Unilever and the race to halve emissions by 2030

By Exponential Roadmap Initiative | December 2, 2021

The Exponential Roadmap Initiative spoke to UK headquartered multinational consumer goods company Unilever to find out about the actions they are taking to help halve global emissions by 2030.

At what rate has Unilever reduced its emissions up until now, and how have you done it?

Unilever has set science-based goals to have zero emissions operations by 2030, and to halve the greenhouse gas (GHG) impact of our products across the lifecycle by the same year. We’ve also taken the extra step of setting a goal to reach net zero emissions across our value chain by 2039.

Emissions from our operations are relatively small part of our overall footprint, but they are still sizeable. In 2016, four years early, we achieved our target to reduce CO2 from energy by 75% versus 2008, per tonne of production, across our operations (scope 1 and 2). We’ve implemented energy efficiency programmes and made big strides on renewable electricity. Just over half of our total energy use in manufacturing – including heat – is now generated from renewable sources, and we’ve been phasing out direct coal from our energy mix.

At the same time, we are also working to lower emissions across our brands and our value chain, including in end use by consumers. For example, across our Home Care and Foods & Refreshment divisions we have reduced per consumer GHG emissions by 37% and 30% respectively since 2010. We’ve reformulated our laundry products to lower our use of phosphates, and we’ve concentrated our detergents into smaller bottles.

Despite some success, progress against our target to halve the GHG impact of our products across the lifecycle has been slower than we had expected. In Beauty & Personal Care per consumer use GHG emissions have risen by 10% since 2010. We have come to realise that it’s hard to influence consumer behaviour, such as encouraging shorter showers. We need to accelerate wider system change, such as a faster switch to renewable energy – meaning people’s showers could run off clean electricity, wherever they are in the world.

What are the priorities to 2030?

Our Climate Transition Action Plan outlines our focus areas.

To eliminate our operational emissions by 2030, we will focus on heating and cooling as we transition to 100% renewable energy. We will transition our fossil fuel burning boilers to renewables and replace residual high impact HFC refrigerants in our cooling systems with cleaner alternatives.

To help protect nature along our supply chain this decade, we have launched a €1 billion Climate & Nature Fund so that our brands can invest in projects that positively address climate change and protect nature, for example, through forest protection and regeneration. Our biggest food brand Knorr aims to have 50 regenerative agriculture projects reducing GHG emissions by 30%.

While our brands may use carbon credits from these projects to support their carbon neutrality claims, this would be in addition to making progress towards our emissions reduction targets, not a means of achieving them. Unilever’s focus remains on reducing our emissions and we will only use carbon removals credits of the highest integrity socially and environmentally to address any residual emissions after eliminating as much carbon from our value chain as possible.

Of course, to make direct emissions reductions across our value chain, we must engage our suppliers on our climate goals. Through our Climate Promise, we’re asking suppliers to halve their emissions by 2030 – this is vital if we’re to reach our 2039 net zero goal. Through our Climate Programme, we’ll be working closely with a subset of 300 companies that we’ve identified as having the biggest climate impact, sharing guidance and learnings from our own experience.

What are Unilever’s biggest challenges, and how do you plan to address them through radical collaboration –  e.g. as a member of the Exponential Roadmap Initiative and the UN Race To Zero?

We don’t have all the solutions – so it’s important that we partner with others to re-establish our innate relationship with nature and harness innovation to find better ways of doing things. For example, through our new Forest Data Partnership with Google Cloud and NASA, supported by USAID, we’re deploying technologies that can help radically transform supply chain transparency and help eliminate deforestation. We’re also driving innovation in our homecare products to help consumers to lower their carbon footprints and eliminate the use of fossil fuels. And we’re running a pilot to test a breakthrough innovation in temperature-controlled transport.

At the same time, we’re working in business coalitions to drive climate action across the private sector. We were one of the first companies to join RE100 to accelerate the clean energy transition. We co-chair the Consumer Goods Forum’s Road To Zero Task Force, increasing net zero commitments across the FMCG sector. We’re also part of Transform to Net Zero and Exponential Roadmap’s 1.5°C Supply Chain Leaders group to help other companies learn from our experiences. And we’ve developed the Carbon Transparency Partnership with WBCSD to improve carbon disclosure along value chains.

We’re calling for policy changes too. As part of We Mean Business, we’ve written to G20 leaders asking for ambitious national climate plans and targets. And through the CEO Climate Alliance we’ve called for policies that will help deliver faster climate action by businesses. We also know product innovations and supply chain efficiencies can only go so far, and that we need broader energy system transformations. That’s why we’ve used our voice to advocate for the phasing out of fossil fuels and fossil fuel subsidies.

The recent COP26 summit delivered more than many expected but less than the world needs. The truth is, solving a challenge as big as climate change will take all of us: businesses, governments and civil society. We need both individual and collective action if we’re going to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C – and we need to get on with it this decade.

To find out more about joining the Race to Zero through the Exponential Roadmap Initiative, please click here.