Managing Carbon Aspirations: The Influence of Corporate Climate Change Targets on Environmental Performance

Journal of Business Ethics 158 (1):1-24 (2019)
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Abstract

Addressing climate change is among the most challenging ethical issues facing contemporary business and society. Unsustainable business activities are causing significant distributional and procedural injustices in areas such as public health and vulnerability to extreme weather events, primarily because of a distinction between primary emitters and those already experiencing the impacts of climate change. Business, as a significant contributor to climate change and beneficiary of externalizing environmental costs, has an obligation to address its environmental impacts. In this paper, we explore the role of firms’ climate change targets in shaping their emissions trends in the context of a large multi-country sample of companies. We contrast two intentions for setting emissions reductions targets: symbolic attempts to manage external stakeholder perceptions via “greenwashing” and substantive commitments to reducing environmental impacts. We argue that the attributes of firms’ climate change targets are diagnostic of firms’ underlying intentions. Consistent with our hypotheses, while we find no overall effect of setting climate change targets on emissions, we show that targets characterized by a commitment to more ambitious emissions reductions, a longer target time frame, and absolute reductions in emissions are associated with significant reductions in firms’ emissions. Our evidence suggests the need for vigilance among policy-makers and environmental campaigners regarding the underlying intentions that accompany environmental management practices and shows that these can to some extent be diagnosed analytically.

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