Climate Week Kickoff 2020: Walmart Announces It Will Go Carbon Neutral

mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."
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Every year, Climate Week NYC brings business leaders, politicians, academics, and activists together to hash out a more sustainable vision for the future. Typically carried through in the conference rooms of Midtown Manhattan, these conversations have moved online this year due to COVID-19. That means that anyone can tune into the 12th annual conference from home and watch global sustainability commitments being made in real time.

The biggest announcement from Day 1 of the event came from Walmart.

To kick off this year's event, the world's largest retail company by annual revenue pledged to go 100% carbon neutral across its global operations by 2040, meaning it will stop sending carbon into the atmosphere over the next 20 years.

To reach this milestone, Walmart will need to power all stores and warehouses with renewable energy, invest in an all-electric fleet of trucks and delivery vehicles, and switch over to lower-impact refrigerant systems in grocery aisles worldwide. As of 2019, 29% of Walmart's operations were powered by renewable energy.

Walmart isn't the first large retailer to announce it will go carbon neutral in the coming decades. Apple, Ford, and Amazon have all pledged to do so before 2050. The kicker here, and the reason this announcement is so significant, is that Walmart plans to do it without buying any carbon offsets.

Companies and individuals buy offsets as a way to balance out the emissions that they do send into the environment. If a company emits 1 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere per year, for example, they can pay to take 1 million tons of it out of the atmosphere through carbon-cutting initiatives like tree plantings and soil amendments and still be considered carbon neutral.

One criticism of offsets is that they divert attention from the urgent need to reduce global emissions, not just negate them. They are also difficult to track or quantify in any consistent way. Walmart's choice not to factor them into its climate strategy caused Helen Clarkson, CEO of the nonprofit that's behind Climate Week NYC, to call the scale of the commitment "monumentous" in a news statement shared with mbg.

In addition to reducing emissions, Walmart pledges to protect and restore 50 million acres of land and 1 million square miles of ocean in an attempt to become a "net positive" company—one that renews the Earth instead of degrades it.

The big caveat here is that these goals only account for Walmart's own emissions and don't factor in the supply chains of its suppliers, most of which are extremely carbon-intensive. So it's a step, but there's still a lot more work to do, and it will be interesting to see how other major players follow suit this week.

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What to look out for during the rest of Climate Week NYC.

The fact that Climate Week NYC is still happening in the throes of a pandemic shows that sustainable action can't wait until COVID-19 is over. As we rethink what society will look like as it opens back up, the environment needs to be top of mind.

As Kristalina Georgieva, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund said to today's viewers, "We have this unique opportunity to pour into the economy a massive stimulus. And it is just common sense that we use the money to build the economy of tomorrow, not to return to where we were yesterday."

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