all corporate net zero targets in one place so that the public can look at them and compare them.
“That’s an essential element if the average person wants to access the data that tells you what’s really going on and have confidence that it’s real data,” Hare said.
He said that progress had been slow but it is “getting off the ground” now and more is likely to be revealed at Cop28.