Progress Isn't About Making Climate Commitments. It's About Achieving Them

Are net zero targets the emperor's new clothes?

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I have good news and bad news. The good news is 34% of the world’s largest companies are now committed to “net zero.” That’s up 7% since December 2021. The bad news is 93% of these companies are on track to miss their net zero targets within any timeframe that could realistically save our planet.

Voluntary corporate targets can be, rather ironically, full of hot air, and climate action is quickly becoming the world’s greatest procrastination station. So much so, the UN chief recently called for a “fast forward” of net zero targets by at least a decade, warning the “climate time bomb is ticking.”

But corporate targets are also extremely valuable. It’s been proven that companies with net zero targets cut emissions faster than those without, and, on average, targeted companies managed to cut operational emissions by 18% in the last 10 years. So rather than dismiss them for their inadequacies, let’s dive into what science-based targets are and what we can do to ensure they remain a powerful weapon in the fight against climate change.

What do we need to do?

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the culmination of eight years of work by hundreds of leading climate scientists, and their report definitively concluded that global emissions must fall 48% by 2030 and 90% (otherwise known as net zero) by 2050. Frankly, what we need to do is extremely clear. 

In spite of this, the Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor 2023 reported the world’s 24 biggest corporations—who are responsible for 4% of global emissions—have committed to delivering a median reduction of a rather pathetic 15% by 2030.

Why do we need to do it?

As we all know, fossil fuels, industrial agriculture and deforestation lead to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Then, just like an actual greenhouse, greenhouse gases trap heat, causing things like extreme weather, melting glaciers and warming oceans. 

UN climate scientists have concluded that since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve already warmed up the planet by 1 degree Celsius—as evidenced by the terrifying number of recent droughts, famines, storms and floods. These same scientists have concluded anything above 1.5 C of warming will cause catastrophic climate change, and at 2 C, the damage will be irreversible. 

At our current rate of emissions, without making any reductions, we will reach 1.5 C of warming in the early 2030s, which is why collective action is so urgently needed. 

What is a science-based target?

A “target” is simply a public ambition for decarbonization, ideally with a stated timeline and strategy for how to get there. Targets are considered “science-based” if they’re in line with the 1.5 C objective laid out by the UN. 

The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) is an organization focused on supporting the private sector in setting and hitting these targets. More than 4,000 companies, over a third of the global economy, have set targets via SBTi. 

Unilever is planning to achieve net zero across its value chain by 2039. Diageo is working toward 2030; Amazon and Walmart have committed to 2040; and Volkswagen will be net carbon neutral by 2050 “at the latest.”

But notice how the last example uses different language. “Carbon neutral” is not a commitment to emissions reduction—and if you find that confusing, you’re not alone. Climate language can be misleading and very open to interpretation. Nike’s Move to Zero initiative has been an interesting example of this, highlighting an overall passion and commitment from the brand—with some impressive sustainability initiatives—but without actually setting a formal SBTi net zero target

What can advertisers do about it? 

Our industry really has two roles to play in this delicate dance. Firstly, we have a responsibility to ensure sustainability targets are communicated honestly and clearly. The ASA recently found environmental claims were one of the most misleading topics for consumers. So with the instances of ads banned for greenwashing tripling in a year, it’s important to hold brands accountable. Secondly, advertising significantly contributes to the footprint of an organization, so it’s our business to know what, if any, decarbonization targets we’re contributing to. 

Just to give some idea of the scale, a recent study by Purpose Disruptors suggests advertising adds an extra 32% to an individual’s carbon footprint.

Brands can make significant reductions by following the five-step Ad Net Zero action plan. For example, by going veggie on production shoots, an advertiser can remove 1.17 metric tons of CO2 emissions from their footprint. By flying economy rather than business, they save more than 3 metric tons per seat.

The energy required to power digital advertising also leaves a hefty carbon footprint. A typical online ad campaign emits 5.4 tons of CO2—a third of what an average U.S. consumer produces in a year. But there are simple fixes advertisers can make that won’t impact their ad performance or cost. These include stripping down font files, testing more efficient image formats, experimenting with different file types, buying more directly, focusing on high-attention sites and filtering out carbon-intensive publishers. 

For example, converting image files to SVGs can easily save 30-40% of your ad load. You can also switch your display formats from .jpg or .png files to a .webp, which can reduce the file size by 33%, while switching video to display formats can reduce emissions by up to 7.75 times. 

Targets are the ambition, not the achievement

Targets are only valuable if hitting them matters more than making them. So 2025 is an important date for your calendars.

2025 is a big milestone for many brands making public commitments, and many are likely to miss them. This can’t go unnoticed and must be a wake-up call. We must be ready to hold these businesses accountable. The emperor has announced he’s going clothes shopping, and if he returns naked, we must be ready to call him out.

This story is part of Adweek’s The State of Sustainability digital package, which spotlights climate-focused marketing solutions across the beauty, experiential and media spaces, and examines how an industry that was built to drive consumption is adapting to reduce its impact.