Global warming is having a devastating impact on the world around us, and European companies are bracing themselves for the challenge ahead.
Spurred on by the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, EU businesses across all sectors have intensified their efforts in cutting GHG emissions, and many have set emissions reduction targets. Action has rapidly accelerated in the past two years.
Governments of countries representing two-thirds of the global economy have also committed to reaching net zero before 2050, and many are adopting new policies and incentives, as well as increasing regulatory measures to push companies towards zero-carbon practices. Government action is key, as conducive regulation can encourage and support emissions-reduction strategies among businesses.
But investors often speak even louder. They are increasingly looking for companies to set a timeline and strategy for the transition. According to our research, the topic is discussed in half of the earnings calls of European G2000 companies.
The first steps toward net zero
There are clear signs of progress.
of European companies have cut their own emissions in half in the past decade, according to Accenture research.
Plus, some of Europe’s largest companies in carbon-intensive industries including mining, metals and minerals; petrochemicals, chemicals and pharmaceuticals; and utilities have boldly set out net zero plans.
As of August 2021, almost one-third of the 1,000+ largest listed European companies had set a target for reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 at the latest, covering all three scopes of emissions. Scope 1 emissions are GHG direct emissions from companies’ own and controlled resources. Scope 2 covers indirect emissions from the generation of purchased energy — i.e., purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling consumed by the reporting company. Scope 3 includes all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain. Net zero typically refers to all three scopes.
The companies making net zero commitments are responsible for more than two-thirds of the CO2 emitted by the 1000+ largest companies on the European stock exchanges. They are generally the biggest emitters, with the most drastic changes to make.
Targets work. Last decade, companies in our sample with a net zero goal reduced their emissions by 10% on average, while those without targets saw their emissions increase.
There’s more significant work to be done, however. Just 1 in 20 European listed companies we surveyed will be able to achieve net zero in their own operations (Scope 1 and 2) at or before their own target year, and 9% by 2050 at the latest, if they continue the pace of emissions reduction that they have achieved between 2010 and 2019.
Radical measures needed to reach net zero
For most companies, the pathway to net zero operations by 2050 involves a doubling of the pace of emissions reduction by 2030, and a further acceleration beyond.
Simply put, European businesses must reimagine and reinvent the way they work – taking action to cut emissions in their own operations and collaborating across industry boundaries to decarbonize supply chains and product use. However, there are sector-specific opportunities and challenges when it comes to cutting carbon emissions, many reflecting the distribution of each industry’s footprint.
of emissions of all companies that we analyzed are from five sectors: automotive; construction; manufacturing; oil, gas & chemicals; and transportation & storage.
Depending on the nature of their operations, some companies are simply more resource intensive and, consequently, larger carbon emitters. For some, the majority of emissions occur in the supply chain, for others in the use of their product. Some businesses are further ahead in their innovation journey, while others have only started recently. Five sectors—automotive; construction; manufacturing; oil, gas & chemicals; and transportation & storage—accounting for 42% of emissions of all companies that we analyzed, will need to accelerate most to achieve net zero in their own operations by mid-century.
Creating an ecosystem of partners
The more businesses that commit to net zero, the sooner large-scale emissions reduction can happen. And while companies have set different timeframes—the goal, on average, is 2043—there is broad consensus on the need to achieve net zero by 2050.
The challenge is too immense for companies to do it alone.
Even with accelerated action—doubling the pace of emissions reduction by 2030 and then doubling it again by 2040 —just 42% of all of the companies in our sample and across sectors would reach their own net zero targets, and 83% before 2050.
The growing commitment of European businesses to address emissions in their value chain (scope 3) will be a critical step to get more companies and industries to reach net zero before 2050. Companies can accelerate the creation and adoption of zero-carbon technologies and strategies by removing the boundaries that exist between industry sectors and developing an ecosystem of partners to create new technologies and innovative strategies to get to net zero.
Large companies in particular have a major role to play in the collaborative ecosystems essential for the rapid application of net zero technologies and processes.
Building bridges between industries to bring low-carbon solutions to maturity and scale: Steel producers and petrochemical companies working together to scale green hydrogen production for low-carbon steel manufacturing can help automotive companies accelerate the pace of emissions reduction.
Shaping the markets for net zero solutions: A commitment from the automotive sector in increasing the availability and affordability of electric vehicles will help fleet electrification and decarbonization in the transport sector.
Decisive action to get to net zero
By establishing an explicit zero-carbon strategy and using carbon intelligence to get there, the European business community can realize its goal by 2050. Execution at speed, purposeful industry collaboration and a step-change in technology development and innovation are also essential to reach their objective. We’ve identified three key steps to help companies on their net zero journey:
Commit to a science-based target. Research shows that targets do work. Companies in our sample with net-zero targets reduced their Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions between 2010 and 2019, while those without increased their emissions.
Embed carbon intelligence into the very fabric of the company to better manage the company’s carbon budget, by employing the same discipline used for financial budgets.
Leverage influence to mobilize industry and value chain. Large companies can drive greenhouse gas emissions reductions far greater than their own footprint through concerted action on their Scope 3 emissions—engaging suppliers and making changes in product design and adopting circular business models.
It will take reinvention of business itself to ensure a commitment to the planet and create transformative change that will last for generations to come.