12/18/2013 03:08 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2014

Just in Time for Christmas, a Carbon Study That Will Knock Your Stockings off

If a company claims that it plans to reduce its carbon footprint 15 percent by 2020, is that good? Better yet, is it enough?

This is the question we sought to answer in the latest collaborative study from Climate Counts and the Center for Sustainable Organizations called "Assessing Corporate Emissions Performance through the Lens of Climate Science."

These days, nearly every major company has sustainability goals to reduce carbon emissions by a certain target amount and target year. In some respects, this represents a great deal of progress, for even 10 years ago these kinds of commitments were the exception and not the norm.

But living in an age when we have crested 400 part per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon, and scientists continue to warn that 350 ppm is the level needed to avoid a 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit temperature rise by the end of the century, it's perhaps time to revisit how companies are setting their carbon targets.

The argument in our study is that corporate emissions goals should not simply be to reduce CO2 output relative to a unit of product sold or relative to every dollar of revenue; these targets should be informed by the science, and set in a way that is congruent with natural limits and environmental thresholds.

Of course, in order to sell this concept upward it needs to make business sense, for as idealistic as I may be, I still think that companies should be in business to make money. And that might just be the Golden Egg in this report: Of the 49 companies (out of 100) that rated "sustainably" in our study, 25 of them have grown their revenues since 2005, while concurrently reducing their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over the same period. This proves that, at least in the short term, decoupling growth from emissions is possible. Who said Santa wasn't real?!?

While there are many positives to be drawn from our analysis, there are definitely some downers as well, represented by the fact that 51 percent of companies are emitting unsustainable levels of carbon dioxide. Perhaps of even greater concern, is that of the 100 companies reviewed, arguably less than 10 percent are setting science-based emissions targets.

So where do we go from here? Admittedly the concept of sustainability context has, until this point, been relatively fringe-thinking, but those fringe thinkers have included the likes of Andrew Winston, author of From Green to Gold, and Allen White, Co-Founder of the Global Reporting Initiative. The hope with this release to begin popularizing the concept so that corporate sustainability leaders pick up the baton, as has been done by Autodesk (#1 performer in this study) and, to an extent, Unilever (by way of Ben & Jerry's).

One of the premises of our report is that while sovereign nations must come to an agreement on how to reduce global CO2 emissions sooner rather than later, there is an increasing role to be played by the business community in addressing climate change. This point is crystallized by the fact that of the world's 100 largest economic entities, 40 percent of them are corporations.

Author's note: For those who are familiar with the annual Climate Counts company scorecard -- which rates companies on their commitment to measuring, managing and reporting their emission -- this performance-based study has momentarily usurped the spotlight. Our traditional scorecard will be back in the spring of 2014.