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Ireland facing urgent challenges on corporate sustainability

Companies pursuing science-based carbon targets can face accusations of greenwashing

Established in 2018, with several iterations since, the low-carbon pledge has been signed up to by  70 companies in Ireland

Established in 2018, with several iterations since, the low-carbon pledge has been signed up to by 70 companies in Ireland

 

There are increasing global sustainability measures to help combat climate change such as the European Union’s Green Deal – a trillion-euro investment in and commitment to making Europe a climate-neutral continent by 2050 – but are Irish businesses pulling their weight when it comes to corporate sustainability? When companies sign up to measures such as ‘net-zero pledges’ and ‘science-based targets’, are they really making an impact or is it ‘greenwashing’?

What is corporate sustainability?

“We take a very holistic definition and approach to sustainability,” says Tomás Sercovich, chief executive of Business in the Community Ireland. “It’s about the environmental impact, social impact, economic impact and how the company is managed and governed.

Business in the Community Ireland chief executive Tomás Sercovich. Photograph: Jason Clarke
Business in the Community Ireland chief executive Tomás Sercovich. Photograph: Jason Clarke

“It is important that companies understand sustainability is not a tradition within your organisation, it is not a report you produce, but the way you manage your business. It has to be at the core of everything, how it treats its employees, products and services.”

Going green

Ali Sheridan, senior sustainability and climate adviser, explains why more Irish businesses are signing up to sustainability measures: “Sustainability is rapidly moving up the business agenda due to a number of drivers – the science is becoming clearer, public appetite for change is growing, the introduction of more reporting and disclosure regimes, customers and consumers are demanding it, investors are leveraging their influence and employees are demanding action as well.

Sustainability and climate adviser Ali Sheridan.
Sustainability and climate adviser Ali Sheridan.

“We are seeing some good efforts such as moving to renewable energy sources, increased efficiencies, tackling packaging and food waste, and some new start-ups being launched focused solely on sustainable solutions.

“We are in a new climate era, and time is running out to take much more ambitious action, so what we see today in terms of business sustainability in Ireland is only scratching the surface of what needs to happen.”

Offsetting the problem

Sheridan explains that while such measures look good on paper, often there is not enough detail about how these targets are going to be achieved, or what emission cuts will be made between now and 2030 with “a lot of commitments focusing on post-2030 and dependent on the growth of technologies such as carbon-capture storage of which we cannot yet be sure of their effectiveness”.

She says companies are “still focusing on intensity emissions – improving the metrics per unit such as a litre or a kilogram of product – but at the same time increasing the volume of their production so overall emissions are increasing”.

In addition to this, there is a reliance on offsets, which she says are problematic for a number of reasons. “We are not yet sure they perform as we hope they do. If every company simply offsets their impact we simply do not have enough land available to meet this demand; and, more worryingly, is that they condone business as usual. Companies need to start understanding how they need to transform their operations, not buy their way out of this.”

Low-carbon pledge

Following the 21st Conference of the Parties (Cop21) in 2015, the governments of the world set an ambitious challenge to try to keep the world below 1.5 degrees of global warming, says Sercovich. They also realised that companies are very complex and cannot by themselves solve the major challenges they have in reducing their emissions.

Thus the low-carbon pledge was born. It is the “first dedicated pledge generated by Irish business to set industry standards on sustainability and reduce carbon usage”. Established in 2018, with several iterations since, it now has 70 companies signed up to it.

“The low-carbon pledge is a commitment by the CEOs of these companies to a science-based net-zero target by 2024,” says Sercovich.

“That means their targets for reducing emissions will be based on the best scientific knowledge as to how emissions need to be reduced and eliminated in various sectors in the economy.”

Looking to the future

Balancing industry and climate action is a difficult but essential challenge. “We need to make sure that every regulation, policy and support is helping industries to take climate action, and not supporting growth that ignores emission increases,” says Sheridan. “Companies whose growth is dependent on continuous consumption are going to have to rewrite their business models.”

The way forward, she believes, is to move away from “fluffy CSR programmes” and “towards measurable action that delivers real impact” recognising that “it is going to take transformation, not tinkering, to survive in a net-zero world”.