On Friday 22 April, it was Earth Day. This year’s theme was Invest in Our Planet, calling on everyone including government, citizens, and companies, to contribute to tackling climate change. 

“Unless businesses act now, climate change will ever more deeply damage economies, increase scarcity, drain profits and job prospects, and impact us all,” wrote Earth Day Network, the promoters of the annual event, on its website.  

Just 100 companies have been the source of over 70% of emissions since 1988, a study by the international non-profit organisation CDP found in 2017. In that light, pushing the private sector to contribute to reducing emissions seems like a necessary step in reducing global emissions.

Unclear targets and greenwashing

Most companies have some form of climate strategy in place. However, without clear guidelines and accountability, there is a risk of unclear targets, empty promises, and greenwashing. 

When investigating the climate strategies of 25 major global companies, the non-profit NewClimate Institute found pledges made in these public strategies are often ambiguous and emission reduction commitments are limited. 

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“All of the 25 companies assessed in this report pledge some form of zero-emission, net-zero or carbon-neutral target,” the researcher wrote in February. “But just three of the 25 companies (…) clearly commit to deep decarbonisation of over 90% of their full value-chain emissions by their respective net-zero and zero-emission target years.” 

With the lack of regulation, there is a growing need for companies to set clear and credible targets. This is where independent certification schemes such as the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) come in. 

The SBTi is a collaboration between CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature. Over 1,300 companies have joined with science-based targets that are in line with the Paris Agreement goals and approved by the SBTi.

It should be noted, however, that joining the initiative is voluntary. Therefore, even companies that are part of the initiative with the lowest targets still indicate a willingness to reduce their emissions more so than companies that have decided not to join.

Which companies have the most ambitious emissions targets?

Just Food analysed the emissions reduction targets of the companies in the database of the SBTi. Because it can be difficult to compare targets between different companies and sectors, the analysis only includes the companies with absolute targets.

Absolute targets are only relative to a baseline, while intensity targets – the ones that were excluded – are relative to a unit or economic output, for example, a reduction of emissions per million dollars of profit.

The data shows that fewer companies are committed to Scope 3 than to Scopes 1 and 2, and that the targets set for Scope 3 are less ambitious.

Scopes are categories of emissions set by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, a framework for reporting greenhouse gas emissions from the private and public sectors. Scope 1 covers direct emissions from owned or controlled sources, Scope 2 covers indirect emissions – for instance, from the generation of electricity – and Scope 3 covers all other direct emissions from the value chain.

Setting Scope 3 targets as a company is just as important, if not even more, as setting targets for Scopes 1 and 2, explains SBTi: “For the majority of sectors, the largest sources of a company’s emissions lie upstream and/or downstream of their core operation.”

Setting commitments on Scope 3 emissions is just the first step. Tackling them presents myriad challenges.

Taking the average of reported targets of the companies in each sector indicates how ambitious each sector is compared to others. Calculating the average target by sector was done by averaging the percentage of the reduction target and averaging the timeframe between the base year and the target year.

Based on the average of the Scopes 1 and 2 targets of 66 companies, the food manufacturing sector has committed to reducing 43.5% of emissions in 11.5 years. That is less ambitious than the average of all companies. Across all companies in the database, the average target is for a reduction of 44.6% in a timeframe of 12 years.

Among food manufacturers, Unilever plc had the highest commitment for Scopes 1 and 2, with a target of reducing these emissions by 100% by 2030.

On the other hand, Cargill and Mondelez International have targets to cut their Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 10% by 2025.

The SBTi categorised each target set by companies based on future pathways. The trajectory can either be towards a 1.5°C, well below 2°C, or 2°C above pre-industrial levels by 2050.

To avoid the most significant consequences of climate change, the rise in global temperature needs to stay below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2050. However, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that the current trajectory will result in global warming of between 2.2 and 3.5°C. In response to the urgent need to reduce emissions further, the SBTi will “only accept target submissions of scope 1 and 2 targets that are in line with a 1.5°C trajectory” as of 15 July 2022. 

With a total of 40 companies, most with absolute and intensity targets in the food manufacturing sector are in line with a trajectory towards 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2050, while 26 companies wouldn’t be able to submit their targets under future SBTi norms.

Just Food Guide: The road to net zero – Big Food’s emissions pledges