Climate action is in the air. Like governments around the world, big business is scrambling to make a climate pledge and, as responsible global citizens, embark on a path of seemingly ambitious climate action…or at least c is what they claim to the outside world.

According to the University of Oxford’s Energy and Climate Intelligence, at least a fifth of the world’s 1,000 largest companies had already made “net-zero” emissions commitments by March 2021. Unity.

So how are these companies doing?

The very first climate responsibility of companies To watch, a joint initiative between NewClimate Institute and Carbon Market Watch, where I work, aimed to answer this question. The report assessed the climate commitments and claims of 25 of the world’s biggest companies, including household names like Apple, Amazon, BMW, Carrefour, GlaxoSmithKline, Google, IKEA, Nestlé, Sony, Vodafone and Unilever.

The results shocked even the researchers, and not pleasantly. “We set out to uncover as many replicable best practices as possible, but were frankly surprised and disappointed with the overall integrity of the companies’ claims,” ​​said Thomas Day of NewClimate, the report’s lead author.

Despite ambitious promises to become ‘carbon neutral’ and even ‘carbon positive’, researchers found that the future emissions reductions companies actually committed to were, on average, only 40%. Moreover, many of these cuts are to be applied decades from now, in 2040 or 2050, leaving the burden on the shoulders of future generations.

Of the 25 companies assessed, only three were actually found to have committed to reducing their emissions by more than 90% across the entire value chain: Maersk, Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom. At the other end of the scale, at least five of the companies were found to have committed to reducing their emissions by less than 15%.

One of the favorite techniques companies use to wash their image with a greener-than-green glow is to use accounting tricks so creative they deserve their own literary prize. Take for example the case of Apple. The iconic tech company proudly proclaims, “We are carbon neutral. And by 2030, every product you love will be too.

This should allow users of the many Apple products to feel comfortable with their consumption habits. But the company here sings a very misleading iTunes because its claim only covers a tiny fraction of the company’s proverbial apple of shows. The company’s carbon neutral claim currently only includes direct operations, which accounts for a microscopic 1.5% of its carbon footprint.

The companies featured in the report are able to mask their inaction and lack of ambition by using the elusive concept of “net zero”, which may sound like zero but isn’t zero because it not only includes emissions reductions , but also carbon offsets and removals.

A fun example of this involves IKEA. While the furniture giant isn’t by far the most ill-intentioned of the pack, it is nonetheless currently applying some devious accounting tricks to achieve its goals. For example, it counts the solar panels it sells to its customers in its own emission reductions.

IKEA also counts the carbon stored in some of its furniture. However, there is a slight catch here. For this stored carbon to make a difference to the climate, it will have to remain in IKEA’s chairs and beds for centuries, implying that it would have to abandon its fast-flat furniture business model to design the old antiques of the far future.

The ludicrous efforts of big business to give their images a green facelift is rich material for satire, but the consequences of this comedy of misguided claims are anything but funny. “Greenwashing is not a victimless crime because consumers and policy makers are fooled into thinking that companies are doing everything they can to reduce their impact on the climate,” explains Gilles Dufrasne of Carbon Market Watch.

Given the elasticity and ambiguity of terms such as “net zero” and “carbon neutral” and their potential to be exploited for greenwashing, we at Carbon Market Watch urge governments to step in and to prohibit companies from making such claims and to require them to report their actual emission reductions. Governments must also establish strict criteria to regulate if and how specific climate-related claims can be made.

Of course, this can be difficult. Many governments, after all, are also playing fast and well with their net zero promises, as I pointed out in a previous column. Nevertheless, governments must act because the temptation of greenwashing will more often than not prove too strong for companies to resist.

Why is it?

The immediate reason is that, without regulation or oversight, a typical business will seek to maximize its green image at the lowest financial cost and operational inconvenience. This means that the changes it is likely to trigger will be cosmetic, at a time when only drastic change will avert catastrophe.

Another factor is more fundamental and systemic. The entire business ecosystem is rooted in profit maximization and the relentless pursuit of perpetual growth and maximizing shareholder value. This is not good news for our natural ecosystems.

A company that wants to become truly green and sustainable must not only invest heavily in renewable energy, but also rethink its entire business model and reorient it towards more sustainable and sustainable products and make its production processes circular to minimize or even eliminate waste and reduce unnecessary emissions.

It’s no good, for example, for Apple (or Samsung or Huawei, for that matter) to make its energy supply greener, if it keeps releasing new iPhones every year and keeps ceasing to provide upgrades. update software for older iPhone models or put them in the graveyard of its “vintage and obsolete” list. Currently, in Europe, the average smartphone is kept for less than three years before being thrown away. Extending their life by just one year would save two million tonnes of emissions in Europe alone, according to a study.

This kind of planned obsolescence isn’t just a problem with smartphones, but has plagued the entire economy ever since bulb makers had a light bulb moment a century ago and decided to limit the life of their products to stimulate demand.

However, reinventing a company’s business model to make its products more durable and sustainable will reduce demand, affecting its revenue streams and growth prospects. And the stock market hates nothing more than a company that stops growing.

Take the recent case of Facebook. When it reported that its active users had dipped ever so slightly (for the first time) from 1.93 billion to 1.929 billion, investors ran for the hills, driving parent company Meta’s market value down. of $230 billion, the largest loss in a single day. never. Meanwhile, revelations that the companies are preparing their climate books have had no impact on stock market interest in them, despite the media storm surrounding the revelations.

What this reveals is that the system is loaded against the climate and the environment. Overcoming this inertia requires changing not only the behavior of individual firms, but also the market forces that govern them. Profit optimization must replace maximization, and sustainability must matter much more than size.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.