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Adding Perspective: Climate Counts To Pilot Context-Based Sustainability Approach

Climate Counts infographic illustrating how well companies performed in 2011 based on the scale above. Darker shades of green and yellow mean that the company scored toward the upper end of that particular threshold.

This month Sustainable Brands has showcased a wide spectrum of innovative sustainability metrics that drive corporate profitability. Among others, we’ve seen balanced scorecards, the pursuit of zero waste, and the merits of sustainability ROI.

At the heart of these metrics lies the connected goal of creating value at once for the organization and for the environment. The general idea is that if we can get enough of the brightest minds in business to turn the production/consumption paradigm on its ear, we may one day be able to harmonize society’s appetite for goods within the limits of the natural world, even as population continues to soar.

But how far have we come and how far have we left to go? For those of us at Climate Counts, an organization that rates major consumer brands on their commitment to climate leadership (or, more precisely, on how well companies are measuring, reducing and reporting their greenhouse gas emissions), the question becomes, “What does a good score really mean?” 

In 2011, Unilever, Climate Counts' top-scoring company, was awarded an unprecedented 88 out of a possible 100 points for GHG targets set forth in their Sustainable Living Plan. By 2020, Unilever aspires to double the size of its operations while reducing by half the GHG impacts of its products — a daunting if not awe-inspiring target. If the company were to achieve its goal of halving its emissions, the result would be an output of 2,785,882 metric tons of GHG emissions for the year 2020 alone. Compared to where Unilever’s emissions would otherwise be without these reductions, 2.7 million metric tons seems attractive — but compared to, say, zero, it's still a considerable amount. 

Similarly, Bank of America has demonstrated great progress in reducing Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 9.7 percent to 1.7 million metric tons from 2010 to 2011 — a feat that garnered recent praise from the Carbon Disclosure Project in the form of being named to the Carbon Performance Leadership Index (CPLI) for a third straight year.  But if every emissions-producing entity on the planet achieved such reductions, over time would it be enough to prevent further climate change? 

Herein lies the problem. Although ratings organizations such as Climate Counts, CDP, and the Dow Jones Sustainability Index offer investors and consumers an easy-to-understand snapshot of sustainability performance, they offer little in the way of context that can be tied to the bigger picture. If the goal is to establish an accurate reference point as to whether or not the private sector is succeeding in mitigating society’s impacts on climate change, it stands to reason that science should be better represented in the ratings.  

As Bill McKibben noted in his recent Rolling Stone article, scientists estimate that humans can get away with emitting no more than 565 additional gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere by 2050 if we expect to keep the planet from warming by more than two degrees Celsius. Admittedly, this is one of many scientific projections, and although this particular target may have its flaws, it gives us a much-needed starting point with which to gauge our progress as a society. 

As the climate conversation has ebbed its way almost completely from the public vernacular, in its place has seemingly emerged a tendency for sustainability professionals (private sector and NGO professionals alike) to validate our successes in terms of the competition rather than within the context of the limitations afforded to us by the earth’s carrying capacity.  We employ metrics to rate our performance as individual organizations and, in cases such as the Higg Index, to give an entire industry a framework to identify the environmental costs of using certain input materials. Where the private sector has struggled, however, is in squaring its collective progress on sustainability with an ambivalent public that prefers business as usual to the misguided prospect that carbon neutrality would necessitate higher prices and lower quality goods.  

So where do we go from here? In 2013, Climate Counts plans to conduct a pilot rating under the context-based sustainability framework being spearheaded by Bill Baue, Mark McElroy and their cadre of sustainability practitioners, academics and industry thought leaders. The rating will comprise a sample set of companies representing a diverse group of industry sectors. The goal will be to measure corporate progress toward true sustainability, using the latest scientific data and climate models as the bar to be measured against. Instead of measuring companies on voluntary targets, which are typically derived from business cases tied to costs, risks and reputation, this rating will measure companies on their performance compared to where the science dictates we need to be as a society. 

Understandably, as the bulk of private sector GHG emissions continues to be in the form of Scope 2 purchased electricity, there are bound to be limitations on how well companies can score that are beholden to a grid dependent on fossil fuels. As the goal of the project will be to further the concept of context-based sustainability, and not to unfairly judge companies on criteria beyond their control, we will be looking to engage with companies that demonstrate: 1) a willingness to be on the forefront of next-generation sustainability practices; 2) that recognize the need for mechanisms that will phase out carbon-intensive fuels over time; and 3) that have demonstrated a high degree of competency related to carbon accounting and reporting.  

With the development of the GHG Protocol and organizations such as the Global Reporting Initiative, carbon accounting and reporting are no longer seen as an abstract concepts, but rather as fundamental components of 21st-century corporate citizenship. Standardization has been embraced to the point that companies use the data as a barometer of performance and operational efficiency. The next logical step, it would seem, is to mash up corporate sustainability targets with climate science to gauge how far we have left to go on the road to achieving true sustainability.  

Mike Bellamente is the executive director of Climate Counts, a national nonprofit aimed at bringing consumers and corporations together to address climate change.  Prior to joining the organization, Bellamente served as primary environmental liaison for the NADO Research Foundation in… [Read more about Mike Bellamente]

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