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The Big Four have pledged to cut emissions and reach net-zero within the next 10 years

How do Big Four’s net-zero pledges measure up?

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Karl Tomusk

In the quest to ensure that global temperatures do not spiral out of control, more companies are making net zero carbon pledges.

The Big Four accounting firms – Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC – have each done so in recent months, releasing ambitious pledges, in varying levels of detail, to guide their corporate activity over the next decade. But pledges are easy to make. They are harder to fulfil with action.

In general, the recent rise in net-zero pledges is positive. Stephen Smith, director of the Oxford Net Zero initiative, says: “The sheer number of net zero commitments that have come forward in recent months has been way beyond expectations. This is really encouraging. Net zero is now the frame of reference for ambition on climate.”

But detail matters in these pledges. Details separate those looking for a positive headline from those taking action. What have Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC promised and how useful are those promises in reality?

Headline carbon emissions pledges

  • Deloitte: Cut emissions by 50%, reach net-zero by 2030
  • EY: Cut emissions by 40%, reach net-zero by 2025
  • KPMG: Cut emissions by 50%, reach net-zero by 2030
  • PwC: Cut emissions by 50%, reach net-zero by 2030

Positives

The Big Four get two basic things right: they are promising to cut emissions – quite dramatically – and they have less than a decade to do it. Joeri Rogelj, a lecturer in climate change and the environment at Imperial College London, says that setting near-term targets is preferable to long-term ones because they require immediate action. For EY, that urgency is even greater because it has just four years to deliver on its promises.

EY, KPMG and Deloitte have all included cutting Scope 3 emissions (emissions that include everything from purchased goods and services to investments, leased assets and waste disposal) in their targets, which is a level of detail not everyone considers. Scope 3 is particularly important because it takes into account ‘downstream’ emissions – those emissions the business causes indirectly.

Are they pledging enough? There isn’t a straightforward answer here. Academics and policymakers speak about the idea of a “fair share” – how much should any one emitter cut their emissions? That will depend on several factors, including the industry they work in and the types of emissions they produce, and there isn’t a consensus about what this means.

Global emissions need to fall by 50% (compared to 2010) by 2030 to limit the average temperature rise to 1.5C. These pledges are in line with that target and having businesses with a global reach hit net-zero by the end of the decade would undoubtedly be positive.

What’s missing?

More details about the types of emissions they intend to cut. PwC does not explicitly mention Scope 3, and the others could expand on specific targets with more detail, which would enable outsiders to judge whether the business is cutting emissions in the right places and how feasible are its intended changes.

Although it is beyond the immediate scope of these pledges, businesses should also be aware that 2030 (or 2025) cannot be an endpoint even if they do become carbon neutral. Meeting global emissions targets will require continual action. More ambitious in the short-term, EY will have to continue to cut emissions if it wants to keep up with its peers by the end of the decade.

EY Net Zero Carbon

Carbon offsets

  • Deloitte: Offset any remaining emissions “through high-quality schemes”
  • EY: Remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits every year
  • KPMG: Invest in “externally accredited carbon removal projects” to offset any remaining emissions
  • PwC: Remove one tonne of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for every tonne emitted; projects will be selected “on the basis of quality criteria and verification of the carbon reduction impact”

Positives

Offsets are contentious because they can be seen as a ‘get out of jail free’ card. A business could reach net zero by doing little or nothing directly to reduce its emissions simply by investing in loads of offsetting programmes carried out elsewhere, such as tree planting. But there is a limit to the amount offsetting the world can do, and competition for offsetting projects will grow if businesses rely on them too much.

Encouragingly, the Big Four each regard offsets as a final step. Firstly, they say they will cut emissions where they can and then offset the balance (or, in the case of EY, more than the balance). That forces them to be strategic about offsetting. If a business uses offsetting to compensate for emissions it could feasibly reduce, it wastes offset investments that might be needed for activities that they (or others) practically cannot cut.

The Big Four have also pledged to work with their clients to help them cut their emissions and make their own pledges – an important step in influencing global action.

What’s missing?

Offsets vary greatly in quality. While the Big Four each pledges to use accredited projects to offset emissions, there is little detail about their accreditors. There are some examples of the types of programmes they could get involved with, including reforestation, protecting forests and investment in wind, solar and hydro. However, EY is the only one to explicitly identify an organisation that it will work with – the profit-for-purpose organisation South Pole.

Assuming these projects are fully accredited, the focus on what are known as ‘nature-based climate solutions’, such as reforestation, is good – they remove carbon from the atmosphere  – but risky. They store carbon in vegetation, which can easily release it back into the air, especially with the rise in environmental disasters like wildfires.

Geological carbon removal projects capture carbon and store it underground, making it less vulnerable to re-release. It is unclear whether the Big Four would consider exploring these projects. They are still niche and expensive – potentially prohibitively so. This is another reason businesses need to cut emissions first and only then offset what they cannot cut.

Plane Air Travel Net Zero Carbon 2

Travel

  • Deloitte: Cut business travel emissions 50% by 2030; convert car fleet to 100% plug-in hybrid and electric
  • EY: Cut travel emissions 35% by 2025
  • KPMG: No set target, but business travel identified as a focus in decarbonisation plan
  • PwC: Cut business travel and accommodation emissions by 50% within a decade

Positives

The Big Four recognise the impact business travel has on emissions. Air travel alone accounted for 77% of KPMG’s and 85% of PwC’s greenhouse emissions in 2019. EY has estimated that its plan to cut travel emissions by 35% before 2025 means avoiding 2m tonnes of CO2 emissions between 2019 and 2025.

Deloitte has made an additional pledge to convert its car fleet to 100% plug-in hybrid and electric.

What’s missing?

Although there is some detail about how the companies will cut travel (EY is encouraging more virtual meetings and using “new tools and technologies” to help staff make better travel choices), it would be useful to know what concrete action they will take. Will conference attendance be reduced by a certain percentage? Will air travel be prohibited for certain distances or where an alternative is available?

KPMG should identify a target for travel emissions reductions.

Electricity

  • Deloitte: 100% renewable electricity for all its buildings by 2030
  • EY: 100% renewable energy use; reduce overall office electricity; introduce more renewable electricity than it consumes through power purchase agreements
  • KPMG: 100% renewable electricity by 2022 in its Global Board countries, 2030 for the wider global organisation
  • PWC: 100% renewable electricity in all territories by 2030; a commitment to energy efficiency improvements in its offices

Positives

All four are aiming for 100% renewable energy use, and EY has made several additional pledges. Most notably, its power purchase agreements will allow it to add more renewable energy than it consumes into national electricity grids. That means it will not only become renewable itself; it will add to the capacity for others to do the same.

KPMG has set an ultimate target and a near-term interim one, which is an approach experts encourage because it ensures the business has to act quickly.

What’s missing?

“Simply switching to a renewable energy provider is good, but not enough,” says Joeri Rogelj of Imperial College London. There could be more emphasis on energy reduction. EY and PwC explicitly mention this (EY also sets out some figures around recent reductions in office space), and greater building efficiency is implied within KPMG and Deloitte’s pledges. However, none of them has set a target for electricity consumption.

There is finite capacity for renewable energy, especially before a full decarbonisation of national grids, which makes a switch to clean energy a good but flawed strategy if it does not include reduction targets.

Supply chains

  • Deloitte: Ensure that more than two thirds of suppliers (by emissions) have set their own 1.5C-aligned carbon reduction targets
  • EY: Require 75% of suppliers (by spend) to set science-based targets by no later than 2025
  • KPMG: No target identified, but supply chain identified as a focus
  • PWC: No target identified, but has pledged to continue supporting global climate and policy agenda

Positives

Supply chain targets recognise that businesses are responsible for more emissions than the ones they release directly. For global players like the Big Four, this is an opportunity to exert pressure on others around the world to at least start thinking about cutting emissions. This will help create what Rogelj calls a “cascading effect”, introducing targets to parts of the world where public policy might not be as focused on emissions reductions.

What’s missing?

PWC and KPMG have not set explicit targets for their suppliers, although both have committed to working with other businesses to achieve environmental targets.

Although EY and Deloitte have set targets, it is unclear how they will ensure those targets are met. Will they drop suppliers who do not make commitments? Are there contingencies if there are no suitable alternative suppliers? Is there any practical pressure on the suppliers to also follow through with their pledges?

Conclusions

These pledges largely tick the boxes they need to: ambitious with concrete targets in the short- and medium-term and potentially influential given their global reach. Some more detail would be useful, but they have avoided common pitfalls and will publish updates at least annually. By doing so, these corporations have set out agendas that other businesses should look to emulate.

Read the pledges

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