Report: Top San Antonio companies haven't made verifiable commitments on climate change

None of the 10 largest companies here is enrolled in the United Nations-backed Science-Based Targets initiative or Climate Group's EP100 energy efficiency programs.

click to enlarge Valero Energy is among the San Antonio-based corporations that highlight their action on climate change in public reports but haven’t agreed to independent verification by SBTi or Climate Group. - Shutterstock / JHVEPhoto
Shutterstock / JHVEPhoto
Valero Energy is among the San Antonio-based corporations that highlight their action on climate change in public reports but haven’t agreed to independent verification by SBTi or Climate Group.

None of San Antonio's biggest corporations has committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions under the best-recognized global programs that track companies' progress toward reaching net-zero targets, according to a new study.

An analysis by corporate-responsibility watchdog group found that none of the 10 largest San Antonio-area companies is enrolled in the United Nations-backed Science-Based Targets (SBTi) initiative or Climate Group's EP100 energy efficiency programs. The companies in the report were selected based on their annual revenues.

What's more, only one of those companies, Rackspace Technology, has committed to a target with Climate Group's RE100 program for transitioning to 100% renewable energy sources. The cloud-computing firm expects to hit that goal in 2026.

Spendwell officials said the SBTi and Climate Group programs are the gold standard for measuring businesses' commitment to tackling climate change because they require companies to submit to independent verification rather than make vaguely worded statements about their efforts to reduce emissions.

"I think the most important thing about these two entities is that they're both independently verifiable," said Lincoln Bauer, Spendwell's founder. "That's what doesn't exist in all these claims corporations use in talking about the great things they're doing for the environment: independent verification."

None of the San Antonio corporations on Spendwell's list responded to the Current's request for comment on the study. In addition to Rackspace, those include Valero Energy, USAA, H-E-B, Rush Enterprises, iHeartMedia, Zachry Group, Clear Channel Outdoor, Nustar Energy and Alamo Group.

SBTi and Climate Group provide what the Guardian newspaper recently called "science-based pathways" for companies to cut emissions. Experts and climate advocates said their validation processes are key ways businesses can demonstrate a serious commitment to tackling climate change.

Heavyweights such as 3M, Apple Inc. and Toyota Motor Corp. have made commitments under SBTi. Meanwhile, Google, General Motors and Johnson & Johnson and others have agreed to go 100% renewable under RE100, and Deloitte, Goldman Sachs, Hilton and others have enrolled in EP100.

Commitments versus statements

Like many large corporations, the 10 San Antonio-area companies on Spendwell's list have released public statements trumpeting their environmental stewardship and efforts to combat climate change.

For example, USAA maintains an "Environmental Responsibility" webpage that details its recycling efforts, water-saving programs and energy usage. Its massive San Antonio headquarters building is the "largest financial office building in America to earn the ENERGY STAR certification award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency," according to the site.

H-E-B has an online statement labeled "Environmental Sustainability" that includes details on its efforts to reduce water consumption and fossil fuel use while improving energy efficiency at its stores. The grocer notes that it's the only Texas-based company invited to be a charter partner in the EPA's SmartWay Transport Partnership, an initiative formed to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

For its part, Valero Energy issues an annual sustainability report that includes detailed environmental metrics. The oil and gas company is on target to achieve its goal of achieving 100% of its target of reducing or displacing 100% of scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gases by 2025, according to its 2023 report. Scope 1 emissions are those directly released from a company's assets, whilescope 2 emissions result from sources it doesn't directly own and control.

While SBTi and Climate Group are respected yardsticks for companies' efforts to reduce emissions, Krystel Castillo, director of the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said companies can show their environmental stewardship in other ways.

"As [corporate social responsibility] and the impact of corporations on the climate derive from a wide variety of actions and activities, it is important to keep a holistic perspective when evaluating the social performance of a company," said Castillo, a professor of mechanical engineering at UTSA. "Although net-zero carbon emission is a very important global goal, it is not the only way a company can actively take steps to reduce its environmental impact."

Even so, climate advocates said the problem with companies' corporate social responsibility statements is that they're often full of vague terminology. Meanwhile, the SBTi and Climate Group initiatives require specific, measurable commitments. What's more, businesses who fail to meet their goals can be dropped from the programs.

This summer SBTi ejected Amazon from its list of companies taking concrete steps to counter climate change, saying the online retailer failed to establish a credible goal for reducing carbon emissions by a required deadline.

"With corporations, there's just this tremendous amount of greenwashing that goes on, and at the same time, climate change is accelerating," Bauer said.

Fossil-fuel companies in particular tend to use vague language to describe their commitments to tackling climate change, said Paasha Mahdavi, a political science professor at the University of California Santa Barbara who studies oil-industry rhetoric.

"Very often those vague terms are used on purpose," he said.

The value of SBTi's and Climate Group's initiatives is that they set specific, scientifically derived thresholds for companies to meet as they work toward zeroing out emissions, Mahdavi said.

"It's not enough just to set goals," he said. "You have to have targets, a timeline and an action plan."

click to enlarge Only one of San Antonio's 10 largest corporations is taking part in the Science Based Technology initiative (SBTi) or Climate Group's EP100 or RE100 programs. - David Loyola
David Loyola
Only one of San Antonio's 10 largest corporations is taking part in the Science Based Technology initiative (SBTi) or Climate Group's EP100 or RE100 programs.

Lack of incentives

Next year, the European Union will begin requiring corporations to issue detailed disclosures of their climate risks and plans. California lawmakers also passed similar rules requiring companies to be more transparent about their actions to combat climate change.

Mahdavi said those new regulations could drive companies that do business internationally or in the Golden State to participate in voluntary oversight schemes such as those of SBTi and Climate Group.

However, the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, which oversees corporate disclosures in the United States, has been slow to release climate transparency rules, according to the professor. And once it does, the new requirements are likely to face lengthy court challenges.

Given the current quagmire in Congress, it's also hard to imagine federal lawmakers passing any regulations that force companies to make more serious commitments to fighting climate change.

"The sense is that it's hard right now to get anything passed at the federal level," Mahdavi said. "So, because of that, people are turning to states, cities and counties."

However, under its current leadership, Texas is unlikely to provide much pressure, positive or negative, for its corporate citizens to commit to SBTi and Climate Group, advocates argue.

During Texas' 2023 legislative session, lawmakers in the GOP-controlled House and Senate introduced multiple bills aimed at promoting the state's fossil fuel industry while slowing the shift to renewables. Gov. Greg Abbott has repeatedly fired back at federal efforts to rein in fossil fuel consumption and even falsely blamed power outages during 2021's Winter Storm Uri on renewable energy.

"In general, the companies in Texas aren't getting the right signals on climate change," said Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact, an interfaith group that advocates on community issues including climate change. "You're not going to get any brownie points from the state for doing the right thing on climate change."

Absent a carrot or a stick, companies in San Antonio — or elsewhere — are unlikely to commit to rigorous standards and oversight of their emissions-reduction plans, Moorhead said.

"Right now, it's a chaotic regulatory environment, and you can't blame the private sector for reacting predictably to that kind of chaotic environment," she said.

Spendwell's Bauer acknowledged the lack of movement from federal and state lawmakers on climate change. He said that largely leaves it to consumers to demand serious commitments on climate change from the companies they do business with.

"Market pressure is what these companies really respond to," he said.

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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