There’s only one year left to hit these 2020 environmental pledges

It was a nice round number for companies and countries to declare that it would be the year they’d cut emissions or stop deforestation. But now it’s coming up. Is anyone close?

There’s only one year left to hit these 2020 environmental pledges

Nine years ago, Unilever announced that it planned to cut its environmental footprint in half by 2020. If you look at the company’s website today, that goal has quietly been pushed back to 2030. Hundreds of other companies, cities, and countries also set key environmental goals for 2020. With only one year to go, here’s a brief look at how a few of them are faring.

[Photos: Olga_I/Shutterstock/USGS/Flickr]

194 countries: Protecting the world’s most threatened ecosystems

At a time when the world may be entering the sixth mass extinction–with a current rate of extinction more than 100 times the rate throughout geological time–we’re not doing enough to protect wild ecosystems. In 2010, 194 countries agreed to 20 conservation goals that they each planned to achieve by 2020. Most countries are making some progress; there are now many more marine protected areas, for example. But as of a 2016 report, only 5% were on track to meet their goals. In the meantime, populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians have dropped by an average of 60% since 1970.

Scotland: 100% renewable electricity

For decades, most electricity in Scotland came from coal. But the country shut down its last coal plant in 2016, and has rapidly ramped up wind power–including a new wind farm with enormous, 626-foot-high turbines that can power a house for a day in a single spin, and the world’s first floating wind farm. It’s a testing ground for tidal power that harnesses energy from ocean waves. And though it’s too early to say that Scotland will meet its ambitious goal of running on 100% renewable electricity in a little over a year, reports in 2017 suggested that it is on track.

Multiple companies: zero net deforestation

Over the last two years, the world lost an area of rain forest roughly the size of the entire country of Vietnam. That’s despite the fact that hundreds of major companies, from McDonald’s and PepsiCo to Procter & Gamble–the companies that buy ingredients, like beef and palm oil, that drive forest loss–have made commitments to get to zero net deforestation by 2020. But at the current rate of deforestation, “no sector is on track to actually achieve that goal–and likely will not,” says Shyla Raghav, climate change lead for the nonprofit Conservation International. To get to the goal, she says, will require “reducing perverse incentives, scaling green finance, increasing supply chain transparency, and strengthening governance in sourcing regions.”

[Photo: Ikea]

IKEA: renewable energy

The flatpack furniture giant has ambitious sustainability goals–by 2030, it plans to be “climate positive,” reducing more emissions than its products and operations generate. That includes, among other things, using only renewable and recycled materials in its products, moving to electric delivery trucks, and changing the food it serves. By 2020, the company, which owns more wind turbines than any other retailer, had said it aimed to produce as much renewable energy as the total energy it consumes globally. It’s on track to meet that goal.

San Francisco: sending zero waste to landfill

In 2003, San Francisco set the goal of sending zero waste to landfill by 2020. At first, the city made progress: It was the first in the U.S. to make both recycling and composting mandatory. By 2012, 80% of waste was diverted from landfills, more than any other U.S. city. But some San Franciscans still aren’t recycling as much as they could, and some items, like disposable diapers, still have no option other than the trash. The city says that manufacturers need to redesign some products for recyclability. It’s going to miss the 2020 goal; in September, it set a new, smaller goal: to reduce waste per citizen by at least 15% by 2030.


China: cutting emissions

China is the world’s biggest polluter. But it’s also been moving quickly to change, adding a record amount of new solar power last year (installing 53 gigawatts in a year, more than has ever been installed in the U.S.), rolling out electric cars twice as fast as the U.S., and launching a new emissions trading scheme. Earlier this year, the Chinese government announced that it had reached its 2020 goal for cutting emissions three years early. There’s still a long way to go–China cut emissions per unit of GDP (46% below 2005 levels), but total emissions are still growing, and the country doesn’t plan for them to peak until 2030.

Germany: cutting emissions

Germany was an early adopter of solar power–despite its relative lack of sunshine–and in the first half of 2018, the country produced enough renewable energy to power every household for an entire year. German car companies are investing billions in electric vehicles. But despite progress, the country is likely going to miss its goal to cut emissions 40% by 2020 compared to 1990 levels. The government blamed a strong economy and population growth when it announced that it was off track earlier this year. Now it’s aiming for a target of a 55% cut by 2030.

[Source Image: haushe/iStock]

Facebook: 100% renewable electricity

Facebook has a big carbon footprint–last year, the social network emitted 979,000 metric tons of CO2, largely driven by the energy it takes to power and cool its data centers. But it’s moving aggressively to ramp up its use of renewable energy. By 2020, the company is on track to buy as much renewable electricity as it uses globally, and cut its emissions by 75%. Google reached 100% renewable electricity in 2017, and Apple did the same in 2018.

Global goal: carbon emissions need to peak

Some companies might have chosen 2020 as a deadline because it’s a round number. But for the climate, one 2020 deadline is real. The Paris climate agreement aims to keep global warming “well below” two degrees Celsius–something that’s necessary to limit the most catastrophic effects of climate change, from the destruction of coral reefs to deadly heat waves, and to avoid irreversible tipping points like the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which holds enough ice to eventually raise sea levels by around 23 feet. There’s only a limited amount of emissions that the world can still emit before two degrees of warming is inevitable, and to get to a zero-emissions economy will take time.

To keep warming well under the two-degree threshold, scientists say, global emissions need to peak in 2020, and then start to fall. It’s a massive goal. Every coal plant in the world would need to be on the way to retirement. Deforestation would have to drastically decline. Electric vehicle sales would have to grow far faster than they are today. After a few years of global emissions remaining flat, from 2014 to 2016, they started to climb again in 2017, and rose again this year. The chances of peaking in 2020 are vanishingly small–but also staggeringly important. There’s a year left to get it right.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."