Politics of Poverty

Decoding the commitments: Three ways to tell if Behind the Brands companies are setting meaningful climate mitigation targets

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Qumrunnessa Nazly from Bangladesh held an empty basket amidst a field of dead corn set in front of the glittering Doha skyline, to demonstrate the grave impact of a changing climate on food supply and food prices, and the crucial importance of the UN climate change negotiations in providing a solution. Credit: Richard Casson/Oxfam

Food and beverage companies have said a lot about what they’re doing to mitigate the effects of climate change – but how do you know those commitments will really matter?

Aditi Sen is a Policy Advisor on Climate Change for Oxfam America.

As the drum beat on climate change gets louder, a growing number of companies are beginning to set emission reduction targets and take action to mitigate climate change.  Last week, a range of companies including several Behind the Brands companies, who are among the world’s 10 largest food and beverage brands, joined the White House American Business Act on Climate Pledge. The pledge encompassed a wide variety of company specific goals such as reducing emissions by as much as 50 percent and purchasing 100 percent renewable energy.

But not all climate actions are created equal and not all greenhouse gas reduction targets are actually meaningful. For instance, a company that is heavily reliant on fossil fuels can’t claim to be truly addressing climate change by simply setting a target for improved waste management.

So how do the Big 10 food and beverage companies fare when it comes to setting meaningful greenhouse gas reduction targets? Here are three things to consider when evaluating each company.

Does the company have a target to reduce agricultural emissions in the supply chain?

Emissions from agriculture amount to 25 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions come from forest clearance that occurs as a result of agricultural expansion as well as from crops and livestock.  For food and beverage companies, emissions from agriculture constitute the bulk of their carbon footprint.  However, as the recent CDP report, The Forgotten 10%, shows most companies in the food and beverage sector do very little to mitigate these emissions in their supply chains.

Among the Big 10, all have set targets to reduce emissions from their operations (so-called “Scope 1 and 2” emissions), but only three companies – Coca Cola, General Mills, and Unilever – have targets to reduce agricultural emissions in the supply chain (so-called Scope 3 emissions).

Does the company have an emission reduction target that is science-based and aligned with the level of effort needed to keep global temperature increases to below 2°C (3.6°F)?

Scientific consensus has shown that any global temperature rise at or above the 2°C threshold would have catastrophic impacts on communities and ecosystems globally. Yet many companies are not measuring their targets against this scientific threshold. And even when companies set science based targets, they may often not extend to their full value chain and include Scope 3 agricultural emissions.

Among the Big 10, five companies have committed to setting science based targets –General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, Nestle and Unilever – but so far only one company, General Mills, has set a science-based target that applies to its full value chain, including agricultural emissions.  Mars, and most recently Mondelez, have set science-based targets for their own operations.

Does the company have an emission reduction target that is absolute?

There are two broad ways in which companies set carbon reduction goals – absolute and intensity targets. Setting an absolute target is key for companies to continually reduce emissions even as they expand their business and grow.  Intensity targets, typically expressed as emissions per ton of product, might seem good on paper but what they mean in practice is that as a company grows and expands production, they could meet their intensity target but be spewing out increasing amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Almost all of the Big 10 set absolute targets, and just this week, Mondelez announced that it was switching from an intensity based target to a more demanding absolute one.  Currently, the three companies that are not setting absolute targets are Danone, Kellogg and Associated British Foods (ABF), which does not have an absolute target that extends across its business.

As of now, only one of the top 10 food and beverage companies has an emissions reduction target that hits the mark on all three fronts: General Mills. The company is the only one to set a target that is absolute, science-based and applies to its full value chain including agricultural emissions in the supply chain. On the flip side, two companies, Danone and ABF, have targets that fail on all three counts.

So while all of the Big 10 are setting emission reduction targets, ask food brands like Danone to step up their efforts to ensure these targets are truly meaningful.

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