Our key takeaway: Not all net zero pledges are created equal. As attention on private sector entities’ record on climate increases, so too does greenwashing. The UN’s High-Level Expert Group focused on non-state entities has released a roadmap, that can be dubbed, the ‘How to spot greenwashing roadmap.’ In short, companies - as well as their advisors and investors - are greenwashing if they cannot meet the recommendations in the roadmap. Is a company building or investing in new fossil fuel supply while claiming to be net zero? Greenwashing. Is a company buying cheap credits rather than cutting its own emissions across its value chain? Greenwashing. Is a company lobbying to undermine ambitious government climate policies either directly or through trade associations? Greenwashing. And the list goes on. The report calls out the need for companies to ensure that the transition away from fossil fuels is just for affected communities, workers and all consumers to ensure access to energy, as well as the urgent need to invest in just transitions. In short, scrutiny of companies’ net zero pledges has only just started. Companies can get ahead of the curve by comparing their climate strategy against the recommendations in this roadmap.
The United Nations’ High-Level Expert Group on the Net Zero Emissions Commitment of Non-State Entities have released ‘Integrity Matters: Net Zero Commitments by Businesses, Financial Institutions, Cities and Regions’ (November 2022):
- The risks of greenwashing: The experts note that “net zero is now at an inflection point." .. Some non‐state actors (cities, regions, companies and financiers) “did not follow their net zero pledges with action, in spite of the urgency set out in the science. Some may have underestimated the task or interpreted net zero differently. Some may never have intended to achieve their stated goals, aiming only to benefit from the positive press abounding at the time. Many others are making good faith efforts to work toward global climate goals but do not yet know exactly what is required, or lack capacity or resources to deliver on their targets.” The experts highlight the risks of greenwashing: “If greenwash premised upon low-quality net zero pledges is not addressed, it will undermine the efforts of genuine leaders, creating both confusion, cynicism and a failure to deliver urgent climate action.”
- Five principles to guide the future of net zero: The experts provide a “a roadmap to prevent net zero from being undermined by false claims, ambiguity and ‘greenwash’.” The roadmap provides five principles that act as “the bright stars that should guide the setting and attaining of net zero targets.” “Plans must be ambitious, have integrity and transparency, be credible and fair.“ These five principles are described as follows: “(1) Ambition which delivers significant near— and medium —term emissions reductions on a path to global net zero by 2050, (2) Demonstrated integrity by aligning commitments with actions and investments, (3) Radical transparency in sharing relevant, non-competitive, comparable data on plans and progress, (4) Established credibility through plans based in science and third-party accountability and (5) Demonstrable commitment to both equity and justice in all actions.”
- Ten recommendations to stop greenwashing: The experts’ roadmap provides detail on what would be expected on the part of companies (alongside other non-state actors). These ten recommendations are as follows: (1) announce a net zero pledge, (2) set net zero targets, (3) use voluntary credits, (4) create a transition plan, (5) phase out of fossil fuels and scale up renewable energy, (6) align lobbying and advocacy, (7) people and nature in the just transition, (8) increase transparency and accountability, (9) invest in just transitions and (10) accelerate the road to regulation. The main recommendation related to lobbying and advocacy is that “[n]on-state actors must align their external policy and engagement efforts, including membership in trade associations, to the goal of reducing global emissions by at least 50% by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050. This means lobbying for positive climate action and not lobbying against it.” When it comes to phasing out of fossil fuel, the experts note that “[a]ll net zero pledges should include specific targets aimed at ending the use of and/or support for fossil fuels in line with IPCC and IEA net zero greenhouse gas emissions modelled pathways that limit warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot, with global emissions declining by at least 50% by 2030, reaching net zero by 2050.” In addition, “[t]he transition away from fossil fuels must be just for affected communities, workers and all consumers to ensure access to energy, and avoid transference of fossil fuel assets to new owners.”