By Chris Lang
Last week, the UN launched an Expert Group that it claims will push business, investors, and cities to “walk the talk” on net zero pledges. But the Group will only produce recommendations for “stronger and clearer standards”. There is no mechanism to ensure that corporations abide by these standards. The Group will not report on corporations that are using net zero as greenwashing. Instead it will encourage and legitimise the net zero con.
In September 2021, 12 of the biggest, dirtiest oil and gas corporations pledged to reach net zero emissions. The companies, BP, Chevron, CNPC, Eni, Equinor, ExxonMobil, Occidental, Petrobras, Repsol, Saudi Aramco, Shell, and Total, are members of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative.
But the Big Polluters’ “net zero” target has no time-frame. It applies only to operations under the corporations’ control. In other words it excludes what happens to the oil once it is sold. Obviously, that’s where most of the emissions are, because that’s when the oil and gas is burned. Far from being meaningful climate action, this is pure greenwash.
It’s no secret that the COP26 UN climate meeting in Glasgow was flooded with greenwash. Greta Thunberg walked out of a promotional event organised by the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets, saying “This is greenwashing”.
A “greenwashing watchdog”?
On 7 November 2021, one week into COP26, The Times reported that the UN would set up a “‘greenwashing’ watchdog” that would “name and shame companies that fail to deliver on net zero commitments”:
Antonio Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, announced the creation of a new expert panel to assess net zero commitments, and said he was concerned at the “deficit of credibility” and “surplus of confusion” on climate claims.
The Times reported that, “Particular attention is to be paid to the use of carbon offsetting tools in organisations’ climate claims.” And The Times quoted Professor Michael Jacobs, of Sheffield University as saying that,
“Guterres is a canny politician. It will make many companies very uncomfortable.
“This initiative is desperately needed. There is massive anxiety about these net zero claims. There aren’t enough forests in the world for all the carbon offsetting that companies are claiming.”
It all sounded so promising.
High-Level Expert Group on the Net-Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities
Last week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres launched the “High-Level Expert Group on the Net-Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities”. The Expert Group is aimed at developing “stronger and clearer standards for net-zero emissions pledges” by companies. The 16-member group, under the leadership of Catherine McKenna, Canada’s former environment minister, will make recommendations on four aspects of net-zero commitments:
- Current standards and definitions for setting net zero targets by non-State actors and, if necessary, on additional elements to enhance these to achieve the highest possible integrity of standards for net zero targets.
- Credibility criteria used to assess the stated objectives, measurement and reporting of net zero pledges by non-State actors.
- Processes for the international community to verify and account in a transparent manner non-State actors’ progress towards meeting their net-zero commitments and the fulfilment of their reported decarbonization plans, including any reliance on carbon dioxide removal and offsets. These processes for reporting will also consider to the extent possible methodologies to assess the aggregate impact and comparability of non-State actor efforts including to potentially serve as an input into the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s stocktake of international climate efforts in 2023 and beyond; and
- A road map to translate these standards and criteria into international and national level regulations, in the context of a just transition.
The UN’s Expert Group on net zero will not be “naming and shaming”
On 31 March 2022, McKenna took part in a press conference about the Expert Group together with Selwin Hart, Special Adviser and Assistant Secretary-General for Climate Action at the UN.
At the press conference, Hart made clear that there would be no monitoring of individual corporations:
I would note that the purpose of this group is not to monitor individual companies or cities, or have an enforcement function. Nevertheless, the group is, and the work of the group will be essential in helping to deliver stronger and much clearer standards for net zero pledges that apply equally across all non-state actors as well as helping them to speed up the implementation of these pledges and commitments so that we can the rapid and sustained emission reductions that the atmosphere so desperately needs to keep our global climate goals, especially the 1.5 degree goal within reach.
Frank Jordans of AP asked whether the Group “will be naming and shaming any of the most egregious examples of greenwashing?”
As I just said, we will not be naming and shaming individual companies who have made, or financial institutions who have made these commitments. The work of this group really is to ensure that the standards are clear, that we have clear standards and definitions around setting net zero targets. As you know there are different standards and definitions that apply to many of the existing commitments and there needs to be some standardisation. As well as the credibility criteria related to many of these pledges, there are different frameworks and processes for verifying progress towards these commitments and, you know, this is a massive gap.
For example, many of the pledges that have been made, net zero by 2050 don’t have interim targets. Under no circumstances can that be seen as a credible commitment to net zero, when we know that in order to be on a net zero by 2050 pathway, it means globally that emissions will need to be reduced by at least 45% below 2010 levels by 2030. So to pass the credibility test there must be the expectation that those making these pledges have credible interim targets.
In her reply to Jordans’ question, McKenna brought up her support of carbon offsetting:
I understand the concern, because there are just so many net zero pledges and so many different bodies and organisations and we do need to bring coherence. I mean you can start with a very basic thing, what is net zero? We need businesses, investors, we need cities and regions to actually be doing the hard work themselves. I’m someone who cares greatly about markets, so certainly offsets, carbon removal are important, but we need to see real, credible, verifiable action in the short term. Er, doing the hard work.
I think it is important though that there’s transparency, I guess because sunlight is the best disinfectant and so there will be an ability to actually measure how are folks doing. Are they actually, do they have robust targets? Are they actually monitoring them, verifying them in a transparent way? Are they being ambitious?
It’s difficult at a first glance to see what the point of the Expert Group is. The Group will put out a report in about a year’s time. The report will include yet another set of recommendations of how to do net zero. Companies can chose to completely ignore the recommendations. Or they can claim to be following the recommendations closely. Nothing will be binding and the UN’s Expert Group will not be monitoring what individual corporations are doing.
The reality of this Expert Group is that no companies will be held accountable for greenwashing, no matter how egregious, no matter how much they rely on offsetting rather than making systematic changes that would result in leaving fossil fuels in the ground. By promoting net zero standards (that in any case will not be implemented) the UN’s Expert Group on greenwashing will legitimise “net zero” and in doing so help corporations to greenwash their continued pollution.