Creating a Business Movement that Goes Beyond Net-Zero

Posted on December, 09 2019

By Mark Griffiths

We know that we haven’t yet turned the corner in the fight against climate change. In fact, emissions are continuing to rise.

According to the WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, global averaged concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 407.8 parts per million in 2018, up from 405.5 parts per million in 2017. This translates into a global average temperature rise of 1.1°C above the preindustrial period, which has significant climate consequences in terms of extreme weather events, rising sea levels and widespread impacts across a vast array of ecosystems.

It is both frustrating and frightening that even with this knowledge, businesses, governments and society are still unable to mobilise meaningfully to change our trajectory.

However there is reason to be positive.

The next frontier in business climate action

A small but growing group of companies have clearly understood the science, the benefits of cutting emissions and the risks of inaction. They have also realised that reducing their emissions to zero is not enough, and doing so alone is insufficient to tackle the climate crisis. For this reason, they are committing to go “Beyond Net-Zero” – working to become true climate leaders by maximising their contribution to limiting global temperature increase to 1.5°C.

At WWF we encourage and applaud this endeavour. We are excited to see businesses stepping up and taking the strong climate action that our planet needs. But we also recognise that we need a clear understanding of what this really means in practical terms.

Working closely with a small group of companies including IKEA and H&M, we have started to craft additional guidance that would help companies go “Beyond Net-Zero” in the right way. We want more companies to join us in this effort too. It is important for us that there is credible guidance, backed by science and filled with ambition.

In some ways, this is our “moon shot” – we know the destination, but we’re not quite certain exactly how we are going to get there yet. But we’ve started to put together a guidance framework nonetheless.

What “Beyond Net-Zero” should mean

As a science-based organisation, we are guided by research such as the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. So it is only logical that the agreed starting point for companies who wish to go beyond is to make sure their commitment to reduce their total emissions is in line with what science says is required to limit global warming to 1.5°C. They need to ensure that necessary reductions happen within their own operations and also within their total value chain. The total value chain approach includes what is called “scope 1, 2 and 3” – from raw materials to product end of life.

As a prerequisite, we are calling for companies to make absolute emission reductions within their value chains, and only purchase carbon credits (i.e. “offsets”) as a supplementary strategy for unavoidable emissions.

This effort requires the full commitment of the entire company – including any subsidiaries – and should be irrespective of growth rate. Additionally, the road towards climate leadership also means enabling and collaborating to inspire and motivate others.

Moving ahead

We believe the Beyond Net-Zero concept has the potential to catalyse a business transformation, but this can only be done by working constructively, collaboratively and by maintaining the level of ambition instructed by the latest science.

We understand that, for many companies, working towards being climate leaders is in their own interests. In fact, we think this is becoming more about self-preservation. Those companies who act on this agenda are likely to achieve a social and environmental ‘licence to operate’ by society in the coming decades. Global movements such as Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future are making this clear. Scientists, and people around the world, are screaming for climate action.

So what are we, as a Beyond Net-Zero business movement, hoping to achieve? Our goal, by COP26 next year, is to mobilise a substantial group of companies who have a clear understanding and commitment under one definition. 

To be clear, WWF is a solutions-focused organisation with a good understanding of business. However, our ultimate client is the planet, and all that inhabit it. This work is entirely supportive of our mission, which is to live in harmony with nature.

If not now, when?

Mark Griffiths is Global Leader of WWF’s Climate Business Hub. He is based in Berlin, Germany.
Climate march 2019, New York City
© WWF-US / Keith Arnold