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Bipartisan Policy Center starts net-zero business alliance with major executives

The Bipartisan Policy Center has launched an initiative to help corporations and governments understand and plot their path to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The BPC's new Net Zero Business Alliance includes big names from industries that will be critical to curbing emissions. Founding corporations include utility Southern Co., United Airlines Inc., Tyson Foods Inc. and timberland company Weyerhaeuser Co.

In a Feb. 17 webinar announcing the initiative, BPC President Jason Grumet said the goal of the effort is to accurately frame the magnitude of the carbon and methane reductions needed to achieve a sustainable climate, to acknowledge the vast scale of the challenge ahead and to work with leaders to move forward with a net-zero agenda. Tackling the challenge will require an all-hands-on-deck approach, Grumet said.

Scientists have projected that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to preindustrial levels will require achieving global net-zero emissions by around midcentury. And over the last year or so, an increasing number of companies and financial institutions have announced a goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 or sooner. Moreover, U.S. President Joe Biden has pledged to set the U.S. on a path to carbon-free electricity by 2035 and net-zero economywide emissions by 2050, a major shift in priorities from the prior administration.

In this episode of S&P Global's ESG Insider podcast, where we explore what Biden's climate policies mean for sustainability-minded companies and investors.

But many questions remain as to exactly how the world, and companies that have adopted a net-zero target, will ultimately cross the finish line. Even most of the electric utilities that have a relatively clear path for decarbonizing their systems by installing more renewable generation have acknowledged that they only know how to achieve 80% of their goal, and the rest will depend on multiple factors. Many companies, including utilities, are expecting to use carbon-capture and other technologies that are currently uneconomic or have yet to be developed. And some companies in harder-to-decarbonize sectors expect to use carbon offsets to balance out any emissions they are unable to stop producing.

At the BPC event, the executives acknowledged these challenges and addressed another challenge as well: managing a just transition for fossil-fuel dependent communities and employees.

Southern Co. Chairman, President and CEO Tom Fanning suggested that "we are going to need a reimagined partnership with the government" to fund research and development of technologies and to help cushion the blow to communities as the net-zero transition takes place.

Why carbon offsets may not be enough

As for carbon offsets, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said they cannot be the primary solution for companies under a net-zero scenario. He explained how airline United has had great trouble getting details from companies that offer these credits as to exactly where those offsets are being made. As such, United is instead looking to use technologies and projects that will sequester carbon underground to offset emissions. He also asserted that the world simply cannot plant enough trees to offset the amount of emissions that will continue to be produced under a net-zero scenario, which is a far cry from absolute zero emissions.

"There are going to be parts of the economy where we are still emitting carbon," Kirby said. He later added, "the reality is ... we all need to eat, we all do need power, we all are going to fly or to travel or do things, and we need to find solutions."

Tyson Foods Chief Sustainability Officer John R. Tyson noted that one in five proteins in the U.S. is produced by his company. It has set a goal of reducing emissions by 30% by 2030, but it cannot control all of that goal alone, as it also relies on supplies from nearly 10,0000 farmers and ranchers.

He also noted that the science is still being developed around which soils and agriculture can play a role in helping sequester emissions.

"Science has to lead the way and that's especially true in the world of carbon credits and carbon markets that are starting to proliferate," Tyson said. The food company is participating in the BPC initiative "because we recognize there are challenges and complexities to addressing emissions in the agricultural supply chain," he added.