By Chris Lang
Recently two journalists from German newspaper the Zeit investigated what happens when a company announces that it is “climate neutral”. They did so by creating a fake flower company consisting only of a website, an email address, and a mobile phone number.
The journalists, Astrid Geisler and Hannah Knuth, called their start-up company Blumengeschwister Berlin. And they gave themselves the names Astrid and Dorothea Bauer. Their article is titled, “A bouquet of empty promises”.
They contacted two climate consulting firms, myclimate and ClimatePartner, to buy carbon offsets and to get the firms’ “climate neutral” labels.
Geisler and Knuth highlight one of the fundamental problems with carbon offsets:
Greenhouse gases are emitted when companies produce or sell products. Many companies therefore try to compensate their emissions by paying for climate protection projects. Anyone who is “climate neutral” in this sense, does not necessarily plan to avoid doing something polluting. Instead, it’s about keeping something that is CO2 intensive, that you don’t want to, or can’t, do without – simply by offsetting the emissions. Theoretically, every product can become climate-neutral, even if the manufacture or transport remains harmful to the climate.
Rose factories in Colombia
Flowers can generate quite large emissions, often being imported from Africa or Latin America. They are transported in refrigerated planes and trucks. Supply chains are often murky. Many flower sellers in Germany do not know exactly where their flowers came from or how much water, fertiliser, and pesticides were used to produce them.
And flower production has a dark side. Rebecca Solnit recently wrote about a visit to a rose factory in Colombia in her book “Orwell’s Roses”. During peak seasons like before Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, workers put in more than 100 hours a week. Workers are prevented from unionising. Repetitive motion injuries are common and leave workers disabled. Women are exposed to toxic chemicals that have been linked to higher rates of miscarriages, infertility, and birth defects.
The workers have a slogan, “The lovers get the roses, but we workers get the thorns.”
Solnit writes that,
The idea of an immense airplane whose sole freight was roses, burning its carbon and rushing high over the Caribbean, to deliver its burden to people who would never know of all that lay behind the roses they picked up in the supermarket, was maybe as perfect an emblem of alienation as you could find. Could roses be more uprooted? They were the invisible factories of visual pleasure.
Offsetting the emissions from flowers imported from the other side of the planet takes this process of alienation even further by making the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the roses in a flower shop in Berlin invisible. To the buyer, that is, but not to the atmosphere.
Climate neutral, according to myclimate
Blumengeschwister Berlin has no tax number. The company is not registered anywhere. They have no electricity bills. They’ve never bought (or sold) a single flower. Astrid and Dorothea Bauer have absolutely no clue about running a flower shop. They would immediately be exposed if a climate consultant asked them detailed questions about the company’s operations.
The company myclimate is based in Zurich and until 2002 it was part of the research university ETH Zürich. It has sold carbon offsets to many companies, including an airline company (Lufthansa), a bank (Raiffeisen), a film festival (Locarno), and has a “long standing partnership” with WWF Switzerland.
In a statement on myclimate’s website, Katrin Oswald, WWF Switzerland’s Senior Manager Sustainable Markets, says,
“myclimate is an experienced and proficient developer of carbon offset projects and offers all project partners responsible support in achieving positive impacts for the climate, humanity and nature.”
Hmmm. Let’s see how Blumengeschwister Berlin got on with myclimate.
Geisler and Knuth filled in an online form to offset their “unavoidable greenhouse gas emissions” on myclimate’s website.
They gave “absurdly low CO2 values – to see whether the consultants would notice”. Geisler and Knuth explain that myclimate’s website states that,
A “company calculator” will compare the information with reference companies, and the data will also be checked. Then you get the label “climate-neutral operation”.
They fill in how many employees they have, how much paper they use, and how many cups of coffee they drink. They don’t know how much electricity they use, but myclimate estimates that for them.
They deliberately fill in low numbers in the “Mobility” section. A warning pops up that the numbers are “unusually low”. But a pink “Ignore” button appears next to the warming. They ignore the warning.
The myclimate “carbon calculator” comes up with a figure of 6.4 tons of CO2 per year. And a bill for €571. Of this, €422.65 goes to myclimate and €149 goes to the climate project.
That’s more than €23 per carbon offset – which is pretty steep. Even so, only 26% of the money that myclimate takes from them goes to the climate project. These high costs, myclimate says, are a result of the high costs for the development, automation, and maintenance of their “carbon calculator”.
Geisler and Knuth wait for myclimate’s experts to ask them for evidence for their dubiously low emissions that they reported in the “carbon calculator”. Instead, they get an email congratulating them for their “commitment to our climate” and telling them that from now on Blumengeschwister Berlin can call itself a “climate-neutral operation”.
So, a non-existent firm, with made-up emissions data has become “climate neutral”.
Geisler and Knuth ask myclimate how that could happen. They ask myclimate how the company gets away with such a superficial approach to awarding a “climate neutral” label. The response is that myclimate assumes that their customers provide their emissions data “to the best of their knowledge and belief”. The company admits that “a leap of faith” is involved in accepting their customers’ numbers.
In other words, myclimate relies on companies giving accurate numbers because they are concerned about their reputations. But, Giesler and Knuth ask, given that no one checks these numbers, how would it ever be revealed that the CO2 values are not correct?
Even more importantly, how does myclimate make sure that companies are genuinely reducing CO2 emissions before offsetting the remaining emissions? This is not checked, myclimate admits, arguing that it is “almost impossible from the outside” to assess which emissions a customer can avoid. “We would have to request insights into company data that no company would disclose,” myclimate explains.
But myclimate made no attempt to ask Blumengeschwister Berlin whether it had made any attempt to reduce emissions. Not even whether it was using energy saving light bulbs. “Apparently,” Geisler and Knuth write, “many providers of climate certificates are less concerned with the climate and more with the money that can be earned with labels”.
“Climate neutral” according to ClimatePartner
ClimatePartner is one of the biggest offsetting companies, boasting more than 5,000 customers in over 60 countries. These companies include Nestlé, Deutsche Bank, Aldi, e-on, and DHL.
Here’s how ClimatePartner describes its process on its website:
And ClimatePartner promises that the compensation process for the “climate neutral” label with be independently checked by TÜV Austria.
Geisler and Knuth talk to a furniture manufacturing company called Kiezbett that decided three years ago to use ClimatePartner to get its furniture labelled “climate neutral”.
A Kiezbett employee tells them that ClimatePartner did not ask for proof of Kiezbett’s greenhouse gas emissions. “No value was questioned at all,” he says.
When he looks through the documents from three years ago, he notices that he filled in “delivery van” when “heavy goods vehicle” or “lorry” would have been correct. No one at ClimatePartner noticed the mistake.
ClimatePartner did not insist that Kiezbett first reduced its emissions.
In 2020, Kiezbett received a certificate stating that the company was “climate neutral”. Kiezbett also received a bill for €4,194.36. Of this €134.36 went to an offset project in Rwanda. ClimatePartner pocketed the remaining €4,060.
“Basically, ClimatePartner makes it easier for companies to simply continue doing business that is as harmful to the climate as before,” the Kiezbett employee told Geisler and Knuth. “For a trustworthy label we need some sort of government supervision. Otherwise it’s just just PR.”
Kiezbett no longer uses the ClimatePartner “climate neutral” label.
Blumengeschwister Berlin’s Dorothea Bauer sent an email to ClimatePartner explaining that she wanted to make “Happy Monday”, one of their flower bouquets, “climate neutral”. ClimatePartner replied telling her that “according to the Cradle-to-Customer + Waste accounting approach,” she would have to provide, “the data on processed raw materials, packaging, immediate incoming and outgoing logistics, production and disposal”.
The non-existent “Happy Monday” bouquet supposedly consisted of roses, lilies, gerberas, a pistachio bush, and eucalyptus. ClimatePartner directed Dorothea to an online platform, where she had to enter the figures herself. But the online platform did not include any of the flowers in the bouquet apart from roses. So she entered roses for all the flowers.
A ClimatePartner employee adds in the supply chain details. According to ClimatePartner, the flowers travel to Hamburg by container ship, and from there by truck to Berlin. Geisler and Knuth later found out from the Association of German Flower Importers that cut flowers are usually delivered to Europe by plane, and only a very small percentage comes by container ship.
For several weeks, Blumengeschwister Berlin exchanged emails with ClimatePartner, along with several phone conversations. ClimatePartner asked how they tie the bouquet together, and whether they used air conditioning to cool the flowers. But they didn’t ask for any evidence.
Five weeks after first contacting ClimateParter, Blumegeschwister Berlin received an email saying they are now “climate neutral”.
But Blumengeschwister Berlin had made no effort to reduce its CO2 emissions. And ClimatePartner did not ask the company to reduce its emissions, for example by making the “Happy Monday” bouquet from regional varieties.
ClimatePartner charged €892.50 for its “climate neutral” label. Of this, only €15.03 plus VAT went to carbon offsetting projects. That’s about 2% of what ClimatePartner earns from the so-called “climate neutral” label.
Geisler and Knuth comment that,
It seems like some vendors just sell climate labels to anyone who pays for them – and keep a big chunk of the money for themselves.