“The COPs are mainly used as an opportunity for leaders and people in power to get attention, using many different kinds of greenwashing.” Despite being almost 20 years old now, Greta Thunberg has certainly not lost the uncomfortable habit of calling out to everyone that the king is naked. Thus, pointing out her absence at the COP27 that opened November 6 in Sharm el-Sheikh, she pointed her finger at the biggest, fattest elephant in the room at the UN climate conference: greenwashing on climate commitments.
It is no coincidence, then, that the first major document presented by the UN at the Egyptian summit venue is precisely a guide against the facade environmentalism and false climate pledges declared by multinational corporations, the world of finance, cities and regions. A list of ten recommendations that draw a clear line between what is concrete and effective action and what is merely a brushstroke of green. Because, as Catherine McKenna, head of the UN panel of experts who compiled the report, said, “the planet can no longer afford delays, excuses or other greenwashing.”
A call for integrity and transparency in climate pledge
The report Integrity Matters: Net Zero Commitments by Businesses, Financial Institutions, Cities and Regions is the result of seven months of consultation and the work of 17 high-level experts commissioned by the UN Secretary-General.
The intent is not to berate or expose greenwashing practices, which are unfortunately becoming increasingly common, but rather to precisely define what climate commitments are and what non-state actors (cities, regions, businesses and financial institutions) need to do to get on track toward the zero-emissions goal. “We know what needs to be done,” McKenna writes in the introduction to the report, “to peak global emissions in just three years, by 2025, and to reduce emissions by half in less than eight years, by 2030. And non-state actors play a key role in achieving these goals.”
In short, there is no more time for ambiguity, weak promises, token commitments and discharge of responsibility. Instead, clarity, speed and pragmatism are needed. This is therefore the direction of the UN document, which first and foremost defines 5 principles that any climate pledge that wants to be taken seriously from now on must look to: ambition in its emission reduction targets; integrity in aligning its actions and investments with its stated commitments; transparency in making its progress public; credibility in the data provided, always based on science; and a commitment to equity and justice.
UN recommendations against greenwashing
What to do and what not to do, then, to be credible, transparent and above all practical in terms of climate commitments? At the heart of the UN report are indeed ten very specific and detailed guidelines on how to announce, define and implement a Net Zero Pledge.
First and foremost, it is recommended not to flaunt generic commitments, but to give substance to the emission reduction goals by defining transition plans with demonstrable actions, precise timelines, and setting short-, medium-, and long-term targets, so that actual achievements can then be measured. The timeframe, however, must not be too long: it must be done quickly so as to align as closely as possible with the 1.5°C scenario.
Shortcuts such as buying “cheap” carbon credits, which are often not properly verified, are also not valid. Instead, one must commit to cutting their own emissions directly throughout the value chain and use reliable carbon offset systems only at the end of the path, as an additional goal. It is also unsuitable to focus on reducing emissions intensity instead of cutting absolute emissions.
UN experts then emphasize a point that would seem obvious but is in fact too often disregarded: under no circumstances can one claim to be on the road to net zero if they continue to invest in fossil fuels or ecosystem-destroying initiatives such as deforestation.
It is also considered greenwashing to declare one's climate pledges and then lobby, directly or indirectly, to weaken the climate policies of governments and public bodies. Rather, investments, political support and promotion should be aligned toward announced decarbonization goals.
Finally, to give substance to the declarations, it is necessary to be transparent about the progress by submitting annual public reports, which will have to be evaluated according to recognized standards. And here the UN touches on another tricky point, the issue of regulations: in short, no more voluntary initiatives; climate pledges will have to be framed in clear and equal regulations.
“No one today can ignore the need for immediate and drastic cuts in emissions,” Catherine McKenna concludes, “if industry, financial institutions, cities and regions mean what they say in their climate pledges, they will adopt these recommendations.”
Image: Marek Piwnicki (Unsplash)