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Net zero ambitions and transparency: reflections on Earth Day 2021

James Robey
22 Apr 2021

On this Earth Day, it is timely to reflect on our commitments to become a net zero business by 2030

In July 2020, Capgemini set an enhanced sustainability ambition – to become carbon neutral across our operations by no later than 2025 and to become a net zero business by 2030. Just over a year after the initial COVID lockdowns dramatically impacted everyone and the global economy, on this Earth Day, it is timely to reflect on our commitments.

Adding transparency to commitment

With the spring 2020 lockdowns, I knew I wasn’t alone in worrying that the accelerating corporate focus on sustainability and climate change would be put on hold. Thankfully, the opposite transpired and the last 12 months have seen a flurry of companies raising their ambitions to act faster and with greater commitment.

Combined with accelerating the scale and speed of our commitments, we also felt that transparency with our new commitments was crucial – especially with regard to concepts such as carbon neutral and net zero, which can be interpreted in many different ways.

Hence, when we published our new ambitions in July, we provided a series of footnotes on the scope of our commitments. For example, we have defined our operational emissions to include all Scope 1 and 2 emissions (including energy consumption, fuel consumption, and fugitive emissions from air conditioning systems), as well as Scope 3 emissions from business travel, commuting, wastes, water and electricity transmission, and distribution losses.

While we are happy to be challenged and to debate whether this definition is appropriate and the scope sufficiently comprehensive, it is core to our values to ensure that our claims are not unsubstantiated or opaque. Sadly, in tandem with lofty ambitions, there have been many vague corporate claims in the last 12 months – for example, companies claiming to be carbon neutral without disclosing information about how they are offsetting and even the scope of their emissions being neutralised.

Our net zero ambition unpacked

Our ultimate aim is to become a net zero business by 2030. Of course, net zero is one of those terms whose definition is still emerging. While we are looking forward to the results from the current SBTi consultation exercise on defining net zero for the corporate sector, we have endeavored to align our ambition to the emerging consensus. The key principles of our commitment are:

  1. Net zero requires carbon reduction first, offset is very much second
  2. Carbon reductions should be in line with a 1.5-degree climate science pathway underpinned by targets validated by SBTi
  3. Carbon reduction must be across the material parts of the organisation’s value chain (not just its operational impacts). For us, this means including decarbonizing our supply chain.
  4. Carbon offsetting will most likely be required – but it must follow carbon reduction – and should employ removal-based carbon offsets.

Again, we are very happy to debate these principles, and will look to reflect the global consensus on net zero as it crystalises.

Keeping an eye on the global context – globally carbon emissions also need to be net zero by 2050

While it’s good to reflect on target setting principles, it’s also critical to stay focused on the macro-perspective this Earth Day. For me, two data points are at the front of my mind: current policies won’t get us there, and COVID-19 has shone a very clear light on the scale of the challenge.

Scientists have been warning about the dangers of climate warming for decades, but few expected the accelerating pace of climate change. Based on current government policies, the world is on a trajectory to warm by 3°C compared to pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. Climate science tells us that this is beyond safe limits and that rapid decarbonisation is critical. This is illustrated in the following chart:

To achieve the climate-safe, 1.5oC pathway we must halve global emissions by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. That equates to a 7% reduction in emissions each and every year between now and 2030. By coincidence, the lockdown of the global economy due to COVID-19 last year, led to global emissions reducing by about 7%. The challenge for the decade

The stark challenge will be to maintain these reductions and find an incremental 7% each year for the next 10 ten years.

This year’s United Nations’ Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, UK is being seen as the most important COP since the Paris conference in 2015, and quite possibly the last chance to make a meaningful agreement to avoid a climate catastrophe. We know the role of business will be central to the successful transition to a low-carbon economy, where global emissions must halve by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.

Just ahead of the last COP in Madrid (COP25, December 2019), we published a report considering the scale of the transformation required and concluding that we will only get there through a complete Sustainable Business Revolution.  Encouragingly, it seems that 15 months later, the consensus is building on the need for this radical transformation