What does net zero mean? Here’s what you need to know about corporate sustainability promises
This article was originally published in 2021 on theguardian.com as part of the series “Corporate Sustainability: in practice” sponsored by Henkel.
When companies talk about the climate crisis and the actions they are taking, there’s still too much we don’t fully understand
Byline: Sarah LaBrecque
The climate crisis is rapidly worsening, and the summer of 2021 has shown us just how extreme it’s becoming – deadly heatwaves, wildfires, hurricanes and Earth’s hottest month on record.
But for now, life continues. Groceries need to be bought, dishes washed and laundry done. Most of us will still want to fire up our computers and drive our cars, no matter how bad the news gets. Without doubt, behaviour change will be a crucial tool in the fight against climate disaster. But there is an argument that relying solely on consumers to change their ways is not enough; it is also up to companies and governments to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis wherever possible.
On first glance, it appears to be a proposition many businesses are happy to take up, with “100% sustainable by 2030” and “water use halved by 2025” just some of the company promises commonly made. But for most people, there is little way of knowing if these promises are ambitious enough, or what precisely they mean.
And the most common promise of all? The pledge to become “net zero”.
A gap in public understanding
“I think most people have no idea what net zero means,” says Henry Muss, founder of The Climate Resilience Company. Indeed, a 2021 survey by the UK government found that this was the case for 64% of the 1,800-plus respondents.
“There is a piece of work to be done around climate labelling,” says Muss. It would be helpful to have a “traffic light” system on products, he says, similar to the labelling on some foods, but related to their energy and water footprints, and associated waste. “The consumer could then quickly make a decision and say: ‘I’m going to go for orange or green.’” Such a system is in fact being trialled on some food packaging in the UK, with a view to being rolled out across Europe in 2022. But for now, consumers will have to dig a little deeper.
According to Deloitte, the professional services firm, we’ll reach net zero when the amount of carbon dioxide we add to the atmosphere is no more than the amount we take away. This will be achieved through emissions reductions and carbon sequestering. If we are to limit global heating to no more than 2C, preferably 1.5C, as specified by the Paris climate agreement, net zero emissions will be essential.
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Many companies have made public pronouncements of their ambition to honour the Paris climate agreement through net zero or net positive – also known as “climate positive” – strategies. But how does climate positive differ from net zero?
According to The CarbonNeutral Protocol, climate positive indicates where an organisation is removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere or reducing emissions so much that the “aggregated reductions and removals exceed the unabated emissions from the subject”. In other words, it’s one step further than net zero.
One company that has pledged to become climate positive is global consumer goods firm Henkel, with the aim to meet the target in 2030. It is behind brands such as Persil, Schwarzkopf and Loctite glue, and is of significant size: 174 production sites worldwide with approximately 52,000 employees.
A case study in going climate positive
To achieve this, Henkel has set interim goals: a 65% reduction in the CO2 emissions per tonne of product by 2025 and purchasing 100% of its electricity for production from renewable sources by 2030. By 2040, emissions should be slashed to zero and the company plans to be feeding green energy back into the grid.
We want to take responsibility for the emissions we cause.
Ulla Hueppe, Head of Sustainability for Henkel’s Adhesive Technologies
“We want to take responsibility for the emissions we cause,” explains Ulla Hueppe, head of sustainability for Henkel’s Adhesive Technologies division. “But we want to go even further than that by supplying more carbon-free energy than we need ourselves, so that others can use it to reduce their emissions as well.”
Luigi Maffucci is the head of sustainability and environmental performance in operations and supply chain at Henkel Adhesive Technologies and deals with the nuts and bolts behind various production, logistics and transportation-related aspects of this long-term goal.
He says, for example, that Henkel has installed on-site solar systems at various production facilities, including four new installations in China, that have a combined capacity installed of 1.64 megawatts (MW) and will enable the sites to produce more than 1,700 megawatt-hours (MWh) per year. Such installations are becoming increasingly more straightforward to implement, he says, “because of more efficient and competitive technologies and more favourable regulatory and incentive frameworks in multiple countries”.
Additionally, in 2021, Henkel secured a virtual power purchase agreement with a wind farm currently under construction in Bee county, Texas. The power fed into the supply grid from the renewable energy plant will even exceed the amount consumed by all 30 of Henkel’s production sites as well as all of Henkel’s office buildings across the US, leaving the remaining renewable electricity available for other users. Maffucci says that this agreement has actually helped to build up the wind power infrastructure there – part of the reason for the new plant was Henkel’s commitment to purchase the electricity it would produce.
Spread the positivity
“We want to enable our customers to reduce their carbon emissions,” explains Hueppe. Henkel has set itself the target of saving 100m tonnes of CO2 together with consumers, customers and suppliers by 2025, by addressing carbon emissions along the value chain. “For that we have developed technologies in bonding, sealing and coating to enable, for example, energy saving in buildings, lightweight design of vehicles, utilising wood as sustainable construction material and improved efficiency of renewable energy installations.”
Henkel has also committed to reduce the footprint of its raw materials and packaging by 30% by 2030. A goal Hueppe says was set in line with the Science Based Targets initiative, a global partnership involving the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), the UN and WWF among others, and which encourages companies to define science-based targets for emission reduction that are in line with the 1.5C target of the Paris agreement.
Ultimately, it’s not easy for the average person to make sense of climate pledges. But a greater understanding of key terms such as net zero and climate positive can help consumers make informed decisions, and think more critically.
Jens Teubler, a senior researcher at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, recommends examining the data behind claims and watching for red flags. These could include companies not providing basic information on what part of the value chain they looked at and how they calculated their [reduced] emissions. Or not reporting on progress, moving the goalposts, and making counterintuitive claims.
Corporate sustainability reports often don’t make for light reading. But for the time being they are one of the most important instruments to really understand what stands behind net zero claims.
Click here to read more on Henkel’s path to becoming climate positive