More than 5,200 businesses have pledged to cut their greenhouse gas pollution to zero by 2050, or reach “net zero” by canceling out emissions with forestry or other projects that remove CO₂ from the air. They include some of the world’s biggest companies across all sectors: Apple, Zurich Insurance, P&G, General Motors, and so on.

But as the corporate net-zero juggernaut powers on, the less sense it makes, critics say, and it may do more harm than good. Their reason is simple: the only net-zero goal that matters is the one that applies to the entire planet. At the largest scale, discussion of “emissions” and “removals,” or drawing down CO₂ through forestry and other means, is grounded in Earth science, in the physical movement of carbon into the air and back down again. That’s “net zero.”

Companies can help. But companies can not be net-zero, and their pledges are more directly based on arithmetic than geochemistry, according to Carbone 4, a French consultancy that works with companies measuring their emissions and deciding what to do about them. “The idea of a carbon-neutral company is fundamentally dubious,” they wrote last July.

They’re not alone. The French government last year issued guidance that echoed Carbone 4's diagnosis of corporate net-zero goals. Nobody should claim to be “carbon neutral,” wrote the Agency for Ecological Transition (ADEME). A net-zero watchdog this month introduced a trial “code of practice” to help evaluate corporate net-zero claims, and the UN Secretary general has launched a group of experts to look at non-national net-zero pledges.

Carbone 4 provides several reasons for its skepticism “that an organization is capable of achieving individual ‘climate virginity.’” At the heart of their critique are carbon “offsets,” or purchases that grant the right to claim emission reductions generated by CO₂ drawdown projects elsewhere, and the firm advises clients not to include investment in CO₂ reductions, through forestry or other means, in its emissions accounting — even though doing so certainly makes the company look better on paper.

Instead, the firm advises clients to account for its climate efforts in three distinct categories: emissions reductions, drawing at least in part on the framework set out by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi); “avoided emissions” or how a company's products or services might contribute to decarbonization elsewhere; and financing or the removal of CO₂ from the atmosphere.

So companies can still brag about how much they spend on carbon removal — they just can't count it against their own emissions.

Carbone 4 gives several reasons why they separate offsets from corporate emissions accounting. They’re skeptical that corporate net-zero plans, added up, will lead to global net-zero, for one. And when purchased offset credits are subtracted from company carbon ledgers, it veils the actual pollution rate, which matters most. 

But none of the major groups that help define corporate emissions accounting have ever seemed thrilled about offsets. The SBTi, a collaboration among several leading nonprofits, mandates that companies going through its rigorous process cut emissions at least 90 per cent before 2050. The last 10 per cent or so can be negated with "high-quality removals," a term the group is still in the process of defining.

The semantic point Carbone 4 makes is an important one: Only on a global or regional level can drawing down CO₂ physically neutralize past emissions, leading to “net zero,” and companies that deliberately ignore that in their own strategy or marketing are being disingenuous at best. 

This is reflected in the deliberate language in the major reports and pacts on climate change. For example, parties to the Paris Agreement — again, countries, not companies — “aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.” The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change repeatedly refers to “global net zero.”

If, instead of aiming for their own on-paper emissions accounting target, corporations saw themselves as making “contributions” to a shared goal, consequences could be profound. It would require them to make many of the emissions reductions they’re already planning — to do their share — and it would also require them to acknowledge and maybe even act on things that matter just as much if not more.

As of now, corporations spend vast sums on lobbying against science-based climate policy, on political contributions to elected officials who block climate legislation, and on a whole category of professional services that has yet to measure its own emissions, let alone set targets for reduction. None of those activities are reflected in standard emissions accounting, nor do they count against a company’s own calculation of its progress toward net zero, and yet they all undermine the global effort to get there. 

Climate change progress lurks in the spaces between companies and governments, between individuals and communities, between rich and poor, as everybody tries to steer complex, shared industrial systems away from the brink. 

“No company can act on its own to solve the climate crisis,” Derik Broekhoff, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, wrote in a post on the SEI site. “Companies that are truly committed to achieving net zero need to support climate policies — at all levels of government and internationally — that advance an equitable, comprehensive and coordinated global transition.”

Dumping corporate net-zero language would be a small dose of humility that helps avoid much more humbling events down the road.