Net-zero greenwashing is rifewarns UN expert group

The criteria for net-zero commitments can have loopholes wide enough to “drive a diesel truck through”, said António Guterres, as the UN secretary-general launched a new report on greenwashing at the COP27 climate talks in Egypt.

Guterres convened a group of 17 experts after COP26 in Glasgow; their job was to address what he saw as a surplus of confusion and deficit of credibility over net-zero targets. 

Their first report slams greenwashing – misleading the public to believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it is – and weak net-zero pledges. Fossil fuel companies are the primary target but big emitters everywhere should be wary.  Some in the food sector have been accused of overplaying their commitment to net-zero or under-reporting their impacts. 

Regulators “should develop regulation and standards in areas including net-zero pledges, transition plans and disclosure, starting with high-impact corporate emitters”, the group said. “The planet cannot afford delays, excuses, or more greenwashing,” wrote the group’s chair Catherine McKenna.

McKenna, former minister of climate change in Canada, said too many of the net-zero pledges are “little more than empty slogans and hype. Why is greenwashing so bad? In part, because the stakes are so high. It’s not just advertising, bogus net-zero claims drive up the cost that ultimately everyone would pay.”

The group set out 10 practical recommendations for businesses and organisations to follow. For example, net-zero pledges must include interim or “stepping stone” targets set at five-year intervals starting in 2025. Plans must also cover the entire value chain (scope 3), including end-use emissions. They also need to “start fast and not delay action to the last minute, reflecting the fact that global emissions must decline by at least 50% by 2030”. There should also be separate targets for methane. 

Transparency also needs to improve. Companies should annually disclose their greenhouse gas data, net-zero targets and the plans for, and progress towards, meeting those targets. Data must be comparable to ensure “effective tracking” of progress toward their net-zero targets. 

Unsurprisingly, there is also a chapter on offsets. Companies “must prioritise urgent and deep reduction of emissions across their value chain. High integrity carbon credits in voluntary markets should be used for beyond value chain mitigation but cannot be counted toward a non-state actor’s interim emissions reductions.” This in line with the likes of the NewClimate Institute, a think tank that has been tracking net-zero corporate commitments.

The pushback on greenwashing is welcome. But as law firm DWF noted, the expert group is “influential, but lacks enforcement powers”. The group wants a new taskforce that brings together of international regulators and experts to deliver a less fragmented regulatory regime. 

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