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Corporations Pledge to Fight Climate Change, but the Devil Is in the Details

More than 80 giant businesses are commiting to “ambitious, company-specific goals” as part of Obama’s new climate pledge.

Image by Pixabay user McZerrill

The big news out of the White House yesterday was that 81 corporations, including Walmart, Coca-Cola, Apple and agribusiness giant Cargill, have signed the American Business Act on Climate Pledge to “demonstrate their support for action on climate change.”

“These 81 companies have operations in all 50 states, employ over 9 million people, represent more than $3 trillion in annual revenue, and have a combined market capitalization of over $5 trillion,” the White House announced in an official statement.

By signing the pledge, the 81 corporations agree to support a strong agreement at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris this year, and agree to “reduce their emissions, increase low-carbon investments, deploy more clean energy, and take other actions to build more sustainable businesses and tackle climate change.”

As the White House notes, the pledge includes “ambitious, company-specific goals,” but there are some general initiatives. The companies would agree to reduce emissions by as much as 50 percent, reduce water usage by as much as 80 percent, achieve zero waste-to-landfill, purchase 100 percent renewable energy, and pursue zero-net deforestation in supply chains.

All admirable and ethical goals, to be sure. But while it's great to see some American corporations leading on climate change, which may motivate foreign companies (in China and India, for instance) to do the same, there is reason for some skepticism. And this isn't about raining on President Obama's parade. It’s about looking at what these companies produce and sell—to say nothing of the fact that many of these corporations are publicly traded and need to increase market share annually to satisfy investors (and float entire economies), which isn't exactly sustainable in the long run.

Take Coca-Cola, for example. According to Fortune, the company uses “some 40 billion gallons of water each year in its Coke, Sprite, and other sugary drinks, plus its Dasani bottled water.” Yes, in 2007, the company set a goal to return 100 percent of the water it consumed to nature, which it’s happy to highlight on its Water Stewardship page. But that's 40 billion gallons of water from around the world that is going into unhealthy sugary drinks, instead of drought-plagued areas, where humans need water to hydrate and to grow food.

So how exactly does Coca-Cola reduce water usage by 80 percent if its entire line of products consists mostly of H20? Well, based on its pledge details, the company won't.

Perhaps Coca-Cola will lobby for an exception if it agrees to other climate change pledge conditions like using renewable energy and cutting emissions by 50 percent. Still, what Coca-Cola does with the world's limited water resources is pretty insane, and Obama needs to be pressed on this point, as does Coca-Cola. And Coca-Cola could start by making it easier to research their water consumption facts online, instead of flooding Google search results with positive content that obscures reality.

And then there's McDonald's. The “burger company,” as it calls itself in the pledge, talks much about sustainability in its coffee drinks and packaging. While the company claims it will commit to buying “a portion” of its beef from “verified, sustainable sources starting in 2016,” the pledge’s details are incredibly vague.

To satisfy its global business, with more than 35,000 restaurants, McDonald’s needs a whole lot of beef. To do this, the company buys its beef from mega cattle farms around the world. As we know, cattle, chicken, and pork farms are incredibly hard on water resources. As far back as 2006, a United Nations report identified the world’s rapidly growing herds of cattle as the greatest threat to climate, forests, and wildlife. This same report found that cattle accounted for 18 percent of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, while also producing deserts and poisoning rivers.

Noticeably absent from the report are oil companies, other bottled water companies, and big agribusinesses—corporations operating in markets whose daily impact on the planet is incredibly vast. Is the corporate climate change pledge a step in the right direction? Yes. But each of these corporations deserves the scrutiny applied above to see exactly what they produce and how that impacts the environment.

And, for true climate change to take hold, activists and government officials will have to bring those absent from the list to the table, while pressing foreign countries to get their domestic corporations in line. Without their involvement, climate change action will be marginal.

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