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'The sham must end’: UN experts call for crackdown on greenwashing of net zero pledges

Protests at  COP26 U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.
Protests at COP26 U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.   -   Copyright  Alastair Grant/Copyright 2021 The AP. All rights reserved   -  
By Joshua Askew

New guidelines to prevent greenwashing in net zero pledges have been released by UN experts at COP27.

The report published on Tuesday by the High Level Expert Group styled itself as a “how-to guide” to ensure credibility and accountability in emissions promises.

Speaking at COP27 in Egypt, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the growing number of net zero pledges by governments and non-state actors was “good news”.

But he added that there were issues around their effectiveness and “loopholes wide enough to drive a diesel truck through.”

Net zero pledges are voluntary commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 45 per cent by 2035 and then zero by 2050.

Critics argue they divert attention away from more ambitious short-term targets and have questioned whether they will be honoured in reality.

‘Zero tolerance for net zero greenwashing’

Part one of the report, which was compiled by 17 international experts, focused on “environmental integrity”.

Net zero pledges must be in line with the international goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius – a rise which staves off disastrous and potentially deadly climate disruptions, it said.

The report urged any pledge to “cover all greenhouse gas emissions.”

One criticism of existing rules is that they do not account for all emissions a company is linked to It means they can present themselves as having net zero pledges, while farming out polluting activities to other entities, such as suppliers.

In a statement, Guterres said he had a “message” for “fossil fuel companies and their financial enablers”

“Using bogus ‘net zero’ pledges to cover up massive fossil fuel expansion is reprehensible. It is rank deception. This toxic cover-up could push our world over the climate cliff.”

“The sham must end,” he added.

Net zero pledges must be credible

The convincingness of net zero pledges was the focus of part two.

Businesses, banks and local authorities should outline and make their plans to reach net zero available for everyone to see, according to the report.

This also meant “publicly advocating for climate action and disclosing all lobbying activity”.

“At the same time, the transition to net zero must be just,” said Guterres.

“Transition plans should address the needs of workers in fossil fuel industries and sectors affected by the renewable energy transition”.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to nothing will require a mass shift of labour, according to McKinsey and Company, a global consultancy firm.

It estimates that the transition could lead to a loss of 33 million jobs in the oil, gas and coal industries, and 68 million in car production.

However, it found that there would be a “huge” net jobs gain overall, with green industries causing the global economy to “flourish” in the long term.

Net zero can’t just be greenwashing

The report’s third recommendation was accountability, with Guterres saying “full transparency is critical”.

“Government or private sector commitments to net zero cannot be a mere public relations exercise,” he said, calling on voluntary net zero initiatives to make their progress public.

As of 2022, one in three businesses in the Forbes 2,000 list, which ranks the largest companies in the world, has set up a net zero target, Net Zero Stock Take found.

But there are concerns about the extent to which these targets are being met.

Many net zero ledges have been criticised for a ‘burn now, pay later’ approach, which reduces the sense of urgency around curbing emissions in the short run.

G20 countries need to end their ‘addiction’ to fossil fuels

The final section of the report called on governments to “help and support” net zero efforts in the private sector.

“I urge all government leaders to provide non-state entities with a level playing field to transition to a just, net zero future,” said Guterres.

“Solving the climate crisis requires strong political leadership.”

He called on the G20 -- together with all OECD countries – to accelerate the decarbonisation of their economies and end their “addiction” to fossil fuels.

Government regulation, policies, legislation and financial support are widely viewed as part of achieving such decarbonisation.