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Corporate Climate Pledges: A New Form of Greenwashing

More and more corporations recently have pledged to tackle climate change by reducing their carbon emissions by a given date, and by reaching net zero by some point between 2040 and 2060. To ensure these corporations meet their commitments, the public then needs to remain vigilant and hold them accountable. Without accountability, companies can very easily pick up climate pledges as a form of greenwashing.

Companies have been quick to show their support of the United States rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, especially after the shift to an administration that believes in and campaigned for tackling the climate crisis. In fear of being left behind, corporations and organizations have accelerated their plans to address climate change, or they have publicly pledged to do so. Examples include Bank of America reaching net neutral for operations and starting to work with their clients towards reducing their Scope 3 emissions (emissions that are indirectly caused by the corporation, which includes their supply chain and clients), General Motors aiming to become carbon neutral by 2040, and transportation companies such as Uber, JetBlue and others joining The Climate Pledge. Even large-scale trade associations have become more eco-friendly. The Business Roundtable came out with a statement signed by more than 200 businesses to push for more aggressive climate action. The US Chamber of Commerce recently released a statement in agreement that a market-based mechanism will be needed to tackle climate change. Even the American Petroleum Institute, or API, a trade association known for its climate change denial, is showing signs that they would be willing to endorse a price on carbon.

However, members of the Sierra Club, Change the Chamber x Lobby for Climate, Ceres, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, the AAA Climate Leadership Coalition, and more, are suspicious that this may be a new wave of greenwashing. They are weary that, by corporations and organizations making vague statements about climate change, they are making themselves appear to be allies of climate action while they are actually making sure they have a seat at the negotiating table. They fear that these corporations may have ulterior motives to ensure that policy actions are surface-level and would allow them to continue polluting. The Washington Post reported that analysts and lawmakers doubt the sincerity of the API’s statement because it allows the association to “appear to support climate action while risking little,” as the API’s board members know it would be difficult (but not impossible) to pass a carbon tax through Congress regardless of their statement. Fellows within the Change the Chamber x Lobby for Climate campaign speculate that discussing and agreeing on a price on carbon could become an exceedingly long process and take up valuable time. Additionally, they fear that trade associations such as the US Chamber of Commerce and API will back the least ambitious bill and claim that they’ve done enough.

As an example of what many climate organizations fear is becoming more common, notoriously large carbon emitters such as Duke Energy and Southern Company both recently released disclosures about their climate policy advocacy, but provided misleading and incomplete information ahead of their report for the Climate Action 100+ coalition. Both companies put out vaguely supportive statements about their climate policy engagement and emission reduction commitments, but have yet to demonstrate any willingness to act. Neither company has endorsed any specific decarbonization targets or policies, not to mention both companies are still spending money to lobby against decarbonization and anti-fossil fuel policies, with Duke Energy advocating for policies that would specifically slow down decarbonization. Unfortunately, they are not alone.

Utility companies have been hiding behind non-binding, intentionally vague carbon neutrality pledges which allow them to act minimally and delay changing for as long as possible. Some companies blame the lack of technological advancement that would allow them to make the change, while tech companies advocate for “innovation and no new policies,” resulting in a stand-still. Other companies have held up a climate positive facade while supporting their trade associations’ destructive lobbying against climate legislation. Green pledges are hollow if companies are not willing to support the legislation that would set up economic programs and provide the required green infrastructure to build a sustainable and equitable economy.

Grassroots campaigns and green organizations are on the forefront of demanding substantial change within corporations in order to move towards supporting legislation that can mitigate climate change. They are emphasizing the need for private-sector leadership to address climate change where the government is lacking. There is an expanding appeal for corporations to take responsibility in reviewing their lobbying practices, and to be more transparent on how and where they spend their money. These grassroots groups are pushing corporate CEO’s to adopt science-based climate policies that work towards the goals established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2015, and to include climate policy as an issue they lobby for. It is the role of these organizations and campaigns to continue pushing for corporations and trade associations to support bills and legislation that are ambitious enough to bring about the substantial change the world needs.

The increasing acknowledgements and public commitments being made to address the climate crisis are encouraging. These statements are a step in the right direction in ensuring that climate change is treated as an indisputable fact, and one that must be addressed by all sectors of society. However, the public cannot be complacent. Grassroots campaigns communicate directly with companies to ensure that these statements are not made blankly and that sufficient action follows. It is necessary to not only support the United States rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, but also to publicly support science-based emissions reductions goals and the legislation that will seek to achieve them. 


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