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February 23, 2021

Growing momentum toward net-zero business plans

By GlobalData Thematic Research

Nearly every day brings new evidence of a growing and crucial global consensus on net-zero carbon emissions. No, not the reality of climate change. On that, there is no longer a serious debate, though self-interested misinformation still abounds.

Today, it is not just scientists, academics, NGOs, and governments that agree on the need to reach net-zero carbon emissions globally by 2050 to forestall the worst effects of climate change. It is all these groups, plus one more that is critical: the business and financial community.

Over the past week, Bill Gates – still fundamentally a businessman, though now also a philanthropist and technocrat — received considerable attention for his new book, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need.”

In it, Gates explains not only the deadly serious “why” of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but also the “how” and the “where”. How technology is helping reduce emissions, how it can function more effectively, where breakthroughs and new policies are needed (cement-making, for example), and more.

Less heralded but no less important was the latest guidance from BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager. It stepped up the pressure on polluting companies to disclose their GHG emissions or risk voting action against management teams that it deems have not done enough.

BlackRock had said earlier that it expects all of its portfolio companies to disclose their Scope 1 and Scope 2 GHG emissions (those from operations and energy they buy, respectively). Now, BlackRock is raising the bar, telling fossil fuel extractors to also disclose Scope 3 emissions (those released when their products are burned) and to set Scope 3 reduction targets as well.

“Where corporate disclosures are insufficient to make a thorough assessment, or a company has not provided a credible plan [to address GHGs], we may vote against the directors we consider responsible for climate risk oversight,” BlackRock said.

“We may also support shareholder proposals that we believe address gaps in a company’s approach to climate risk and the energy transition,” the company said. In the words of its CEO, Larry Fink, “climate risk is investment risk.” It’s a statement that public companies can’t easily ignore because of its implication that markets will reward the responsible ones and punish the irresponsible.

Asset managers are pushing in the net-zero direction

That is beginning to happen. For example, Morningstar reported in January that three out of four sustainable equity funds had outperformed their category averages in 2020.

The phenomenon seems certain to accelerate. Not only are other large asset managers pushing in the same direction, but so are a growing number of national governments. With the US rejoining the Paris Agreement, 127 governments responsible for more than 60% of global emissions are considering or implementing commitments to net-zero GHGs.

To help drive goal-setting, BlackRock cites the UN-backed Science-Based Targets initiative as the best example of a reliable, audited program. In SBTi, companies propose reduction targets, and the SBTi organization vets them for alignment with the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 2°C. Once its targets are approved, the company agrees to monitor and disclose progress annually.

The UN has set up an even-more-ambitious program called “Race to Zero”, in which participants adopt SBTi targets calibrated to limit global warming to 1.5°C. In a third recent data point, the London Stock Exchange Group announced on 16 February that it has joined “Race to Zero” and become the first global exchange group to commit to net-zero.

Make no mistake, GHGs are still increasing, not decreasing. But these recent events and many others suggest that a sea change is occurring in which net-zero business plans become the new normal.