U.S. companies make new vows to tackle carbon emissions, even as global action falls short

Fall in New York typically means environmental groups, international corporations, government leaders and U.N. officials flocking to the Big Apple for Climate Week. Last year, they promised more meaningful action to tackle climate change — and hundreds of thousands of young people took to the streets to demand it.

This year’s event looks starkly different. The coronavirus pandemic, the reeling economy and the looming U.S. election have commandeered the nation’s attention and forced Climate Week, like so much else in modern life, to migrate online.

Yet some of the world’s biggest companies say they have not lost sight of the urgency of climate change and have announced new plans to combat it. Morgan Stanley, AT&T and Walmart made fresh commitments and adopted more aggressive timetables for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, General Electric announced that it will no longer build new coal-fired power plants.

Morgan Stanley became the first major U.S. bank to declare that the emissions of clients and projects it finances would equal net-zero by 2050. Analysts said the firm would have to sharply reduce lending to clients such as the oil and gas sector.

Ben Ratner, senior director of the Environmental Defense Fund, said that “adopting net zero by 2050 as the north star will become the new normal for companies and investors.”

General Electric, meanwhile, said it would exit the business of building new coal plants. In the United States, the coal-fired power plant sector has tumbled to a 42-year low anyway, and three quarters of the new power plants this year are expected to be wind and solar. GE’s foreign customers are also turning toward those renewables

The company’s stock tumbled 7.7 percent on the news Monday and more on Tuesday.

The plans come just six weeks before President Trump is expected to pull the United States out of the international climate accord negotiated in Paris in 2015. And while some firms showed continuing interest in cutting emissions, executives beseeched policymakers to help.

“It is a fair assumption that a significant part of the business community in the United States would rather the United States be in the Paris agreement,” Robert Perciasepe, former deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and president of the nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said.

The annual meetings in New York are designed to come up with workable technologies and financing arrangements to slow down climate change. Critics have chided companies in the past for showing up to Climate Week with more talk than action.

The Energy Transitions Commission, a coalition of executives from more than three dozen energy producers, financial institutions and environmental groups, issued a report this month saying that reaching net zero carbon emissions “is achievable while also promoting economic growth and a rising standard of living.” The group said it would require investments of $1 trillion to $2 trillion a year, or about 1.5 percent of global GDP.

The novel coronavirus has made such ambitious investment difficult, but also imaginable. The U.S. government alone has spent more than that propping up the economy without any return on its investment.

“The [coronavirus] pandemic, in particular, underscores the urgency as well as the unique opportunity to invest in a more climate resilient economy,” the Energy Transitions Commission report said.

Walmart also extended its targets. The company said it would become carbon neutral across its global operations by 2040 — without using carbon credits. The goal covers emissions from directly and indirectly owned operations known as scope 1 and 2. It plans to rely on renewable energy for 100 percent of its electricity needs by 2035; it currently relies on renewables for 30 percent of power.

Walmart’s chief sustainability officer Kathleen McLaughlin said the company tightened targets because the original ones assumed that limiting climate change to a global average of 2 degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels would be enough. But in Paris, international negotiators said the global warming target must be as low as 1.5 degrees. “The trajectory of emissions reduction is a lot steeper now than what it was and we’ve set a date when we get to zero, true zero, not net zero with offsets,” McLaughlin said. “I think we all need to move more quickly.”

In addition, the retail giant unveiled plans to protect, manage or restore at least 50 million acres of land and 1 million square miles of ocean by 2030. Earlier, it had pledged to remove 1 billion gigatons of emissions in its supply chain; it has removed 230 million tons so far.

AT&T said its operations would be “carbon neutral” by 2035. Those include emissions from facilities the company directly or indirectly owns or controls. The new target supersedes earlier target of reducing emissions by 20 percent by 2020, versus 2008 emissions.

On Tuesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping said for the first time that his country — the world’s largest emitter — would aim to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, in addition to having its emissions peak by 2030.

Still, the world remains far off target when it comes to meeting the aims of the Paris accord, when leaders from nearly 200 nations agreed to work together to limit the world’s warming to “well below” 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F).

But it remains unclear whether the world can muster the collective political will to shift away from fossil fuels in transportation, industry and agriculture that scientists say is necessary to limit global warming. The planet has already warmed more than 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.

Months later, after frustrating negotiations in Spain, the world’s largest carbon-emitting countries once again failed to tackle climate change more aggressively heading into 2020. A consequential U.N. climate conference set for November in Scotland has now been delayed until 2021.

“Clearly, [the virus] has pushed a lot of other things further down the list,” said Nathaniel Keohane, senior vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We clearly are not where we need to be, and there’s no sugarcoating that.”

Yet the promises this week from private-sector companies, while nowhere near enough to move the needle on a global scale, still make a difference and can help spur governments to action, he said. The European Union’s recent proposal to cut its emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030 is a step in the right direction. And while Trump has vowed to officially withdraw from the Paris climate accord this November, Joe Biden has vowed to rejoin if elected and make the nation a leader on tackling climate change.

Despite the many competing priorities of the moment, Keohane said he has no doubt that climate will once again emerge as a critical issue both in the United States and around the world — and soon. “The planet itself will have a way of keeping climate on the agenda,” he said. “It is no longer something that feels abstract. It is happening now.”


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