Corporate Climate Targets: Between Science and Climate Washing

39 Pages Posted: 10 Apr 2024 Last revised: 15 Apr 2024

See all articles by Nadav Orian Peer

Nadav Orian Peer

University of Colorado Law School

Date Written: April 8, 2024

Abstract

The use of corporate climate targets has exploded in recent years. Over three thousand corporations, including the largest and most profitable in the world, have adopted corporate climate targets as commitments to align their actions with climate science and the Paris Agreement. However, the broad adoption of these targets raises important questions: are these commitments truly aligned with science in the way they are advertised, or do they raise “climate washing” concerns, i.e., do they exaggerate the benefits and significance of the climate targets? This Article investigates the role that science actually plays within targets, and explores potential theories of liability when commitments turn out to be exaggerated. The Article’s analysis focuses on corporate targets issued as part of the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi). SBTi is a standard-setting body that provides a detailed rule framework for the setting of corporate climate targets. The nonprofit has recently experienced spectacular growth, with companies representing some $38 trillion –one third of global market capitalization—now committing to targets under its seal.

The Article finds that the role of science in SBTi’s rule framework is more complex than it first appears. SBTi rules employ a scientific concept known as the global carbon budget, but scientific knowledge cannot translate that carbon budget, which is indeed global, to company-level targets. When SBTi provides that translation in its rules, it is not merely deriving targets from science, but exercising considerable discretion. That discretion, and its distributive implications, are currently under-appreciated in both academia and practice. Building on this analysis, the Article turns to the issue of potential liability for climate washing in some companies’ SBTi targets. The key, it argues, is to move beyond the instinct that a target can only amount to climate washing if it is in direct conflict with science. Because science itself cannot determine appropriate company-level targets, it is necessary to identify alternative ways in which a given corporate target is problematic or misleading. To this effect, the Article suggests three avenues through which advocates may pursue climate washing liability. These include companies in non-compliance with SBTi criteria, statements that mislead consumer perception, and SBTi criteria that depart from expert consensus.

Keywords: corporate climate targets, climate washing, Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), Private environmental governance, Corporate social responsibility, Greenhouse gas accounting, Scope 3 emissions, Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor, International Energy Agency (IEA)

JEL Classification: K20, K32, M41, Q01, Q54

Suggested Citation

Orian Peer, Nadav, Corporate Climate Targets: Between Science and Climate Washing (April 8, 2024). U of Colorado Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 24-14, NYU Environmental Law Journal, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4788052

Nadav Orian Peer (Contact Author)

University of Colorado Law School ( email )

401 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309
United States

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