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Climate promises by businesses face new scrutiny

A sampling of new commitments includes United Airlines Holdings Inc., which says it will replace 5% of its jet fuel with biofuel alternatives by 2030, and more than 450 banks and other financial firms who say they are shifting their businesses toward clean energy. Dozens of other businesses talked up their climate plans.

Two-thirds of S&P 500 companies by the end of last year had set a carbon target, up from less than half at the end of 2017, and the tally is continuing to rise rapidly, according to data provider Refinitiv.

These targets have been hard to track, much less enforce. A survey of big companies published last month by Boston Consulting Group found that just 11% had met their emission-reduction goals over the past five years.

That is changing as regulators, investors and activists scrutinize corporate disclosures to make sure businesses aren’t going back on their promises.

Targets are becoming increasingly standard, and more businesses are aiming for them. That allows the commitments to be more easily verified.

The Securities and Exchange Commission may require companies to report progress against their goals under new climate rules it is drafting, officials have said.

Investors and activists are also ramping up their scrutiny of targets, putting pressure on high-emissions companies and their banks to set more demanding benchmarks.

Several initiatives at this week’s summit involved science-based targets—ones in line with the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit on global warming that scientists say is needed to limit climate change.

Only around one in five S&P 500 companies have science-based targets, but this proportion will likely increase under pressure from investors, proxy advisers and regulators, Morgan Stanley analysts said last month.

The Science Based Targets initiative, which verifies this type of climate goal, also forces companies to meet their promises without climate gimmickry. The group doesn’t allow companies to effectively reduce their carbon emissions by using offsets like paying for trees to be planted.

United joined a new alliance backing green tech called the First Movers Coalition. It was launched Thursday in Glasgow by U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and the World Economic Forum.

Airlines in the group have committed to replacing at least 5% of conventional jet fuel—their biggest source of planet-warming emissions—with biofuel alternatives by 2030. For United, that target is a stopover on its long-haul “100% green” ambition of having zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The 2050 target depends on the success of untested carbon capture technologies, as well as sustainable fuels becoming commercially viable. It is also at odds with United’s recent emissions history: the company’s carbon footprint increased by 10%, from 38 million to 42 million tons, in the five years through 2019, its data show.

A United spokeswoman said the airline holds 1½ times the biofuels commitments of the rest of the world’s airlines combined.

Kevin Moss of the World Resources Institute, one of the organizations behind the First Movers initiative, said offsets such as funding forests were helpful for the climate, but not a substitute for cutting greenhouse gases.

“The science requires that emissions are reduced at [a certain] level,” he said. “Most companies need to reduce by 90% to 95% by 2050.”

ConocoPhillips was the first U.S. oil-and-gas company to commit to net zero operational emissions by 2050, according to its website.

Shareholders this year said that wasn’t good enough. They voted to require ConocoPhillips to also promise to reduce the greenhouse gases created by the use of its fuels by its customers, known as Scope 3 emissions.

That could have forced ConocoPhillips to produce less oil and gas. But the company said it isn’t measuring its emissions by total carbon output. Instead it tracks the amount of carbon it emits to produce a given amount of oil or gas, known as its carbon intensity.

That made it easier for ConocoPhillips to sign a $9.5 billion deal to buy U.S. shale assets. It acknowledges the deal will increase its overall emissions, at least in the short term.

A ConocoPhillips spokesman said the newly-acquired assets have some of the lowest greenhouse gas-intensity in the world. The deal is consistent with the company’s strategy for meeting energy demand through the transition to a lower-carbon economy, he added.

The rising scrutiny of targets set by heavy emitters also affects the banks that finance those firms.

Bank of America Corp. this year announced its ambition to have net zero emissions by 2050, meaning any carbon dioxide it created would be canceled by reductions elsewhere.

It was criticized by green groups for not taking more immediate steps, such as stopping its financing for companies building the new Mountain Valley pipeline that is planned to transport fracked gas from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia.

“2050 commitments are just hot air without meaningful 2021 action on fossil fuels and deforestation,” the Rainforest Action Network said.

The bank has committed to $1 trillion of financing by 2030 to support the transition to a lower-carbon economy.

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