UN experts call for strict rules to stop net zero greenwash

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AP) — Oil companies committed to cutting their emissions to zero better make sure they have a credible plan and aren’t just making false promises, U.N. experts said in a report Tuesday, calling for tough standards on emission reduction pledges.

Delivered at the UN’s flagship climate conference in the Egyptian seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, the panel of experts set out a series of tough recommendations for businesses, banks and local governments making net zero pledges to ensure their pledges are real action instead of “false” assurances.

They called it a roadmap to prevent net zero “from being undermined by false claims, ambiguity and ‘greenwashing’.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed the group exactly one year ago at last year’s UN climate summit to draw up principles and recommendations aimed at clarifying the confusion surrounding the growing number of net zero claims by businesses and organizations . But there has been little transparency or uniform standards regarding net zero commitments, resulting in an explosion in the number of claims that are difficult to verify, UN experts and environmental groups say.

“The use of false ‘net zero’ commitments to cover up the massive expansion of fossil fuels is reprehensible. It’s ranking cheating,” Guterres said at the COP27 summit. “This toxic cover-up could push our world over the climate cliff. The fraud must end.”

Since the 2015 Paris Agreement set a global goal of limiting temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 F), there is growing support for the concept of “net zero” — drastically reducing emissions greenhouse gases and canceling the rest — as the main way to achieve this goal.

“To avoid dishonest climate accounting … we emphasize that non-state actors must publicly report their progress with verified information that can be compared with their peers,” said Catherine McKenna, who led the group 17 high-level experts put together the report.

So-called non-state actors include companies, investors and local and regional governments, which are not covered by the requirements of the Paris agreement. Their voluntary carbon reduction commitments must be “ambitious, have integrity and transparency, be credible and fair”, experts said.

Among its 10 specific recommendations, businesses cannot claim to be net zero if they continue to invest in or build new fossil fuel reserves, deforestation or other environmentally destructive projects. They cannot buy cheap carbon offset credits “which often lack integrity rather than immediately reduce their own emissions.”

Guterres said he was deeply concerned about the lack of “standards, regulations and rigor” in the market for voluntary carbon credits. Climate experts say offsets can be problematic because there is no guarantee they will help reduce emissions.

Lobbying to undermine ambitious government climate policies is a no-no, experts said. And companies can’t just focus on the emissions they generate directly from, say, manufacturing, but must include those generated along the way in their supply chains for parts and raw materials.

In order to prevent the Earth from warming less than 1.5 degrees, the UN says carbon dioxide emissions must peak by 2025, nearly halve by 2030 and reach net zero by mid-century.

The only way to do this now is to reduce the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere and balance the remaining emissions by removing them permanently, by planting trees or through technologies not yet tested at scale, such as sequestering carbon emissions at sources such as factory smokestacks and storing them underground.

Along the way, net zero has become a corporate buzzword for companies and groups seeking to flaunt their green credentials, though environmental activists worry it’s becoming greenwash.

McDonald’s has opened net zero restaurants in the United States and the United Kingdom powered by solar panels and wind turbines. The airline group IATA has set a long-term goal for the aviation industry to reach net zero by 2050. Even oil companies have made leaps. Chevron proclaims its “clean ambition” and Shell demonstrates “the push for net zero emissions”.

Private equity firm Carlyle Group was an early adopter of the net zero commitment, but did not include its largest oil and gas investment in a recent financial risk report on greenhouse gas emissions.

Organizers of this year’s Qatar-hosted soccer World Cup say the massive stadium, highway and subway building spree for the event was carbon neutral – a claim experts have disputed.

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The Associated Press’s climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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