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OPINION: Greenwashing, just like climate delay, is not a victimless crime

by Jennifer Morgan | @climatemorgan | Greenpeace International
Tuesday, 6 July 2021 09:38 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Protesters of Ukrainian green groups are reflected in balloons as they demonstrate against CO2 emissions in Kiev, December 2, 2009. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Offsetting - the underbelly of net-zero goals - allows climate polluters to carry on pumping into the atmosphere while paying someone else to cut carbon emissions

Jennifer Morgan is executive director of Greenpeace International.

Barely a day goes by without a major government or company announcing a new net zero pledge. This may seem transformational and heart-warming, and many would be forgiven for thinking this way, but greenwashing tactics lurk while authentic climate action plans lack. 

Some players are genuinely eliminating emissions at source, while making strides in transitioning from fossil fuels. But many others are trying to hoodwink the public by adopting the language of “net zero”. 

Offsetting is the underbelly of current net zero commitments. An old idea, it is centred on paying for someone else to reduce or remove carbon, while you carry on pumping into the atmosphere. It is like saying you are on a diet while gobbling cakes as someone else survives on lettuce on your behalf. Offsetting is one of the most sophisticated, cynical and pervasive forms of greenwashing - and has no role in a climate emergency.

Around eight out of 10 offsetting projects rich countries relied on to meet their climate targets under the Kyoto Protocol were deemed unlikely to have delivered any climate benefit, according to a report from the Institute for Applied Ecology.

Fast forward to the 2015 Paris Agreement, where nearly 200 governments agreed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5˚C degrees above pre-industrial times. While many cities and some businesses have matched and surpassed this goal, national governments and the worst polluters are another story. 

With the clock ticking, offsetting is being supercharged by those not committed to climate action. Turbo tree-planting and monocropping projects are two examples that do little for the environment and cause huge harm to land defenders and Indigenous peoples. 

In political realms, senior figures advising the UK government ahead of COP26 are working with major polluters to entrench this greenwashing as acceptable climate action.

The Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets, sponsored by COP26 advisor Mark Carney and set for a big push this July, has an ambition to “make the case for offsets ‘rebrand’ in a way never done before”, alongside a host of recommendations. With one of the taskforce originators being BP, it is busy talking up the need to boost industry-led offsetting markets to the tune of $100 billion a year

For climate and development hawks, this is a familiar sum, for it is the same amount the Global North promised to deliver on climate finance. That $100 billion-a-year promise has not been met. While governments fail to put money into nature protection, dire biodiversity warnings increase. These alarm bells are met with political interest in “nature-based solutions”. 

Decarbonising the global economy and protecting nature must go hand in hand to prevent planetary catastrophe. Only decarbonising to avoid climate breakdown, while continuing to cause irreversible damage to nature, would gravely impact global temperatures and cause great harm to people and the planet.

We’ve seen promises to properly fund climate action fudged, voluntarily set corporate deadlines to end deforestation roll by while forests are torched and chopped, and targets to protect nature resoundingly missed.

It’s the business of actually going fossil-free and getting in harmony with nature that keeps the environmental and social movements busy - and with false solutions like offsetting ramping up, we’re ready to call out any so-called climate leader who’s falling short.

To get the ball rolling, Carney’s Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets looks set to become a safe haven for greenwashers unless climate and nature are put at the heart of all its decision-making and there are effective systems in place to scrutinise its process.

Now is the moment to call time on the major emitters who are greenwashing while trying to give themselves a pass for reducing their own emissions. This is a test of who is really serious about respecting the 1.5˚C limit - and a safe living environment for people and planet - and who deserves no social licence to operate in 2021 onwards.