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UN experts urge stringent rules to stop ‘net zero’ greenwashing

Oil companies pledging to get their emissions down to net zero better make sure they’ve got a credible plan and aren’t just making false promises, United Nations experts said in a report Tuesday urging tough standards on emissions-cutting vows.

Released at the UN’s flagship climate conference in the Egyptian seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, the group of experts set out a number of strict recommendations for businesses, banks, and local governments making net zero pledges to ensure that their promises amount to meaningful action instead of “bogus” assurances.

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

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres appointed the group exactly a year ago at last year’s UN climate summit to draw up principles and recommendations aimed at clarifying the confusion around the growing number of net zero claims made by businesses and organisations. But there’s been little transparency or uniform standards when it comes to net zero pledges, resulting in a boom in the number of hard to verify claims, the UN experts and environmental groups say.

“Using bogus ‘net zero’ pledges to cover up massive fossil fuel expansion is reprehensible. It is rank deception,” Guterres said at the COP27 summit. “This toxic cover-up could push our world over the climate cliff. The sham must end.”

Since the Paris Agreement in 2015 set a global target of limiting temperature increases to 1.5?Celsius (2.7?F) there’s been a growing swell of support for the concept of ‘net zero’ – drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions and cancelling out the rest – as the main way to meet that goal.

“To prevent dishonest climate accounting … we emphasise that non-state actors must report publicly on their progress with verified information that can be compared with peers,” said Catherine McKenna, who headed up the group of 17 high-level experts that drew up the report.

So-called non-state actors include corporations, investors, and local and regional governments, which aren’t covered by the Paris agreement’s requirements. Their voluntary carbon cutting pledges must be “ambitious, have integrity and transparency, be credible and fair”, the experts said.

Among its 10 specific recommendations, businesses can’t claim to be net zero if they continue to invest or build new fossil fuel supplies, deforestation or other environmentally destructive projects. They can’t buy cheap carbon offset credits “that often lack integrity instead of immediately cutting their own emissions”.

Guterres said he was deeply concerned about lack of “standards, regulations and rigour” in the market for voluntary carbon credits. Climate experts say offsets can be problematic because there’s no guarantee they’ll deliver on reducing emissions.

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

“This surge of interest from the corporate sector to zero out emissions is truly inspiring,” said Ani Dasgupta, CEO of the World Resources Institute, cautioning that “any corporate net-zero targets with loopholes or weak guardrails would put our planet and billions of people in peril”.

In order to keep the Earth from warming less than 1.5 degrees, the UN says carbon dioxide emissions must peak by 2025, fall by nearly half by 2030, and to reach net zero by the middle of the century.

The only way to do that now is to reduce the amount of heat trapping greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere and balance out the remaining emissions by permanently removing them, through planting trees, or through technologies yet untested at scale such as capturing 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 burnish their green credentials, though environmental activists worry it’s becoming greenwash.

McDonald’s has opened net zero restaurants in the United States and United Kingdom powered by solar panels and wind turbines. Airline group IATA set a long term goal for the aviation industry to reach net zero by 2050. Even oil companies have jumped on the bandwagon. Chevron touts its “net zero aspiration” and Shell flaunts its “drive for net zero emissions”.

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

Organisers of this year’s soccer world cup hosted by Qatar say the massive building spree of stadiums, highways and subway system for the event was all carbon neutral – a claim experts have cast doubt on.


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