In anticipation of COP27, South Pole, a global climate project developer and advisory firm, recently released their Net Zero 2022 report, titled “Net Zero and Beyond”, so as to spread awareness of the quality of the climate commitments that companies are making to reach their net-zero targets. In so doing, the firm revealed a troubling phenomenon. Known as greenhushing, a minority of companies surveyed are choosing to set science-based targets, but are also choosing not to publicise them openly, opting for the bare-minimum, government-mandated amount of transparency. Of course, in a time where transparency and collaboration are paramount, this lack of cooperation has some experts worried about the future. 

The UN Climate Change Conference, otherwise known as the Conference of the Parties (COP) has been gathering almost every country on Earth for nearly thirty years to focus global attention on climate change, sustainability, and current environmental affairs. 

With last year’s 26th annual conference (COP26), which took place in Glasgow, a series of goals were set to further bolster efforts towards climate change action on a global scale. Some of them included adapting to protect global communities and natural habitats, mobilising finances from both developed countries and international institutions, and working together to deliver on climate action through the collaboration of governments, businesses and civil society. However, it is arguable that the greatest of these goals was to secure “global net zero” by mid-century, and to keep the 1.5C Paris Agreement target well within reach. 

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In order to achieve these targets, governments, businesses and institutions often look for assistance in handling the complicated science, logistics, and groundwork behind climate change action. This is where companies like South Pole, a global climate project developer and advisory firm, come into play.

What Did South Pole’s Report Find?

Active in nearly 40 locations across the world, South Pole is a profit-for-purpose company with many climate-action capacities, including but not limited to sustainable finances, plastic solutions, digital climate solutions and climate investments. 

“We’ve been at the forefront of decarbonisation since 2006, and we are known for our ability to develop climate action projects.” says Nadia Kähkönen, South Pole’s deputy director of global communications, in an exclusive interview with Earth.Org. “We do this all over the world, providing stellar sustainability advice to companies big and small, as well as different levels of the government.” 

The company is also heavily invested in providing accessible and accurate climate activism data, the kind that paints a clear, reliable picture of the current state of global environmental affairs. This is made evident in their annual Net Zero Report, the third of which occurred this year.

“Governments [across the world] have set these targets to reduce emissions to net-zero by 2050, and so companies are starting to focus on the same target.” – says Kähkönen. “For the first time, we have this opportunity to really think between governments and the private sector on reaching this target, and why it’s so important to do so.” 

South Pole’s extensive Net Zero 2022 report, titled “Net Zero and Beyond”, covers a wide range of data related to sustainable action, including both UK-specific and global trends, from 1,220 companies across 15 sectors in 12 countries. However, their main focus, as the title suggests, is to ascertain exactly how well companies are doing in the setting and attainment of their “Net Zero” goals.  

“We need to be able to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, and we’re really running out of time.” – explains Kähkönen. “The reason we do this report is to be able to shed light on the drivers of the road, the enablers of the private sector who are trying to chart this tricky journey to net zero emissions.”

As the report states, as much as 95% of heavy-emitter companies have targets set in place (a significant difference to the 71% of companies that are not heavy emitters), with net-zero targets growing linearly in relation to a company’s revenue; a strategy South Pole calls the “race to the top”, and attributes to not only satisfaction of consumer demand and a need to evoke brand leadership, but more importantly, to the anticipation of regulatory pressure. 

This is because regulations tend to target heavy emitting companies, who are under constant scrutiny from their stakeholders, which in turn forces them to act quickly to show they have everything under control, and won’t be losing finances needlessly to hefty environmental fines.  

Furthermore, and rather interestingly,  the report suggests that these companies may also be attempting to gather valuable information in an attempt to better understand supply chain risks and external shocks.

”We noticed this shift.” – says Kähkönen. “The focus on supply chains was not as prevalent in the past two years, and it was top of mind this year.”

“If we look at the current landscape one might even say it’s been a collision of crises. Inflation is biting. We’ve had covid, we’ve had conflict. And so that link between business resilience, sustainability and you know, business continuity has just become abundantly clear for many businesses.”

What Is Greenhushing?

Though many companies have adapted earnestly to the demands of the modern age, it was also determined that there is a minority – the equivalent of 25% of surveyed, UK-based, heavy-emitting companies – that are choosing to set these targets, but still refusing to publicise them completely. 

Even more worrisome, this issue is happening on a global scale. Approximately 20% of companies surveyed across the world are also deciding to keep quiet – a move South Pole refers to as “going green, then going dark”–  otherwise known as “greenhushing”; a relatively new term that refers to a company’s refusal to publicise anything about the sustainability of its products or services for fear of being open to criticism.

“Greenhushing is almost the opposite of greenwashing.” – Kähkönen explains. “There are companies who have set very demanding science-based emissions reduction targets and are now deciding not to publicise them beyond what’s mandatory.”

However, this begs the question: why?

As Kähkönen describes, there may be three reasons why: Fear of failure, fear of scrutiny, and fear of litigation. Businesses fear failing because they are currently operating in a completely different economic environment than even just a year ago, and they fear scrutiny because people will judge their efforts and will likely ask for improvements. As for legislation, modern businesses in some countries like France, for example, must follow explicit rules surrounding corporate environmental claims. These rules are likely to arise in other countries as well. 

South Pole observed the phenomena of greenhushing by asking surveyed companies a relatively simple question: “Do you have a science based target (SBT), and do you plan to publicise it?”

A target is considered “science-based” when they are in line with what modern science deems necessary to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement (limiting global warming to below 2 C above pre-industrial levels and continuing to limit warming to 1.5 C).

“For some, this may actually mean the verified SBT, through the SBTi, which is the body that validates them.” – says Kähkönen. “For others, it might be something that is taken from this practice, but they’re setting that target on their own.”

The Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi), is the governing body that provides a global framework for which targets should be deemed acceptable by the science-based community. 

“They’re coming out with sector specific guidance every year. So essentially, if you think about it for the first time, we have this standard for what credible looks like.” 

The initiative is accessible by anyone with an internet connection, providing a detailed account of every participating company’s commitments to climate action. So far, 3,901 companies have agreed to share their targets, with 1,859 SBT’s and 1,541 Net Zero commitments set.

As Kähkönen explains, having a set standard instills a sense of urgency and resilience in a business’s ability to express that they are best in class. The Net Zero target focuses the whole company together under one umbrella, unifying their goals as one. 

“This is what you use to bring the whole organisation together on this journey.” 

An End to Greenhushing

South Pole condemns greenhushing for a number of reasons, but mainly because it makes it harder for others to assess if a company is meeting its goals, while also making it more difficult for companies to collaborate and encourage one another to meet more ambitious targets.

As South Pole CEO Renat Heuberger said in a statement: “The speed at which we are overshooting our planetary boundaries is mind-blowing. More than ever we need the companies making progress on sustainability to inspire their peers to make a start. This is impossible if progress is happening in silence,” 

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