COP27 promises crackdown on ‘out of control’ greenwashing by big corporations


The UN Secretary-General António Guterres has promised to crack down on greenwashing at the COP27 climate change summit warning that some company net zero commitments have “loopholes wide enough to drive a diesel truck through”.

Mr Guterres has set up an expert group of 17 people around the world who will hold industry to account on their ‘net zero’ and other green pledges, publicly highlighting when they fail to follow through on their claims to be green.

The clampdown comes amid a greenwashing controversy at COP27 itself – which is being sponsored by Coca-Cola, the world’s largest plastic polluter, attracting criticism from Greenpeace and other NGOs.

“We must have zero tolerance for net-zero greenwashing,” Mr Guterres said.

“We urgently need every business, investor, city, state and region to walk the talk on their net zero promises. We cannot afford slow movers, fake movers or any form of greenwashing.”

“Using bogus ‘net-zero’ pledges to cover up massive fossil fuel expansion is reprehensible. It is rank deception. This toxic cover-up could push our world over the climate cliff. The sham must end. Government or private sector commitments to net zero cannot be a mere public relations exercise.”

Greenwashing is attempting to unfairly boost environmental credentials, particularly where claims to net zero are concerned, thereby misleading consumers into thinking they are helping the planet by choosing those goods or services, according to Amanda Starbuck, a UK member of the High Level Expert Group announced at COP to monitor greenwashing.

Ms Starbuck told i: “To be completely frank, net zero greenwash has really got out of control – we’re surrounded by it.

“So many companies and financial institutions make net zero commitments and then change nothing about their business-as-usual practices and in some cases increase their impact on the climate. It’s really time to cut through all that.

“Net zero should mean immediately making reductions in your own climate emissions. Not purchasing cheap carbon credits as an excuse to continue business as usual.

“It should also mean aligning your full business model with your climate pledge. So that means all of your supply chain but also your lobbying, you shouldn’t be saying one thing on climate change and then directly, or through trade associations, lobbying governments to undermine climate action. And executive compensation should be aligned with performance on climate.”

The burning of fossil fuels is not compatible with net zero (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri, File)

Ms Starbuck, director of The Sunrise Project, a global charity concerned with pollution and over-exploitation, said HSBC and Barclays were among the UK companies that could be accused of greenwashing and “while they might be taking some steps they’ve still got a really long way to go”.

Last month, the UK’s advertising regulator banned two HSBC advertisements for being “misleading” about the company’s work to tackle climate change.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said the banking giant can no longer run the ads which promoted its plans to reduce harmful emissions saying that the posters “omitted material information about HSBC’s contribution to carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions”.

The regulator added: “Customers… would not expect that HSBC, in making unqualified claims about its environmentally beneficial work, would also be simultaneously involved in the financing of businesses which made significant contributions to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.”

A fossil fuel report, produced by Rainforest Action Network and other groups this year, found that Barclays financed fossil fuels with $167 billion (£133 billion) between 2016 and 2021 and is the 7th biggest banking provider of financing for fossil fuels in the world.

According to Ms Starbuck, Barclays is greenwashing “when it promotes its membership of the Net Zero Banking Alliance (NZBA) the world’s largest finance group committed to so-called net zero”.

“Barclays’ 2022 climate strategy report outlines their climate credentials, and trumpets their role as a funding member of the Net Zero Banking Alliance”, she says.

In that report, Barclays chairman Nigel Higgins, said: “While Barclays will continue to play a leading role in the financial services industry, we do not do it alone. Last year, we became a founding member of the Net-Zero Banking Alliance (NZBA), part of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ). We want to be part of a financial system that works together to accelerate the transition, and we will engage constructively with policymakers and others to address policy challenges.”

“We set out an ambition to become net zero by 2050, across all of our direct and indirect emissions, and we committed to align all of our financing activities with the goals and timelines of the Paris Agreement”.

Global Vice-President, Public Policy and Sustainability Michael Goltzman has said of the controversial sponsorship of COP27 by Coca Cola: “Through the COP27 partnership, the Coca-Cola system aims to support collective action against climate change.”

However, Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, said: “It is baffling that Coca-Cola, the world’s biggest plastic polluter according to the global Break Free From Plastic brands audit, is sponsoring COP27.

“Coca-Cola produces 120 billion throwaway plastic bottles a year – and 99 per cent of plastics are made from fossil fuels, so they are worsening both the plastic and climate crises. They have yet to even acknowledge that this is a problem or explain how they will meet their climate goals without ending their addiction to plastic.

“Cutting plastic production and ending single-use plastic is in line with the goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees. It’s a no-brainer.

“Of course, it’s good that the UN Secretary General wants to address greenwashing by corporations who make unfounded Net Zero commitments. But maybe the UN could start with their own meetings.”

A spokesperson for the United Nations sponsorship declined to comment on the Coca Cola sponsorship.

Coca-Cola did not respond to request for a comment today. However, a spokesperson has previously said: “Our support for COP27 is in line with our science-based target to reduce absolute carbon emissions 25 per cent by 2030, and our ambition for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050

“While we recognize that we have more work to do, we believe that effective climate solutions will require all of society to be involved including governments, civil society and the private sector.”

Plastic bottles are not only polluting the environment physically – they also require huge amounts of energy to make, off generating from fossil fuels (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
(Sunday Alamba
Provider: AP
Source: AP)

An HSBC spokesperson said: “HSBC is committed to a net zero future, and we are implementing our own financing and investment guardrails to do so. We have had a policy since 2018 to stop supporting thermal coal projects and we are phasing out existing thermal coal financing. We have committed to a science-based phase down of our fossil fuel financing, are updating our sector policies including energy and deforestation to align with latest scientific guidance, and are setting science-based 2030 financed emissions sectoral targets for on and off-balance sheet financing.”

Barclays was approached for comment.

“Many firms have made commitments to drive emissions down to net zero, but have made little progress in delivering,” said Lord Nicholas Stern, Chairman of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, who is not on the expert panel.

What the Expert greenwashing panel will set out to do, according go UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

“Today’s Expert Group report is a how-to guide to ensure credible, accountable net-zero pledges.

It provides clarity in four key areas: environmental integrity; credibility; accountability; and the role of governments.

I will briefly touch on each.

First, on environmental integrity, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is our scientific North Star.

Net-zero pledges must be in line with IPCC scenarios limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.

That means global emissions must decline by at least 45 per cent by 2030 – and reach net zero by 2050.

Pledges should have interim targets every five years starting in 2025.

And these targets must cover all greenhouse gas emissions and all scopes of emissions.

For financial institutions, this means all financed activities.

For businesses, it means all emissions — direct, indirect and those originating from supply chains.

And for cities and regions, it means all territorial emissions.

The message is clear to all those managing existing voluntary initiatives – as well as CEOs, mayors, governors committing to net-zero:

Abide by this standard and update your guidelines right away – and certainly no later than COP28.

I also have a message to fossil fuel companies and their financial enablers.

So-called ‘net-zero pledges’ that exclude core products and activities are poisoning our planet.

They must thoroughly review their pledges and align them with this new guidance.”



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