5 ways to tackle greenwashing, according to UN experts

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Douglas Broom, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • False environmental claims are harming the fight against climate change.
  • Now the United Nations is calling for action to stamp out greenwashing.
  • Here are its five key recommendations to make climate claims honest.

This blog has been written using 100% renewable materials, has generated zero emissions and protected the rainforests! Of course that’s not true but neither are many similar claims and the United Nations (UN) says “greenwashing” has to stop.

In its new report Integrity Matters, a UN expert panel – set up to examine net-zero claims made by non-state organizations – calls for regulation to stop baseless environmental claims by companies, banks and municipalities.

We must have zero tolerance for net-zero greenwashing,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres launching the report at the COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Some climate claims had “loopholes wide enough to drive a diesel truck through”, he added

The UN panel’s chair Catherine McKenna says in the report that greenwashing was actually harming the fight against climate change. “Non-state actors – industry, financial institutions, cities and regions – play a critical role in getting the world to net zero no later than 2050”.

“They will either help scale the ambition and action we need to ensure a sustainable planet or else they strongly increase the likelihood of failure,” she added. “The planet cannot afford delays, excuses or more greenwashing.”

UN panel’s recommendations for tackling greenwashing

The Oxford English Dictionary defines greenwashing as: “The creation or propagation of an unfounded or misleading environmentalist image.” So how can it be avoided? The UN panel recommends these five steps to ensure that environmental pledges are genuine.

1. Announce a net-zero pledge with targets

A net zero pledge should be made publicly by the leadership of the organization and include targets for 2025, 2030 and 2035, the UN panel says. It should demonstrate that it will help achieve a 50% cut in global emissions by 2030 and will sustain net zero after 2050.

Calling for regulation to ensure pledges are genuine, the panel adds: “Deceptive or misleading net zero claims by non‑state actors not only erode confidence in net zero pledges overall, they undermine sovereign state commitments and understate the work required to achieve global net zero.”

2. Create a transition plan

It’s all very well to set a target but how will your organization get there? While no one can accurately predict the path to 2050, says the panel, “frequently updated transition plans make pledges concrete, while highlighting uncertainties, assumptions and barriers”.

It’s also vital to ensure that the planned transition is fair to all concerned. This is known as a just transition, which takes account of the need to protect workers’ rights and help those people and nations likely to be adversely affected by the move to net zero.

3. Increase transparency and accountability

Currently, information about pledges, targets and plans by non-government entities is hard to find, often hidden behind paywalls, the panel says. Organizations need to publish all the details so everyone can see what they are doing.

The report also calls for the annual publication of each organization’s greenhouse gas emissions alongside baseline data so people can see how well they are doing compared to other entities. The data should be in open formats that facilitate global comparisons, they add.

4. Phase out fossil fuels and scale up renewable energy

The report on greenwashing says that business and local governments must halt the development of new reserves of fossil fuels and focus instead on investing in renewable alternatives. Targets for increasing the use of renewables should be included in transition plans.

“The transition away from fossil fuels must be just for affected communities, workers and all consumers to ensure access to energy,” the panel says, adding that the move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy must also be fully funded.

5. Use voluntary carbon credits

Voluntary carbon credits are used to offset emissions by paying another party to reduce their emissions. When the recipient is in a developing nation, the panel says it can be an effective way of helping decarbonize developing economies.

However, they say there needs to be better regulation to ensure credits lead to verifiable reductions in global emissions. As best practice improves, organizations that meet their interim targets are “strongly encouraged” to use credits to offset the rest of their emissions.

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