The objectives are not usually modest. “We fight for a world without emissions, without waste and without inequalities,” says about sustainability the information material of the software giant SAP from Baden-Württemberg, which has committed to working in a climate-neutral way throughout the value chain. No later than 2030. The company thus contributes to the so-called 1.5 degree target, according to which the world community wants to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees.

But an evaluation by the Hamburg consulting firm Kirchhoff Consult, available exclusively for FOCUS online Earth, also shows: The road to these goals is long and full of setbacks. According to the analysis, SAP's CO2 emissions increased in 2022 by 75,000 tons compared to 2021, corresponding to a huge increase of 36 percent. The Walldorf-based software company has been a role model in sustainability for years and has received numerous awards for its “green” strategy.

tough rules

Capitalism and climate protection: is there a contradiction in the end? Not at all, according to Kirchhoff Consult's assessment. In their analysis, the consultants determined the emissions of all listed companies in Germany, Austria or Switzerland, but only took into account those companies that have set climate targets in accordance with the so-called “Science-Based Target”. Initiative” (SBTI). The SBTI is a set of particularly strict international regulations that aim to ensure climate neutrality by 2030.

Anyone who participates in SBTI takes it very seriously. A total of 36 of the 200 listed companies in Germany, Austria and Switzerland have committed to complying with the strict SBTI standards, including SAP and companies as diverse as Deutsche Telekom, Siemens, Volkswagen, Austrian Post and Nestlé.

“I was surprised by the clarity.”

But being strict with yourself is starting to pay off. According to the evaluation, the 36 companies managed to reduce their collective emissions by seven percent in one year, which corresponds to 132,000 tons of CO2. “I was surprised by the clarity of the differences,” Jan-Ole Brandt, sustainability consultant at Kirchhoff Consult, tells FOCUS online Earth. “The fact that it's seven percentage points is an interesting indication that detailed climate accounting and concrete target formulations are worthwhile.”

The table below shows the full list of climate champions, companies marked in red come from Austria, those in dark red from Switzerland. In 2022, things went especially well for Mercedes-Benz, the plant manufacturer Dürr and the Swiss electrical engineering company ABB: all three managed to reduce their emissions by more than 40 percent.

Of course, special effects can still wreak havoc on the balance. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, ambitious fashion companies such as Adidas and Zalando recorded an increase in emissions due to the increase in online mail-order sales. On the other hand, the CO2 balance of large energy companies like Eon benefited from the fact that they had to abandon many fossil fuel supply chains following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Analysts also believe that at least a special effect on SAP is likely. The situation may be different again in 2023; however, complete data was not available for last year.

When the disk is not there

However, the following generally applies: numbers don't lie. Especially since the business world now has few options. Both European and German politics have tightened the screws. New limits and regulations, such as the German Supply Chain Act, ensure that even the most recalcitrant companies must comply with certain climate requirements.

“The first motivation is usually compliance with standards,” says Vincent Furnari, member of the Kirchhoff Sustainability Council. “As a member of the council, I also have a responsibility.” In addition, customer expectations have also increased: “This can currently be seen, for example, in the automotive sector.” And Brandt adds: “When financial players, such as banks, suddenly start to trust green investments, CEOs start to understand that economics and ecology have to overlap.”

But one thing distinguishes truly successful companies in the sustainability space, Furnari explains. “It's a top-down question. It must be required by senior management. If there is not this drive, not enough happens.” Everyday business is too excessive for this and the external pressure is still too low. “Many companies today are more motivated than actively taking a leadership role.”

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“The short-term impulse is to leave Germany”

Precisely this leadership role can be valuable, as the examples from the evaluation also demonstrate. Sustainability has long become an important factor when awarding contracts worth millions, securing resources or hiring new employees. “Of course, many CEOs say: this is a regulatory issue, regulate it so it doesn't bother me,” Furnari says. “But as soon as they are clear that it is also a brand issue, that it offers savings potential, that it attracts workers, then the willingness to get involved arises.”

Today's pioneers are often those companies that recognized the economic benefits of climate protection and sustainability decades ago. “Often these are owner-run companies, where the boss himself has driven the problem,” says Furnari, “but even in large corporations there are CEOs who look to the future and think: How am I going to have to work for “Is it possible to establish conditions in my location in ten or fifteen years? For example, in relation to the increase in CO2 prices or the need for hydrogen. The short-term impulse might then be to abandon Germany as a location. But in the long term, other measures usually make more sense.”

However, many companies lack initiative. You can also start with small projects, explains Brandt: “A big lever is the supply of renewable energy. As a general rule, to make the change it is enough to call the supplier.” However, in general, new patterns are already being thought about, for example with regard to the reuse of resources – the so-called circular economy – or savings. energy. “Some, for example, already use waste heat from production or generate more and more electricity with their own photovoltaic installations,” explains Brandt, “so some solutions already exist.”

“'Fast fashion' is bullshit”

But it is also clear that there are economic sectors for which the path to climate neutrality is more difficult. For example, the steel industry, which has to rebuild entire production processes, or the fashion industry. “Just because a company is finding it harder to reduce its emissions doesn't necessarily mean it should be more patient,” Furnari says. “The whole 'fast fashion' thing, for example, is nonsense, to say the least. “It would definitely make sense to establish regulatory requirements more quickly and not give companies more time.”

Politicians would be responsible for these requirements, but it remains to be seen whether there will be majorities after the European elections in the spring and the American elections in the fall. “There are already many obstacles against green investments in the United States,” says Furnari. Brandt adds: “At least in Europe we have to be vigilant.” In the end, it depends mainly on companies and their management levels how quickly they can achieve climate neutrality. “You can't delegate corporate responsibility,” says Furnari. “The CEO has to take care of it.”