• The net zero notion has quickly become mainstream among countries and corporations, serving as a new branding exercise showcasing a commitment to sustainable development.
  • Our media analysis found that the US and UK are ahead in the race to position themselves as net zero champions, while the debate has focused on energy companies like Shell, BP and Exxon, as well as financial companies such as BlackRock and Citi.
  • Our analysis suggests that the time for pledges is over and there is a need to demonstrate some specific action, as governments and companies should show they’re following the science rather than just the latest trends.

View a one-page infographic summary of the analysis.

The concept of net zero – which means not adding to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – has come a long way in a very short time, moving from science to policy to mainstream in less than a decade. In spite of its relative obscurity just a few years ago, net zero has quickly become mainstream among countries, cities and corporates. For many sustainability advocates now, anything less than net zero won’t stop climate change from getting worse and so isn’t up to the challenge.

The Net Zero Tracker tells us that 90% of global GDP is now covered by a net zero commitment, which breaks down to 136 countries, 234 cities and 683 of the largest 2,000 listed companies on the planet. Companies not at the net zero party are becoming increasingly conspicuous and that includes those in B2B markets, not only B2C.

Reaching net zero is often framed as something that will change our lives forever – from a consumer perspective, it could mean flying far less in future, and eating less red meat, while gas central heating will need to be replaced by alternative sources, such as heat pumps. Of course, it will also involve moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy for our power, and abandoning vehicles run on petrol and diesel, in favour of those powered by electricity and hydrogen.

However, the net zero concept is also subject to some controversy. Since not all emissions can be reduced to zero, so those that remain have to be compensated for, or offset – for example, by planting more trees. Almost every country has embarked on tree planting as a cheap way of reducing carbon, although there may not be enough space for the number required.

Carbon capture and storage has also been suggested as another solution. This involves using machinery to remove carbon from the air, then solidifying it and burying it underground. However, the technology is still emerging, very expensive and as yet unproven.

To examine what the net zero concept means for governments and companies, we analysed 1,067 English-language articles published in top tier outlets during the last 12 months.

Net zero as a nation branding exercise

The net zero wave started with governments – more than 130 countries have now pledged to reach net zero emissions before 2050. At the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, which was perceived by many as “the last chance saloon” to save the world from runaway climate change, many of the announcements on deforestation, cutting methane and reducing coal are directly linked to helping countries hit their net zero goal.

We found that the US and the UK have been ahead in the race to position themselves as net zero champions:

Numerous media outlets reported that the US will be a net zero contributor to the climate crisis by 2050 by slashing the planet-heating emissions from its operations and transitioning to an all-electric fleet of cars and trucks, according to a new executive order signed by Joe Biden. The federal government is the largest landowner, energy consumer and employer in the US and it will “lead by example in tackling the climate crisis”, the White House said, by eliminating greenhouse gases from its activities.

Taking a whole-of-government approach, the US will aim to demonstrate how innovation and environmental stewardship can protect our planet, safeguard federal investments against the effects of climate change, respond to the needs of all of America’s communities, and expand American technologies, industries and jobs.

Meanwhile, the UK managed to boost its nation brand by becoming the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050. The target will require the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, compared with the previous target of at least 80% reduction from 1990 levels.

The government also plans to make Britain the world’s first net-zero financial services centre, even as environmental campaigners quickly criticised the proposals. This means the country is going to move towards making it mandatory for firms to publish a clear, deliverable plan. However, Greenpeace said the plan allowed financial institutions “plenty of wiggle room … to continue with business as usual”.

But China – currently the biggest producer of CO2 in the world – wasn’t painted in such a positive light, as it’s aiming for “carbon neutrality” by 2060, ten years after most countries. It hasn’t set out exactly what this means or how it will get there. And India – the world’s fourth-biggest emitter of CO2 after China, the US and the EU – has promised to cut its emissions to net zero by 2070.

Similarly, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stopped short of endorsing a 2050 target for net zero greenhouse gas emissions, saying only that Australia, the highest per capita carbon emitter among the world’s richest nations, will achieve net zero “as quickly as possible and preferably by 2050”. Analysts took those comments as a sign Australia would not commit to ambitious carbon emissions reduction targets, defying pressure from the United States.

Net zero, alongside sustainability more generally, is becoming a major nation branding issue. As we found in our analysis of the Dubai Expo, countries that framed themselves as sustainability hubs managed to gain substantial media attention – many countries’ pavilions across the Expo site aimed to highlight their pioneering efforts to battle overconsumption, overproduction and sustainable management of resources. 

The energy industry in the spotlight

We also found that the Energy industry has been the most widely discussed in the net zero debate, followed by the NGO sector and Financial services:

The question that came up everywhere in the media conversation around the oil and gas industry was: can Big Oil become Big Power? In recent years, factors such as stronger government action, increasing demand from investors, growing consumer awareness and the emergence of electric vehicles have made sustainability a central strategic priority for major oil companies, leading to a re-evaluation of business models, portfolios and operational practices.

The prevailing opinion circulating in the media is that the “oil age” will come to an inevitable end and that the future low carbon economy will compel the oil giants of today to transform into the energy giants of tomorrow.

Moves toward tightening global alignment on a fossil-free future received a wake-up call with the 2021 release of a detailed net-zero scenario developed by the International Energy Agency (IEA). The report imagined the scale of transformation required for the energy sector to transition to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions over the next 30 years. Many commentators believed that it’s likely the report will underpin rising pressure on governments to implement more aggressive GHG reduction policies to support their stated goals.

NGOs received a large share of voice as they criticised governments and corporations for their net zero actions. For example, ClientEarth and Friends of the Earth have both filed judicial review applications alleging that the solutions outlined in the UK Government’s Net Zero Strategy are insufficient and do not demonstrate how it will achieve net zero.

In their press releases regarding the claims, ClientEarth described the Net Zero Strategy as containing “speculative and unproven technologies that risk the UK having to introduce more drastic measures in future”, whereas Friends of the Earth have described it as “woefully inadequate”, and criticised the strategy for failing to assess the impact of the policies proposed.

And Greenpeace France, Friends of the Earth France, Notre Affaire à Tous, and ClientEarth, have filed a lawsuit in France against oil giant TotalEnergies for deceptive marketing practices. The NGOs claimed that the company allegedly mislead the public over environmental claims, accusing it of greenwashing. They argued that TotalEnergies marketing campaign violates European consumer law by falsely portraying the company as being on track to achieve net zero emissions.

Meanwhile, many media stories noted that the Financial services sector has a significant role to play in advancing net-zero by 2050. The sector is already showing an appetite for this challenge and an undertaking to help green the global economy.

A growing number of financial institutions have pledged to make their portfolios net-zero by 2050 or sooner, and a few have already started measuring their financed emissions. However, journalists noted that measuring financed emissions is a complex challenge further hindered by the lack of a single global measuring standard, common database to source the data, or data framework for what data companies should measure.

Media outlets traced the growth of the ESG investment philosophy, an upgrade from the older Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) movement, which is based on ethical considerations such as not investing in alcohol, tobacco or firearms. But unlike SRI, ESG investing goes beyond its social purpose and presumes that it has actual financial relevance, even though it takes into account aspects that traditionally are not part of financial analysis. For investors, ESG credentials communicate corporate values and strong reputation relating to issues that are more and more often in the public eye, which in turn can improve the performance of both active and passive risk-factor portfolios.

Although the Tech industry is responsible for 1-2% of global emissions, it’s been widely discussed in the media as its potential contribution to the global transition to net zero emissions could be as much as a 15% global reduction by 2030. Many analysts noted that tech companies make up most of the world’s wealthiest businesses, influencing the daily behaviours of billions of people, with expertise in exponentially scaling innovations, both technical and organisational, that often inspire others to follow. As such, tech companies feature in the media debate as they can lead the transition to a net zero future not only by reducing both their own and partners’ emissions but also through the development of innovative new technologies and business models facilitating global net zero progress.

Mining was another industry with a large share of voice, as the world’s top mining companies committed to a goal of net zero direct and indirect carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner. Many miners including Anglo American, Rio Tinto and BHP, under pressure from environmental activists and shareholders, had already committed to net zero by 2050 in direct and indirect emissions, but the collective pledge was perceived to represent a joint ambition.

Mapping the corporate net-zeroers

We employed Influencer Network Analysis, our patented methodology that uses natural language processing (NLP), text mining, dynamic visualisation and human enrichment, to analyse the recent media discussion around net zero and the companies under the spotlight.

The media discussion around the relevant companies is presented as a two-mode network map (see below), displaying the major companies (circles) and the publications (squares) that referenced the firms in their net zero coverage. The size of the circles indicates the firms’ prominence in the media discussion, and the width of the connections between the firms and the publications is indicative of the coverage volume.

The chart next to the map presents the organisations in terms of their media impact. We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.

We can see on the map that media outlets such as the Guardian, the Financial Times, Reuters and BBC have paid particular attention to the net zero conversation. These publications are increasingly using the language of risk to convey their messages about climate change and to shift the debate towards the need for timely action.

For instance, the Guardian announced that it would start using “climate emergency”, “climate crisis” or “climate breakdown” instead of “climate change” to reflect the seriousness of the situation. Financial Times, on the other hand, has started a section called Moral Money, a destination for news and analysis about the fast-expanding world of socially responsible business, sustainable finance, impact investing, environmental, social and governance (ESG) trends, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

These media outlets have repeatedly cited the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world’s top energy body, making it the most influential organisation in the debate. The NGO said in its “Net Zero by 2050” report that investors should not fund new oil, gas and coal supply projects beyond this year. Its report also suggested 360m electric vehicles will be on the road by 2050, reducing oil demand by 6m barrels a day.

The media’s focus on the energy sector made Shell the most prominent corporation – numerous outlets reported on its plan to invest heavily in low carbon technologies, such as offshore wind, hydrogen, carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS) and electric mobility. The investment is designed to propel the UK closer to net zero and help to ensure security of supply whilst stimulating economic growth and jobs.

But Shell wasn’t presented only in a positive light, as its directors were being sued for failing to properly prepare the multinational oil and gas company for net zero. In what is thought to be a first-of-its-kind action, the lawsuit brought by activist shareholders claimed that Shell’s 13 directors were personally liable for failing to devise a strategy in line with the Paris agreement, which aims to limit global heating to below 2C by slashing fossil fuel emissions. The lawsuit claimed the failure puts the directors in breach of their duties under the UK’s Companies Act.

BP was another prominent British energy giant, as it said it was aiming to accelerate its goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 as part of efforts to shift away from fossil fuels and boost its renewable energy capacity. The company said it was now aiming to cut operational emissions by 50% by 2030, compared with a previous target of 30-35%. It also expects to increase the proportion of its capital spending in transition-growth businesses like electric vehicle charging, renewables and hydrogen to more than 40% by 2025 and around 50% by 2030.

But Global Climate Insights, which provides investors with company-level climate transition analysis, estimated that oil and gas products will still account for 91% of BP’s sales by the end of the decade, while the company’s targets to reduce its absolute emissions account for less than a fifth of its total greenhouse gases, with material sales excluded.

Similarly, Exxon Mobil earned its centrality by pledging to cut to zero its net carbon emissions from its global operations by 2050, catching up with rivals who are minimising their carbon footprints. In June last year, shareholder Engine No. 1‘s campaign forced Exxon to accept new board members who could better exercise oversight over its business strategy and confront the risk of global climate change that many investors say Exxon has long been reluctant to address.

Financial services firms such as Bank of America, Citi, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo were mentioned by numerous media outlets as they raised expectations for the role of financial institutions in making the economy more resilient while reaching net zero. While these commitments are a welcome first step in the right direction, commentators argued that driving meaningful and lasting impact will come down to whether banks are able to establish science-based short term goals while also developing and implementing a proactive engagement strategy in the near-term at the speed required that puts their borrowers on the path to decarbonisation.

Last year, Citi, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America made headlines by taking strong steps to improve their trade associations’ climate policy advocacy. According to some analysts, if banks are serious about living up to their climate ambitions, interim decarbonization targets such as those we saw last year should serve as the foundation for more comprehensive emissions-reduction plans that can guide net zero banking in the years to come.

The world’s biggest asset manager BlackRock emerged as the most influential financial services firm, as it said it will increase the products and services it offers to help investors “navigate, drive and invent” the transition to a net zero world. Decarbonisation has become a matter of when, not if, with countries accounting for 95% of global emissions committed to reach net-zero emissions in the coming decades, BlackRock said.

To help investors, BlackRock said it would create the BlackRock Transition Scenario to show how it expects the shift from a fossil fuel economy to impact technologies, sectors and regions. Already trillions of dollars have moved into funds and products focused on environmental, social and governance-related (ESG) investment. In 2021, 70% of a selection of broad-market ESG indices outperformed their non-ESG counterparts, with average outperformance of over 100 basis points, BlackRock said.

Apart from banks, some management consultancies also emerged as prominent in the conversation, mainly because publications quoted their thought leadership. For instance, McKinsey said that trillions of dollars need to be spent every year for almost three decades to hit net zero targets, according to consultancy. On top of current spending, the equivalent of half of all corporate profits will have to be invested to tackle global warming, it added.

From the tech sector, Facebook made many headlines when it said it has reached net zero emissions, paving the way for it to achieve its wider target of net zero emissions across its entire supply chain by 2030. The social network said it had reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 94% over the past three years, and its operations were now supported by 100% renewable energy.

Google was perceived to be at the leading edge of large technology companies seeking to go completely carbon neutral, having declared that status in 2007, and subsequently matching all of its global electricity consumption with renewable energy. Recently, the company said that it is breaking new ground by becoming the first major company to effectively eliminate its entire carbon footprint — going back to its founding — something it has achieved through purchase of “high-quality carbon offsets”. Further, it’s also setting a goal of employing only carbon-free sources by 2030.

AstraZeneca was the most influential pharma company in the debate, as it unveiled its Ambition Zero Carbon program, which aims to achieve zero carbon emissions from its global operations by 2025. To do that, it will invest up to $1 billion, part of which will go toward developing next-generation respiratory inhalers that have almost no negative impact on global warming, the company said.

It’s the latest move by a drugmaker to cut its carbon footprint—a trend that’s become more common of late but is still far from usual across the pharma industry. The number of drug companies winning kudos for their sustainability work amounts to less than a dozen.

Net zero voices

We also found that government officials were widely cited in the net zero conversation, with UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak emerging as the most prominent spokesperson:

The Chancellor was quoted as announcing that the UK will become the world’s first “ net zero-aligned finance centre ” – seemingly a response to accusations that banks are not doing enough. His move was instantly criticised by climate campaigners as little more than a “marketing slogan”.

US climate envoy John Kerry followed Sunak in terms of influence as he told a meeting of mayors that emission reduction pledges made to date gave the world only a 60% chance of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees – the key Paris accord target. He said around 65% of global GDP was now covered by implementable climate change plans. There was, however, “something different” happening at Cop26, he said, pointing to a level of engagement by world leaders and a sense of urgency he had not seen at previous climate summits.

Fatih Birol , the executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), was the most influential NGO spokesperson, as he said that most of the world’s biggest economies now have long-term goals of reaching net zero by mid-century, but few have the policies required to meet those goals. Birol told the Guardian that we are not on track for a green recovery, just the opposite.

The most influential corporate spokesperson was Larry Fink, BlackRock’s CEO, who summed up net zero’s importance to investors in January when he warned that no company in the asset manager’s portfolio would escape “profound” changes to its business model: “Companies that are not quickly preparing themselves will see their businesses and valuations suffer,” he predicted.

The media’s focus on oil and gas made energy spokespeople particularly central to the debate. The most influential one was Chevron Chief Executive Officer Mike Wirth, who emphasised what he sees as the importance of having a credible carbon strategy that balances the world’s need for reliable energy with the lowering of emissions. The current global shortage of natural gas, along with the run-up in oil and coal prices over the past few weeks, underlines how the world is still highly dependent upon fossil fuels, he said.

Exxon Chief Executive Officer Darren Woods was also prominent for commenting on Exxon’s 2050 plan, which covers emissions from its oil, gas, and chemical production and from the power those operations consume, but made no commitment for emissions from consumers using those products. The company is “working with our partners to achieve similar emission-reduction results” in properties where Exxon is not in charge of operations, Woods said.

Syrie Crouch, vice president of carbon capture and storage (CCS) at Shell, was quoted for his comments on the potential of CCS, a widespread technique where CO2 is removed from factory chimneys and pumped underground or stored in a solid form. According to Crouch, CCS can give new life to depleted oil and gas reservoirs as carbon sinks, hedge heavy emitters against rising carbon prices and even provide a green revenue source for the technology providers.

Although the head of a company that makes plastic products from oil products isn’t necessarily the person you would think would want to jump into a conversation about the environment, James Fitterling, chairman and CEO of Dow, was quoted as saying that by 2050, he’ll take Dow down to a net-zero position: “And by 2030, we want to make a substantial impact on plastic waste by taking a million metric tons a year out of the waste stream, and recycling it back into our products.”

How should PR and comms shape up net zero messaging?

Based on our analysis, here are a few tips on how PR and comms teams should approach the net zero concept in their sustainability strategies:

  • The time for pledges is overdemonstrate some specific action already. Facing a reckoning over their contribution to the climate emergency, companies are coming out with a record number of pledges. At least a fifth of the world’s 2,000 largest public companies have now made some kind of “net zero” pledge to cancel out their carbon emissions. But climate action pledges are no longer sufficient, and corporations are losing the ability to “fudge the numbers” on climate policies. Business must show, not tell. Moving forward, the focus will be on clear, understandable pathways and actionable execution of decarbonisation strategies. If offsetting emission, be prepared to explain why it’s the only option possible. If announcing a net zero target, be prepared to communicate the specifics of how you’ll get there — clearly, transparently, and consistently over time. Companies should understand that they’re losing their grip on the public relations hit of announcing a climate ambition and then doing nothing about it.
  • Show that you follow the science rather than just the latest trends. The most impressive business leaders demonstrated their commitments with detailed immediate action plans and proof points. These substantial financial commitments showed that the money is now following the science to climate solutions. Take Rivian, the maker of all electric SUVs, whose market value reached $116bn, following China and the US’s joint statement on climate action at COP26. That’s 32% and 47% more than General Motors and Ford are worth, respectively – even though Rivian had never sold a vehicle until this year, yet GM and Ford sell 7 million and 4 million each per year. The markets know where the future lies.
  • Take a realistic approach to avoid greenwashing. NGOs, and increasingly, investors have an allergic reaction to ‘greenwashing’ and this means your net zero target needs to be as good as you say it is. Companies are already getting called out for not having targets, but increasingly companies will also get questioned about any details of their programs not corresponding to flowery rhetoric. The New Climate Institute recently published analysis scrutinising the validity of 25 big brand companies’ targets by poking into the footnotes and appendices. Not many passed with good results. Offsets is one area where targets consistently fall down. Paying for nature restoration and tree planting to mop up residual emissions from your inventory is fine, but only in small quantities. In the aggregate, targets assume far too much offsetting – there simply isn’t the land on Earth to plant that many trees if all companies follow suit.
  • Help with making low carbon lifestyles mainstream. Change often starts at a local level where the people and places we interact with are critical factors in how we live our lives. Community action can also be a major driver in bringing about positive change with wide-ranging co-benefits. In order to achieve the emissions reduction aspects of this strategic objective, governments and companies will need to engage with all corners of society, using trusted messengers to reach different audiences in new and innovative ways. They also need to draw more attention to the need for climate change adaptation and resilience, building greater public understanding of climate risks in an increasingly changing world.

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