Monday, April 22, 2024

Why Bain is going beyond net zero

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Bain and Company, one of the world’s largest consulting firms, is the first company to set a Carbon Integrity Platinum Claim, going beyond its existing net zero commitment. 

The new Carbon Integrity Claims framework, established by the Voluntary Carbon Market Integrity Initiative (VCMI), goes beyond the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) net zero requirements to address mitigation of present-day emissions—a topic beyond the scope of the current SBTi standard.

In a company’s decades-long journey to eliminate its supply chain emissions and achieve net zero, it will continue to emit climate pollution each year. While the SBTi encourages companies to mitigate these emissions, it does not require them to do so. Companies can set and make progress toward SBTi targets — and maintain their places on the SBTi roster — without addressing the impact of their ongoing emissions. In other words: mitigating unabated emissions on the path to net zero is “extra credit” in the eyes of SBTi. 

SBTi’s stance has left most companies uncertain about how (or whether) to address their unabated emissions while pursuing net zero targets, and whether carbon credits could be a tool for doing so. For many companies, that uncertainty has become a barrier to action.

A chart showing companies' opinions on climate market schemes

A framework for using carbon credits

VCMI’s Carbon Integrity Claims aims to fill this gap. Its purpose is to provide a step-by-step framework for using carbon credits in concert with science-aligned climate targets, said Lydia Sheldrake, director of policy and partnerships at VCMI. After demonstrating progress toward net zero, companies with platinum-level claims will also purchase and retire high-quality carbon credits equal to 100 percent or more of their yet-unabated emissions. The objective is not to offset the unabated emissions, but to accelerate global net zero progress. 

Bain has long championed an ambitious climate agenda: the Boston-based consulting firm became carbon neutral in 2011, set a near-term SBTi emission reduction target in 2021, committed to being carbon net negative in 2022, and submitted a net zero plan to SBTi in 2023. It’s now championing Carbon Integrity Claims as the next step. 

“We shouldn’t just keep dumping carbon into the atmosphere,” said Sam Israelit, Bain’s chief sustainability officer. “What do we do now to make sure our impact now isn’t going to make the problem worse?” 

What is a VCMI Carbon Integrity Claim?

Established in 2021, the non-profit Voluntary Carbon Market Integrity Initiative provides guidance on how organizations can use carbon credits to accelerate global climate action in line with the Paris Agreement. 

VCMI’s Claims Code of Practice sets out the criteria companies must adhere to before pursuing a Carbon Integrity Claim, including annual public emission disclosures, setting and demonstrating progress toward science-aligned near-term and net zero targets, allocation of financial and strategic resources toward emission mitigation, and policy advocacy for Paris Agreement climate goals. 

Once a company verifies that it’s met those criteria, it can select a VCMI Claim related to mitigation of its ongoing emissions. Platinum-level claims require companies to purchase and retire carbon credits equal to 100 percent or more of their unabated emissions. The other tiers — gold and silver — require purchase and retirement of credits representing smaller fractions of ongoing company emissions. 

Why Bain is acting now 

Bain has become a champion for immediate action to mitigate unabated emissions. The carbon credit strategy “should be last but not later,” said Israelit. “It’s the last thing you think about but we shouldn’t wait until 2049… to help take carbon out of the atmosphere.”

While many companies with SBTi targets purchase some carbon credits, there’s not previously been a standardized framework for doing so in a manner that accelerates global climate progress. 

Israelit outlined three benefits to Bain from its VCMI Platinum Claim: greater confidence in the firm’s overall climate strategy, surpassing client thresholds for climate action, and employee engagement. 

1. A trusted framework for climate strategy

A core goal of the VCMI Claims Code is to provide companies with clarity on what good looks like when it comes to carbon credits and how they fit within a larger corporate climate strategy, said Sheldrake.

Going through the process of setting Bain’s Carbon Integrity Claim injected more rigor into the company’s overall climate action strategy, said Israelit. One of the “biggest benefits to us has been going through the process and building the confidence that the projects we’re investing in are real and have an impact,” he said. 

2. Surpassing client thresholds

In the first six weeks of 2024, Bain received twice as many RFPs that included a requirement for a sustainability program as it did during the same period in 2023, Israleit said. Bain’s climate strategy, including the platinum claim, means that it’s staying ahead of its clients’ rising climate ambitions and demonstrating effective sustainability measures in its own work.

3. Engaging employees

The other critical stakeholders in Bain’s climate strategy are its employees, many of whom prioritize working for a company aligned with their values, said Israelit. Although VCMI Claims accept carbon credits from projects that either reduce or remove greenhouse gas emissions, Bain has committed to meeting its Platinum Claim entirely via removals. That was motivated in large part by employees’ desire for a clear and permanent elimination of the company’s climate pollution.

What’s next for VCMI

With Bain on board, VCMI’s team is engaging with a number of other companies working on setting their own Carbon Integrity Claims, said Sheldrake. It expects more announcements like Bain’s in the coming months. 

For now, few companies meet the foundational criteria required to set Carbon Integrity Claims. But if they spread widely, they could provide solid footing for companies looking to take immediate action on their emissions going into the atmosphere today while continuing progress toward net zero.

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