• 01.02.14

Next Time A Company Tells You Its Carbon Footprint, Ask For Some Planetary Context

A big reduction in emissions might not mean much at all.

Next Time A Company Tells You Its Carbon Footprint, Ask For Some Planetary Context
[Image: Earth via Shutterstock]

You’ve probably heard how such-and-such company has cut their carbon emissions by, say, 10% in the last year. But then you might be wondering what that means exactly. It’s a big number for the company, and perhaps for its industry. But for the planet at large?


Without context, a 10% cut–or even a 50% one–might not hold much water (the corporation may have started high, for instance). What you really want to know is whether your Fortune 500 titan is living within planetary limits–that is, what science says the atmosphere can allow.

Globally, that number is thought to be a warming of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from the pre-industrial era. And so that is the baseline that a new ranking of corporate climate performance uses. Compiled by Climate Counts, a New Hampshire nonprofit, the study analyses 100 major companies, giving each a notional “carbon budget” based on their size relative to the economy. It then sees whether the organization, according to its own carbon reporting, lives within its means.

Almost half (49) do, though there’s a major caveat. Climate Counts only considers direct emissions (what a company puts out from, say, its factory) or what it contributes from the electricity, heat, or steam it uses. The numbers don’t include emissions that result from a company’s products, which is obviously a big win for some industries, including oil and gas businesses. The data is for 2005 through 2012.

At the top of the ranking are Autodesk, Unilever, Eli Lilly, Canon, and L’Oreal. The likes of Bayer, Volkswagen, Novartis, and Coca-Cola also make the “sustainable” grade. At the bottom–those firms not living within their allotted safe limits–come Weyerhaeuser (a major timber group), Molson Coors, UPS, Royal Bank of Scotland, and ConAgra. Whirlpool, P&G, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo also fall in the unsustainable division.

Climate Counts picked the companies because they have a good disclosure record (there are many others that don’t report their emissions very well, and presumably could also be operating unsustainably). Only two participants–Autodesk and Unilever–actually set targets based on scientific limits. In a sense, the other “sustainable” organizations have chanced their way into the good books, rather than designed their emissions reduction targets (though we probably shouldn’t criticize the process if the outcome turns out okay).

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.