In the most “sustainable” cities, per capita consumption-based emissions constitute up to 12x their Scope 1 emissions

In the so-called “most sustainable cities,” per capita consumption-based emissions constitute far more than per capita Scope 1 emissions. Similarly, evidence suggests that, among US firms, an increasing proportion of Scope 3 emissions compared to Scope 1 points to outsourcing. Without proper accountability outside of Scope 1, both responsibility and emissions are misplaced. Incentives should be put into place to improve transparency and re-evaluate how we define what makes a city or company “sustainable.”

What do the most sustainable cities have in common? Apparently, that their Greenhouse Gas emissions from consumption constitute far more than their Scope 1 emissions on a per capita basis. This probably comes as little surprise. When you picture a sustainable city, you might imagine a place with clear air and high quality public space (i.e., a consumer city that imports rather than produces many of its goods and services). But maybe this relationship should be shocking. Shouldn’t the most sustainable city be the one that is circular and self-sustaining, internally managing its food, water, and energy needs?

Based on data and rankings from Corporate Knights Sustainable Cities Index, we find that among the cities ranked highest in sustainability, per capita consumption-based emissions constitute as much as 12x their per capita Scope 1 emissions[1]. In other words, in cities deemed the most sustainable—including Stockholm, Oslo, and Copenhagen—direct emissions (Scope 1) tend to make up a very small portion of total per capita emissions. This particular ranking is not unusual, as these places consistently appear at the top of sustainable city lists. And it’s not to say these cities are not sustainable—after all, some (though not all) do have low per capita consumption-based emissions. But maybe there’s more to unpack about the relationship between direct and indirect emissions.

Before diving into why we should care about what counts as sustainable, it’s worth noting and understanding a parallel that exists at the corporate level. A recent study found that, among US firms, the proportion of Scope 3 emissions relative to Scope 1 is rising. Further evidence suggests that firms are outsourcing their emissions to foreign suppliers (controlling for factors like operating efficiency and assets). There are a number of reasons a company might outsource emissions, such as maintaining social reputations domestically and avoiding regulatory stringency.

So, why does it matter that the per capita emissions of “sustainable” cities are largely consumption-based, and that companies are outsourcing emissions? As lecturer Marcelle McManus puts it, just because they are meeting certain targets, doesn’t mean they aren’t responsible for emissions elsewhere. Without the proper incentives to drive accountability, companies and cities may be less likely to invest in green technology or reduce emissions locally. Furthermore, these factors make it possible for companies and cities to hide (intentionally or unintentionally) behind their impressive Scope 1 performance (which is the most observable), while remaining silent on Scope 3, where much of their emissions lie.

The answer to these challenges lies in regulatory and reputational incentives. Regulatory changes—like the SEC’s proposed climate risk disclosure rule—can mandate the disclosure of upstream and downstream Scope 3 emissions. Not only would this compel companies to reassess efficiency within their supply chains, but also, it could reveal reputational incentives (as observable efforts expand to include Scope 3).

Additionally, it is worth re-evaluating what we consider “sustainable” and paying more attention to hidden emissions. Perhaps the most sustainable cities and companies are not the ones we think they are.

 

[1] The report defines scope 1 GHG emissions as those occurring within the city boundaries. Consumption-based emissions are those (1) from final consumption and (2) embedded in both domestically produced and imported goods and services that ultimately are consumed within the city.

 

3% predicted decline in global GDP by 2100 without climate mitigation

The relationship between climate action and economic health is complicated. Periods of decline often resultin short-term emissions reductions while simultaneously hindering long-term systematic change and the development of technological solutions. On the other hand, climate change itself may fuel economic decline; a report published in Science in 2017 predicted that if carbon emissions continue on the current trajectory, we’ll see an irreversible 3% drop in the world’s GDP by the end of the century. In 2008, when the economy took the deepest plunge since the Great Depression, the downturn pulled climate and sustainability concerns with it as both businesses and consumers shifted their attention to making ends meet and pushed longer-term problems to the back burner. Policy momentum suffered as well; COP15 in Copenhagen generated small, unenforceable carbon reduction commitments instead of the anticipated binding limits on emissions. Now fears of another recession are growing, and rising inflation has proven unresponsive to the Fed’s efforts to gently cool the economy. This begs the question: will the next recession present another huge setback in the race to drive down carbon emissions and mitigate economic consequences in the decades to come? Despite many uncertainties, we’re optimistic that 2022 will be nothing like 2008, either for the planet or the economy. For one, some experts predict that if a recession develops, it will be far less significant than the crisis of 2008. Moreover, the corporate climate and ESG landscape has grown at a remarkable pace since then, and though a downturn may not result in a transformative green recovery— as many had hoped in the early days of the COVID pandemic— there are guardrails in place to ensure sustainability remains among the majority of business leaders’ key priorities:

  • Urgency. The effects of climate change are taking shape with more force and speed than expected even a few years ago, contributing directly to our inflation and supply chain woes. Costs to human life and global development are already piling up, and executives face escalating pressure from grassroots activists, consumers, investors and supply network partners to take appropriately swift action to decarbonize their value chains.
  • Accessibility. Technological climate solutions, from cleaner energy to carbon capture and storage, have forged ahead on the path to widespread use. The costs of renewable energy generation, for example, are reaching parity with more carbon-intensive mainstay technologies, a vast improvement from 2008, and electric vehicles can compete with conventional vehicles in much of the U.S.
  • Collaboration. Global coalitions and information-sharing networks dedicated to climate and sustainability have sprouted, from the U.N’s Race to Zero to the We Mean Business Coalition, making it easier than ever for business leaders to learn from and build on the progress of their peers.
  • Planning. The business infrastructure tailored to decarbonization is more comprehensive than ever before. SBTi wasn’t founded until 2015, and countless companies are just beginning to deploy capital and talent to facilitate decarbonization, from empowering internal Chief Sustainability Officers to engaging organizations like The Climate Board and external consulting firms that offer climate expertise and business guidance.
  • Transparency and Accountability. Promising net-zero is crucial but no longer enough. A tide of climate journalism, watchdog NGOs, and higher expectations from stakeholders mean that companies’ climate promises face greater scrutiny than ever before. Relatively new norms of ESG reporting and disclosure through platforms like CDP and TPI are pushing companies to uphold their commitments to reduce emissions or face real-world losses.

Investing in science-aligned decarbonization strategies may seem easier in periods of economic growth, when the specter of climate change-fueled decline looms larger. In reality, businesses will inevitably be faced with cyclical pressure to shed lower-priority spending, which historically included environmental sustainability investments. We suspect this ecosystem of climate actors and motivators is strong enough to withstand this round of economic challenges.

$12.8 billion of sovereign green bonds sold by EU issuers in the past two weeks

Over US$12.8 billion of sovereign green bonds have been sold by EU issuers in the past two weeks, displaying a promising surge in the already thriving EU green bond marketsAustria’s issuance of its first green bond on Tuesday, representing US$4.3 billion of sovereign debt, was only the latest report of a green bond selling with a “greenium”—in this case, with a spread of 2.5 basis points over their conventional debt.

ESG and business newsfeeds have been flooded with reports on the so-called “greenium,” the higher price (and therefore lower yield) seen on a green debt instrument as compared to an otherwise identical non-green offering.  We’re seeing surging demand for green bonds, confirming that investors are both willing and eager to pay marginal greeniums for sovereign, municipal, and corporate green-labeled debt. (For some of our takeaways on the what rising issuance means for companies, check out Jacqueline Kessler’s recent post on the growth in global green bonds.)

Growing greeniums, increasing volumes of ESG-labeled securities, and swelling demand for such offerings are all encouraging signs. But beyond influencing this year’s capital raise or investment strategy, what do these trends mean? How do green bonds fit into the larger puzzle that is the net-zero economy? We see three scenarios for how green bonds and green finance might evolve over time. It’s too soon to tell if all or none of these paths will become reality, but we at The Climate Board hope to see aspects of each take shape.

Scenario 1: The greenium persists, spurring higher levels of corporate climate action via new financing. As issuers continue to see high demand for green bonds compared to other debt, the supply of green bonds will continue to grow. The current spread between green and non-green offerings is small—usually ranging from just a few to around 11 basis points—but could grow large enough to incentivize more companies to engage in decarbonization projects.

Scenario 2: Climate risk and climate action criteria will have more influence on credit ratings, bringing larger spreads between more and less “green” securities. Rating agencies like Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s are already beginning to factor ESG criteria into ratings. We have yet to see exactly how much this integration will impact overall creditworthiness and ratings, but when less environmentally responsible firms start to see formerly top-rated securities slide from triple-A downward, issuers will be under greater pressure to respond with climate action.

Scenario 3: Climate and ESG factors don’t have to be integrated into investment decision-making—because they are reflected in core business criteria already. In the most dramatic evolution of the global economy toward prioritization of decarbonization and climate action, green bonds, ESG investing, and climate risk disclosure would lose relevance. Investors, consumers, regulators, and companies would not need distinct ESG data or ratings because companies that do not act to protect their supply chains, fortify their businesses against climate risk, and comply with climate regulations will face increased business disruptions, difficulty attracting top talent, and reduced revenue. Business outcomes will inherently reflect ESG performance.

One theme holds true through all of these scenarios— companies that take definitive action now will be rewarded. Through marginal but increasing greeniums, issuers who take advantage of the vast demand for green offerings will be ahead of the decarbonization curve as the market moves toward fuller ESG consideration. For those who want to lead the pack and reap the rewards, the time to act is now.

For those in search of a partner and resource for any part of the journey, The Climate Board is here. We can support your company on your climate action path. Reach out to us for more information.

SBTi-committed companies make up 35% of global market cap

On Monday the Science Based Target Initiative (SBTi) released its 2021 Progress Report, which contains a number of encouraging findings about the global economy’s progress on emissions reduction.

Here’s what we at The Climate Board took away from the report.

It won’t be long before participating in SBTi is simply an expectation for large companies. Overall participation in SBTi doubled in 2021, with 2,253 companies now either setting approved targets or formally committing to do so, up from 1,039 in 2020. Commitments aren’t languishing unfulfilled, either; the cumulative number of approved targets in 2021 also nearly doubled. The magnitude of SBTi’s growth is even clearer in economic terms: SBTi members now represent 35% of global market capitalization. $38 trillion in market value is now associated with ambitious climate action and emission reductions. This dramatic growth is a great sign for the planet, and for the emissions-conscious business community. As more companies sign on to SBTi, it will become harder for others to remain on the sidelines, and those who do run the risk of falling behind – not just on the declaration of their goals, but on progress towards them.

Companies with approved targets are outperforming important benchmarks. SBTi-approved companies reduced carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions by 29% between 2015 and 2020. They also have reduced their Scope 1 and 2 emissions since setting their targets by an average of 8.8% per year – more than twice the reduction needed to align with a 1.5°C temperature target. These companies are showing that measurable, meaningful, and sustained emissions reduction is possible. It’s also important to note that SBTi companies are outperforming their non-committed peers. Scope 1 and 2 emissions fell globally in 2020 by 5.6%, largely on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, but companies with approved targets pushed further, reducing their own emissions by 12.1%. It’s very encouraging that these companies did not settle for the “natural” emissions reduction associated with economic calamity, but indeed continued to lead and outperform. A powerful example has now been set for the hundreds of new participants in the SBTi.

Supply chain engagement is still an important missing link for driving emissions reduction through the economy. Scope 3 emissions tend to make up a significant share of a company’s emissions profile, with value chain emissions making up between 65 and 90% of a company’s overall carbon footprint. The small and medium sized-enterprises (SMEs) that make up much of larger companies’ value chains are beginning to play a more significant role in SBTi, as 177 SMEs set targets in 2021, up from only 29 in 2020. But many smaller companies will need support from larger partners to tackle decarbonization. It’s concerning that only 16% of companies have set engagement targets for their supply chains.

Complete and consistent emissions reporting is sorely lacking. SBTi found that in 2021, 28% of member companies had no public information regarding the progress made against their targets. That’s actually more than the 13% of companies not providing information in 2020. Perhaps some leeway can be given to the many new SBTi participants who have yet to build up reporting and disclosure capabilities, but the grace period must be short, especially as mandatory reporting looms in the United States and regulations strengthen worldwide. Transparency is essential to demonstrate progress, shine a light on best practices, and justify further investments.

On balance, we believe SBTi’s findings are news to celebrate, amplify, and reflect on. Corporate climate action is making an impact, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that progress will continue. But it’s always worth remembering that trends and statistics are made of real companies, led by real people, doing real things. Nothing is automatic or inevitable, and those hoping to lead the transition must continue to actively break down barriers to further action.

The Climate Board works with businesses to navigate climate issues and drive rapid progress. No matter where your company is in its climate action journey, we can help. Reach out to our team at info@theclimateboard.com for more information.

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