McDonald’s Cannot Get to ‘Net Zero’ by Feeding the World Hamburgers, Experts Say

This week McDonald’s vowed to fix the climate by 2050. But first it wants to sell a whole lot more hamburgers.
October 6, 2021, 4:09pm
​McDonald's iconic Big Mac.
McDonald's iconic Big Mac. Environmentalists say McDonald's plan to get to net zero by 2050 is impossible without massive changes to the menu. Photo by Yu Chun Christopher Wong/S3studio/Getty Images

McDonald’s this week announced a new plan to cut its climate impact to “net zero” by 2050, but environmental experts say that just isn’t possible without big changes to the company’s menu. 

As part of its new plan to address the climate emergency, McDonald’s is promising to reduce the greenhouse gases released from its almost 40,000 restaurants, along with their suppliers, by one-third by 2030. 

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“There is no issue more urgent globally and of impact locally than protecting our planet for generations to come,” McDonald’s president and CEO Chris Kempczinski said in a release

Some environmental groups are applauding the company. “This commitment paves a path for other large food companies to follow,” said Carter Roberts, president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund, which worked with McDonald’s on its plan. “No single company can solve the climate crisis. But commitments like this that raise ambition and push forward critical areas of climate science can create lasting results.”

What McDonald’s doesn’t mention in its new announcement is that it’s currently pursuing a global growth strategy that involves “tapping into customer demand for the familiar and focusing on serving delicious burgers, chicken, and coffee.” 

“We’re at about 7.5 billion people right now, and at 2050 we could be at 10 billion. Can everyone have a hamburger? No they simply can’t,” Andrew Hoffman, a professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan, told VICE News. “And if companies [like McDonald’s] keep pushing the idea that we can, then frankly we’re doomed.”

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The climate impact of cattle in the U.S. alone is equivalent to the greenhouse gases released by about 22 million cars. McDonald’s sheer size and global influence means it could play a huge role in fixing the climate emergency. But the 2050 announcement avoids any promise to aggressively market and sell more plant-based foods or shrink the portions of animal products it serves.

“This is another stunt in a long line of greenwashing trends from McDonald’s,” Jennifer Molidor, senior food campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in reaction. “If McDonald’s changed its menu immediately it would make a big difference but waiting until 2050 is insufficient to avoid climate catastrophe. We don’t have 30 more years to get this right.”

In an interview with VICE News, Molidor says it’s fully within the company’s power to decrease people’s meat consumption. People go to McDonald’s “when they want cheap fast food,” she said. “If the company provided different food, that’s what people would buy.”

More than 1,000 companies have made similar 2050 climate pledges in recent years, Reuters reports, committing themselves to reducing as many of their emissions as possible, and then theoretically neutralizing the remaining emissions by investing in projects such as tree-planting. 

There’s a lot of debate among sustainability experts over how much such commitments will actually help the climate emergency; in some cases corporations are claiming credit for reducing emissions by paying to protect forests that weren’t actually in danger of being cut down.

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But as McDonald’s sets climate goals far off into the future, its CEO is right now taking part in efforts to torpedo the Biden administration’s $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act. A major trade organization that Kempczinski belongs to called the Business Roundtable is waging “a multi-million-dollar campaign” against a government spending package that observers say contains some of the most aggressive climate action the U.S. has ever proposed. 

Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which is now being debated by the U.S. Senate, proposes expanding credits for clean energy and electric vehicles, putting a fee on polluting methane gas, and pushing utilities to rapidly shift away from fossil fuels. If these and other climate provisions are passed, it could potentially remove nearly 1 billion tons of greenhouse gases from the U.S. economy by 2030, the climate research organization Rhodium Group estimates

But the Business Roundtable, which lists McDonald’s CEO as a member along with the CEOs of Apple, GM, Walmart, and many other major corporations, is aggressively fighting Biden’s spending package. They oppose the plan because it proposes paying for climate and other investments by raising the corporate tax rate by about 5.5 percentage points. The Roundtable campaign includes “direct CEO engagement to Capitol Hill and the administration, as well as high-frequency radio print and digital ads in over 50 media markets across the country, generating calls and letters from constituents in target states.”

VICE News sent a media request asking McDonald’s about the disparity between its 2050 climate goal and its current business model and the Business Roundtable's lobbying efforts. The company responded with a press release in which Kempczinski explains that “we are helping every community we serve mitigate the impacts of climate change and adapt for the future.”

“I’m disgusted,” Hoffman said. “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t start talking about climate neutrality then lobbying against climate action.”

Follow Geoff Dembicki on Twitter.

Correction: This story has updated language to help clarify that lobby efforts against the Biden Administration's Build Back Better Act are through the Business Roundtable organization.