Ten of Australia’s top companies lack clear plans to stop using or supporting fossil fuels, report says

UTS researchers say firms including Coles, Woolworths, Telstra, Rio Tinto and Qantas have no ‘comprehensive, independently verified and fully costed plan’ to reduce emissions

Ten of Australia’s best-known corporations – including Coles, Telstra, Woolworths and Qantas – have no clear plans to stop using or supporting fossil fuels despite having targets to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report.

The companies were also failing to report clearly the impact of their businesses on the climate warming caused directly or indirectly from land clearing.

The report, from the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures, examined in detail the climate plans and disclosures of Coles, Woolworths, Telstra, Rio Tinto, Qantas, BlueScope Steel, Origin, AGL, Cleanaway and South 32. The companies were selected as major emitters in their respective industries.

Commissioned by a new Australia-based advocacy group, Climate Integrity, the report said none of the 10 Australian companies had a “comprehensive, independently verified and fully costed plan for reducing their emissions” that was in line with a scientifically credible pathway to decarbonise quickly enough to keep global heating to 1.5C.

Researchers assessed companies against guidelines laid out in late 2022 by a UN expert group after broad concerns that corporate climate pledges were often vague, inconsistent, incomplete, over-reliant on offsets and in some cases amounted to greenwashing.

The level of alignment of the Australian companies with the UN group’s recommendations was “disappointingly low”, the report said.

Fewer than half the companies were on track to meet their own targets, the report claimed, and none had targets or plans to stop using fossil fuels.

“The lack of scientific alignment with the need to rapidly phase out fossil fuels is particularly concerning,” the report said. “Without commitments to phase out fossil fuels, it is difficult to see how net zero pledges can be fulfilled.”

The report found companies had aligned themselves with a “plethora of frameworks, assessments, standards and disclosure requirements” that were mostly voluntary.

It said none of the companies disclosed enough information for researchers to understand if or how companies were accounting for the impact of land clearing in their climate targets.

Claire Snyder, the director at Climate Integrity, said there was little consistency in the achievements and failings across the company plans. “That demonstrates there’s no clear standard or shared understanding among companies of what [a credible net zero plan] should look like,” she said.

Snyder said Climate Integrity would push for policy change in Australia that would give the public confidence that claims made by companies were credible and give industry a clearer set of expectations.

The Albanese government is expected to introduce legislation later this year to mandate what information companies should disclose in their financial reports relating to the risks from climate change.

Alison Atherton, one of the report’s authors at UTS, said the research showed a “high degree of variability in the information being provided publicly by companies”.

“Decision makers, researchers, consumers and investors need to be able to have confidence in these plans,” she said.

Only three companies – Woolworths, Coles and Telstra – had targets verified by the international Science Based Targets initiative.

Woolworths Group said it was making “good progress on reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, with our operations switching to 100 per cent renewable electricity within the next two years, and our fleet of 1,200 home delivery trucks set to become electric by 2030”.

Coles said it was committed to cutting emissions and being more efficient with resources “in areas over which we have control and influence”.

About 90% of the company’s emissions were generated in its supply chain, the company said, and it was working with 75% of suppliers to help them set emissions reduction targets by 2027.

“We are on track to achieve our Scope 1 and 2 emissions target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 75% by June 2030. This includes our 100% renewable electricity goal by June 2025.”

The waste management company Cleanaway said it stood proudly by its emissions reduction targets for CO2 and methane – the latter of which accounts for three-quarters of the company’s footprint due to releases from landfills. Capturing methane and lowering emissions in its heavy vehicle fleet, including using alternative fuels and trialling hydrogen and electric trucks, was a focus.

Telstra’s head of environment, Tom Penny, said the company’s target to cut direct and indirect emissions by 50% by 2030 “includes efforts to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels”.

“Telstra takes its role in helping to tackle climate change seriously,” he said, adding the company had a commitment to invest in enough renewable energy generation to match its own electricity consumption by 2025.

AGL, Australia’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, said its climate transition action plan outlined its pathway to becoming a net zero company by 2050, including its direct and indirect emissions.

It was “targeting the closure of our last thermal power station, Loy Yang A, by the end of FY35, at which point we will be net zero for operated Scope 1 and 2 emissions”.

AGL said it expected to spend $8bn to $10bn developing “12 GW of new renewables and firming capacity by the end of 2035” and would “build out the new renewables and firming that will be needed to help Australia meet its climate targets”.

The gas and electricity company Origin said gas would play an “important role in the energy mix for some time, to support variable renewable energy output” and for “customers who cannot easily electrify and for which there is no viable alternative to gas available today”.

It welcomed scrutiny of its “appropriately ambitious” climate plans and expected to meet its 2030 targets largely through direct actions “with limited use of offsets only for residual emissions that are hard to abate”.

Qantas said aviation was a “hard-to-abate sector” and “high integrity offsets were key to us meeting emission reduction targets until sustainable aviation fuel and low and zero-emissions technologies are more readily available”.

The company’s interim target to use 10% sustainable aviation fuel by 2030 would be mostly met with a deal with Airbus and Boeing to secure up to 500m litres.

The Perth-based mining company South 32 said as well as having a target to reach net zero emissions across all areas of the business by 2050, the company had a medium-term target to halve its operational emissions from 2021 levels by 2035.

The mining and metals company said its climate change action plan, first released in 2022, would be reviewed every three years. Having targets aligned with the global Paris agreement was “a critical step as we continue to assess options to align our business to prosper in a low-carbon world”.

The company did not have interim targets related to emissions from the use of its products, but was working with suppliers and customers to reduce those emissions.

Bluescope Steel said it was not in a position to respond and Rio Tinto declined to comment.

Cover photo: A report from the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures has examined the climate plans and disclosures of 10 of Australia’s top companies, including Coles, Woolworths, Telstra, Rio Tinto, Qantas, BlueScope Steel, Origin, AGL, Cleanaway and South 32. Photograph: Joel Carrett/EPA