McDonald’s to take a bite out of carbon emissions

It operates 37,000 restaurants. It serves 69 million people a day. Its supply chains circle the globe.

So when McDonald’s changes the way it does business, it can cause a tectonic shift.

The world’s largest restaurant chain on Tuesday announced it would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 150 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2030.

It is the first restaurant company to set such a target.

“To create a better future for our planet, we must all get involved,” said Steve Easterbrook, McDonald’s President and CEO, announcing the move. “McDonald’s is doing its part by setting this ambitious goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to address the challenge of global climate change.”

The company says it plans to expand efforts to source beef sustainably, to promote renewable energy, and to reduce waste, using targets for each sector approved by the Science-Based Targets initiative.

Environmental groups hailed the move, saying it raises the bar for corporate sustainability.

“When a company like McDonald’s acts, the world can change,” said Dr. M. Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International, which has partnered with the company on its sustainability initiatives in recent years. “Food is probably the single easiest way each of us can reduce our contribution to climate change. McDonald’s is now making that a little easier with an ambitious commitment to low-carbon growth.”

The details

McDonald’s is starting with its chief product: beef. The company says it aims to eliminate deforestation from its beef supply chain by restoring degraded lands to pasture and by using existing rangelands better, thereby reducing pressures on forests. (Unsustainable beef production is the largest driver of deforestation in the tropics.) Meanwhile, McDonald’s says it plans to design, implement and share sustainable farming practices among its suppliers.

It takes a lot of energy to run a restaurant. To address energy use, McDonald’s is undertaking a campaign to improve energy and water efficiency, down to the design of its restaurants. Already, recent design changes to its U.S. stores has cut electricity consumption by more than 16 percent and water use by 19 percent.

Lastly, McDonald’s is looking at its trash. By 2025, the company says, 100 percent of its packaging will come from renewable, recycled or certified sources.

Taken together, these changes will eliminate the same amount of emissions as the carbon footprint of Belgium. The company’s no-deforestation pledge is of particular importance to the climate — protecting forests alone represents at least 30 percent of all mitigation action needed to prevent catastrophic climate change.

“Since the Paris Agreement [in 2015], we’ve recognized that climate change is a shared responsibility across the public and private sectors, and companies have stepped up to the task,” said Shyla Raghav, Conservation International’s climate lead. “There are still many more companies that need to get on board, but this announcement is a hopeful step for more participation and ambition from the private sector.”

The move is the latest in a tide of multinational corporations looking to curb their impacts on nature and the climate. Last year, Walmart, the world’s largest retailer and another Conservation International partner, launched Project Gigaton, aimed at cutting carbon emissions in its (massive) supply chain.

Bruno Vander Velde is Conservation International’s editorial director. 

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