Microsoft, Delta, BP, Ikea - Big Corporations Make Big Promises On Climate Pressure is mounting on CEOs as everyone from investors to employees sounds the alarm about the climate crisis. Some companies are responding, but even ambitious targets won't be enough on their own.
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Better Late Than Never? Big Companies Scramble To Make Lofty Climate Promises

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Better Late Than Never? Big Companies Scramble To Make Lofty Climate Promises

Better Late Than Never? Big Companies Scramble To Make Lofty Climate Promises

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A growing number of companies have announced plans to tackle climate change, and it is not just companies with eco-friendly reputations. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports that these companies are responding to pressure on multiple fronts.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Helping the planet is good for business. That's what Elizabeth Sturcken of the Environmental Defense Fund has been telling corporate leaders.

ELIZABETH STURCKEN: We can't exist as people and we can't exist as businesses without clean air, clean water, a stable climate.

DOMONOSKE: She started delivering that message 20 years ago.

STURCKEN: It was so fundamentally obvious to me. I really felt like business would just get this.

DOMONOSKE: She figured CEOs would cut emissions, governments would set new climate policies and she'd need to get a new job.

STURCKEN: I never thought that this many years later, I would still be doing this.

DOMONOSKE: Turns out, helping the planet did not seem like the obvious move to many CEOs. But there are signs of a shift. More companies are now promising to cut more carbon and to do it more quickly. And there's an acceleration in the number of companies setting so-called science-based targets in line with the global agreement the Paris accord. Kevin Moss runs the Center for Business Sustainability at the World Resources Institute.

KEVIN MOSS: It's a small fraction of the overall proportion of businesses. But it's large, impactful companies like Walmart, like Target, like Hilton Hotels.

DOMONOSKE: So what changed? Well, the effects of climate change are becoming clearer, not as a future risk but as something happening right now. At the same time, solar and wind energy keep getting cheaper. And there's more pressure from investors and from customers, from some governments. There might be some more surprising sources of pressure, too - like kids. Here's Elizabeth Sturcken again.

STURCKEN: I hear from business leaders all the time today that, you know, their kids come home and say, what are you doing, Dad? This makes a difference.

DOMONOSKE: Employees are increasingly influential, too. Kyum Kim runs an app called Blind, where tech workers can talk to each other about their workplaces. And he says they're increasingly discussing issues like climate change.

KYUM KIM: People talk a lot about compensation, of course, and the work culture. But I think this is a whole new segment.

DOMONOSKE: In a survey, half his users said a company's climate policy affects whether or not they want to work there. Employees, investors, customers, science - all of that played a role in Microsoft's recent decision to go beyond carbon neutral and pull more carbon dioxide out of the air than the company emits. But Chief Sustainability Officer Lucas Joppa says, there's another factor, too. He says it's helped to frame this as an accounting problem.

LUCAS JOPPA: And that really is what I see flip executives' mindsets around - is to just talk about this in terms that they understand, talking about a carbon budget.

DOMONOSKE: Quantifying exactly how much companies emit and how much they'll need to cut.

JOPPA: At the end of the day, what companies are really good at doing is making decisions based on numbers.

DOMONOSKE: Of course, setting a carbon budget is one thing; sticking to it is another. And some experts say there could be a danger in relying on big corporations to drive the fight against climate change. Shalanda Baker is a professor at Northeastern University who studies the social justice dimensions of a transition away from fossil fuels. She says communities, especially vulnerable and marginalized communities, should have a say in the fight against climate change and feel the benefits of a switch to green energy.

SHALANDA BAKER: I'm just not sure if I have the faith, given that, you know, corporations are very concerned about expenses and profits, that they would really think about something that may add cost but that may be more just.

DOMONOSKE: Baker says commitments from companies can definitely be powerful. But, she says, government policy can make sure vulnerable populations are protected.

She's not the only one who looks at these voluntary commitments and sees a need for regulation. After all, some companies taking action is nowhere near enough to stop climate change. Elizabeth Sturcken, who's spent two decades urging companies to act, she's asking them to do more than just cut their own emissions.

STURCKEN: It's really critical to engage the policymakers.

DOMONOSKE: Corporations from BP to PepsiCo say they support a price on carbon. Sturcken says companies that really want to lead on climate need to put money toward advancing those policies.

Camila Domonoske, NPR News.

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