Many corporations promote ‘net zero’ while lobbying for weaker climate action: Report

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Many of America’s leading corporations are quietly lobbying against policies to slow planetary heating — even as they tout their own environmental policies, according to a new report by the nonpartisan research group InfluenceMap.

The report found that 93 percent of American companies make the claim that they aim to achieve “net zero” climate effects, but they are only “weakly” aligned with the policies those companies and their trade groups actually promote.

More importantly, 58 percent of companies had set concrete climate targets that were contradicted by their own lobbying, the report found.

In particular, InfluenceMap found that these companies were advocating to weaken proposed government climate policies or promoting the use of fossil fuels beyond the red lines advocated by the leading mainstream authority on climate action, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The fossil fuel, airline and utilities industries were the worst offenders, according to the report. The report found that many companies with commitments to reach net-zero by 2050 were lobbying against aggressive climate action in 2023. 

For example, despite their climate commitments, Chevron pushed to weaken U.S. auto emission standards. The company also spent nearly $10 million in 2023 on lobbying California, home of some of the nation’s toughest environmental laws. That money went to fight laws like one that would have forced state pension funds to divest from the 200 largest fossil fuel companies.

The report also found that Duke Energy was investing heavily in new fossil fuels and lobbied against new Biden administration emissions reductions; Southern Company lobbied and filed briefs in favor of the continued use of gas in transportation, buildings and new pipelines.

InfluenceMap also noted that despite Delta Airlines’s public posture on net zero, the company was one of five airlines to sue the Amsterdam airport over a “flight cap” that sought to cut both noise pollution and ultimately carbon emissions by limiting the number of planes that could land there.

The airlines’ campaign led to the Dutch government to withdraw the measure Tuesday. 

Delta also joined the broader aviation industry in lobbying against the European Union’s emissions trading system, which sought to set a steadily decreasing limit on greenhouse gasses produced within the confederation’s borders.

Reached for comment, a Delta spokesperson said that the airline company “views reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 as a business imperative.”

The spokesperson also said that the company is working in line with the broad international framework set up to cut or offset greenhouse gas emissions in the industry, and they argued that the InfluenceMap report had failed to reflect the steps the company is taking, like replacing jet fuel with biofuels and replacing older aircraft with newer and more efficient ones.

A spokesperson for Duke Energy, meanwhile, told The Hill that the company believes in “a responsible pace of change” that would “drive out carbon emissions while preserving affordability, reliability and accessibility for our customers and communities.”

“Our policy engagement is consistent with these priorities,” the Duke spokesperson added.

She also noted that Duke had lobbied in favor of the clean energy tax credits that formed the backbone of the Democrats’ climate plan and that the company worked with the government in developing technologies “like advanced nuclear reactors, hydrogen research and advanced battery storage.”

Chevron and Southern Company declined to comment.

All of these companies have argued that their voluntary progress toward decarbonization — generally by substituting one form of carbon-dense fuel for another, like gas or biofuels for oil or jet fuel — make state-enforced cuts in greenhouse gas emissions unnecessary.  

Few companies or trade groups would now argue that climate change isn’t happening — and in fact a broad majority of leading corporations now espouse policies to reach “net zero” by midcentury. 

That phrase refers to a state in which companies or countries make up for any quantities of planet-warming greenhouse gasses they release with new ones they trap.

That’s a fraught proposition. In 2022, the U.N. released a set of guidelines on avoiding greenwashing — or fake environmental solutions rolled out for marketing purposes. 

True climate progress, the U.N. argued, requires companies to both make good faith efforts to track, trace and reduce their burning of fossil fuel in absolute terms, not just relative ones.

Even if companies sincerely try to do this, it’s an uphill battle — given that technologies for accounting for carbon dioxide emissions, let alone trapping the gas, are in their infancy.

And many companies, the head of the U.N. warned last year, are not making a good faith effort. 

At the time, the U.N. chief was blunt about the risk posed by these apparent solutions.

“These net-zero commitments have varying levels of rigor and loopholes wide enough to drive a diesel truck through,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said last year.

Guterres specifically called out as “reprehensible” the use of creative accounting methods, which used “bogus ‘net-zero’ pledges to cover up massive fossil fuel expansion.”

“This toxic cover-up could push our world over the climate cliff,” he added. “The sham must end.”

That 2022 report argued that the top effective means of slowing the dangerous impacts of climate change was tight, impartial and mandatory measurement, accounting and reduction of fossil fuel use.

But authors warned that corporations could seek to drag the climate policy debate away from such rigorous means — and toward gauzier rhetoric around voluntary commitments.

In particular, they called out companies’ purchase of questionable carbon offsets to avoid cutting their own fossil fuel use; claims to be pushing for net-zero while investing in new fossil fuels; and “lobby[ing] to undermine ambitious climate policy.”

Reviewing InfluenceMap’s findings Thursday, the lead author of the 2022 U.N. anti-greenwashing report offered stark criticism of corporate policy. 

“Not only are many companies choosing to undermine their own climate commitments by lobbying against climate action, their net zero commitments are simply not credible,” Catherine McKenna, former Canadian environmental minister and head of the U.N. task force on the corporate push for net-zero, said Thursday. 

Will Aitchison, InfluenceMap’s director of communications and engagement, noted that some companies were putting their money where their mouths were. The report noted that tech company Apple and the renewable energy companies Enel and Iberdrola were engaged in lobbying that supported their — and globally agreed on — climate goals. 

And a September InfluenceMap report highlighted companies that are leading the push for more stringent climate policies. 

But in many cases, “you see this disconnect between the appetite for setting long term targets — and then the real time action on policy,” Aitchison said. 

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