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NET ZERO: US utilities still top global oil and gas, mining and metals companies in making net-zero pledge

Highlights

13 of top 30 US utilities set net-zero goals

8 of top mining companies have net-zero targets

Of top 30 global oil companies, five have net-zero targets

It is more clear now than ever that massive changes are coming in the global energy markets as a rising number of the largest corporations in energy and mining set ambitious net-zero emissions targets.

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Most corporations in multiple sectors of these industries are grappling with how to appease growing pressure from investors, local and national governments, and the public to develop decarbonization strategies.

Not all have made the leap yet, and decarbonization strategies among companies vary greatly. Moreover, each sector, and even each company, faces its own set of challenges in navigating the clean energy transition.

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Nevertheless, Josh Price, a senior analyst on energy and utilities at investment research and advisory firm Height Capital Markets, said investors want companies to make aggressive pledges "because if you don't set a target, you can't meet it."

This is the first of four stories examining how the largest 30 companies in each of three sectors — oil and gas, utilities, and metals and mining — are tackling climate change, including the extent to which they are setting aggressive goals to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 or earlier.

In response to scientific climate projections, investors, policymakers and portions of the public, particularly teenagers and young adults, have pressured energy and mining companies to develop decarbonization plans that align with the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Specifically, scientists have asserted that to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C relative to pre-industrial levels, the world will need to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by around 2050. But to get there, the sectors most responsible for the vast majority of emissions will need to move fast and start lowering global emissions levels by 2030.

Globally, the power sector in 2019 accounted for 41% of energy-related carbon emissions in 2019, according to the International Energy Agency. And in the US, electric generation is the second biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions behind the transportation sector.

The oil and gas industry's operations account for about 9% human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and produce the fuels that create another 33% of global emissions, according to a January article by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. While the mining sector is directly responsible for about 4%-7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to McKinsey, mined materials are also the starting point in the supply chain for much of the global economy.

Of the three sectors examined in this series of articles, domestic electric and multi-utilities that own both electric generation and natural gas distribution pipelines have made the most net-zero carbon emissions pledges, followed by metals and mining and then oil and gas companies operating on a global scale.

As of mid-July, 13 of the 30 largest US publicly traded electric and gas utilities had set goals to achieve either zero or net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by at least 2050 or a goal of 100% clean electricity by 2040. Among the 30 largest global metals and mining companies, eight had set net-zero targets, and of the top 30 global oil and gas companies, only five have set net-zero targets.

In 2020 alone, major companies in each of the three sectors announced net-zero or carbon-neutral pledges, including metals and mining company Rio Tinto in February, oil major Royal Dutch Shell PLC in April, and electric utility Southern Co. in May. Each of those companies were under pressure to reduce their emissions by investors, including the Climate Action 100+ initiative.

The sustainability-focused group Ceres is the organizer behind the Climate Action 100+ initiative pursuant to which investors with over $40 trillion in assets under management are pushing major companies to disclose their climate risks and curb their emissions. Of the 90 companies reviewed in this series of articles, Climate Action 100+ has targeted 19 oil and gas companies, 13 utilities and eight mining companies.

"We've been seeing this trend toward decarbonization take hold" and accelerate, asserted Dan Bakal, Ceres senior director of electric power.

Looming large over the utility decarbonization plans is the November presidential election.

Presumed Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has pledged to require utilities to decarbonize the grid by 2035 and achieve economy-wide net-zero emissions by 2050. The Democratic National Committee is expected to take up Biden's recommendations, as well as a call for a "carbon adjustment fee" for products from countries that are not pursuing the Paris accord agreements, The Hill reported July 23.

If President Donald Trump is elected for another four years, however, federal action to directly address climate change is expected to be limited or nonexistent. But even if that is the case, decarbonization actions by states, pressure from investors, and customer preferences have prompted many major companies to adopt decarbonization goals that they will continue to pursue.