The Missing 95%

Earlier this month, the consulting company PwC released an analysis showing that current efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are not sufficiently ambitious to keep us within the two degrees warming target agreed at the 2009 United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen.

This news, while distressing for those of us committed to combating climate change, is not surprising. As Carbon Clear’s FTSE 100 analysis shows, many leading companies have not even measured their carbon footprint, let alone put in place measures to drive emission reductions. And those companies that do work to reduce their carbon footprint are often not making enough progress.

Let’s face it: decarbonising an economy – or a business – is hard work. Greenhouse gas-emitting activities are embedded in our daily business lives. Our vehicle fleets, logistics networks, energy infrastructure, built environment and even food production systems all release vast quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Each of these systems has been developed and optimized over several decades and represents billions of dollars of cumulative investment. We have trained generations of engineers, architects and farmers to design and use this infrastructure, and by and large, it works. It will be unrealistic to drop all of this and change overnight to a transportation, logistics and energy, built environment and food production system that releases 80% less carbon.

Seen in this light, the 3% to 5% annual reduction targets set by the most ambitious companies appear quite reasonable. Coming at a time of reduced government spending and economic hardship, the 1% or even smaller reductions that developed nations are actually achieving likewise appearing understandable. These are often the “easy” reductions, the ones that save companies money and energize staff and stakeholders. These reductions should by rights be happening anyway.

The problem is that they’re not enough.

Achieving a 5% annual emission reduction target over 10 years translates into a 40% reduction below the baseline by the end of that period. A company that had been emitting a million tonnes CO2e a year will now be emitting only 600,000 tonnes. Such an achievement will mark any business as a low-carbon leader. But it isn’t enough.

The problem is clear – a five percent carbon reduction target means not taking responsibility for the other 95% of the company’s footprint that remains unabated. And even though the footprint is shrinking year on year and may eventually reach zero, that residual 95% is causing a lot of damage along the way.

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