Pledges by companies, banks and cities to achieve net zero emissions often amount to little more than greenwashing, UN experts said in a report on Tuesday, as they set out proposed new standards to harden net zero claims.
The report, released at the COP27 climate conference in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt, is intended to draw a “red line” around false claims of progress in the fight against global warming that can confuse consumers, investors, and policymakers.
The “high-level expert group” was created in March by the UN secretary general, António Guterres to advise on rules to improve integrity and transparency in net zero commitments by industry, regions, and cities. The team said climate plans must include deep cuts in greenhouse gases before 2030, and not delay action until closer to 2050.
“Too many of these net-zero pledges are little more than empty slogans and hype”, group chair and Canada’s former environment minister, Catherine McKenna, said during a news conference launching the report. “Bogus net-zero claims drive up the cost that ultimately everyone will pay.”
The group of experts was created after widespread concern about greenwashing, including claims by major fossil fuel companies that they were aiming for net zero emissions by 2050 while backing new coal, oil, and gas developments and relying heavily on offsets.
Only Last month, Britain’s advertising watchdog (ASA) banned a series of misleading HSBC adverts, saying any future campaigns must disclose the bank’s contribution to the climate crisis.
The ASA said the adverts highlighting how the bank’s investment of $1tn (£872bn) in climate-friendly initiatives such as tree-planting and helping clients hit climate targets failed to acknowledge HSBC’s own contribution to emissions through the companies they invest in.
Net zero plans already adopted have drawn criticism for being vague, delaying action until it is too late and relying too heavily on reductions claimed from unrelated nature-based offset projects, such as tree planting and supporting forest regrowth.
While offsets have enjoyed wide support from governments and industry as a cheaper way to cut pollution than absolute cuts, the experts said they should only be used after a business or regional or local government had met short and medium-term targets.
An estimated 80% of global emissions are now covered by pledges that commit to reaching net zero emissions.
Elsewhere in the report, a list of recommendations was suggested for companies and other non-state actors to follow to ensure their claims are credible. For example, a company cannot claim to be net zero if it continues to build or invest in new fossil fuel infrastructure or deforestation.
The report also dismisses the use of cheap carbon credits to offset continued emissions as a viable net zero strategy and recommends companies, financial institutions, cities and regions focus on outright emissions and not carbon intensity – a measure of how much carbon is emitted per unit of output.
The report was “potentially very significant, depending on the traction it gets”, said Eric Christian Pedersen, head of responsible investments at Nordea Asset Management.
“If this report becomes a legal standard against which one can measure if a net-zero commitment is bona fide or not, then it… can provide ammunition for the lawsuits and regulatory action which are sorely needed to make the absence of climate action more expensive at the individual company level.”
The report “gives companies, investors, cities, regions – and by implication, countries – a clear statement of what ‘good’ looks like”, said Thomas Hale, a global public policy researcher at Oxford University and co-leader of the Net Zero Tracker project which measures the effectiveness of such pledges.
“We need to be clear that most net-zero targets are not on track,” he told Reuters, noting the tracker found that only half of companies with pledges have robust plans.
Teresa Anderson, global lead for climate justice at poverty-eradication non-profit ActionAid International, said corporations had “long hidden behind net-zero announcements and carbon offsetting initiatives, with very little intention of really doing the hard work of transforming and cutting emissions.”
“These recommendations will aim to keep them in line and close any loopholes.”
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