New UN COP27 report takes aim at 'greenwashing'

Oover the past few years, corporate executives and investors he jumped enthusiastically in the fight to tackle climate change with hundreds of the world’s biggest companies pledging to eliminate their carbon footprints by mid-century – a goal known as net zero. That enthusiasm is now on display at COP27, this year’s UN climate summit, where executives from some of the world’s biggest and most influential companies gathered in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to tout their progress and engage with delegates from around the world.

What these corporate commitments mean depends on who you ask. For some, this represents the most significant progress towards putting the world on a path to slowing global warming; for others, it’s a whole bunch green wash this is little more than a press release. Into this debate comes a long-awaited new one report published on Tuesday at COP27, which outlines best practices for companies that say they are committed to net zero. The report, published by a panel convened by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, offers a scathing rebuke of companies that claim to be tackling climate change without actually doing the work. It also offers 10 concrete recommendations on the way forward for corporations and other “non-state actors” such as cities and investors. “If you’re telling the world, ‘I’m net zero,’ then there’s a price to pay,” says committee chair Catherine McKenna, Canada’s former environment and climate change minister. “You have to walk the talk, you have to walk the talk.”

Delivering net zero requires a range of different practices, the report says. Companies need to put in place clear plans – short, medium and long term – that show they actually have a path to it. They should focus on reducing their own emissions as much as possible and limit buying carbon credits to offset their emissions. They need to look at their entire value chain, which means they need to look at their own supply chain as well as how their products are used. All three of these practices address the common shortcomings of existing corporate net zero commitments.

The report also offers concrete recommendations for the energy industry’s climate commitments: companies should stop investing in new fossil fuel supplies if they want to claim a commitment to net zero emissions. Many oil and gas companies have said they are working to eliminate their carbon footprint while focusing on so-called carbon intensity targets, meaning they want to reduce the amount of carbon generated by fossil fuel mining. “The planet doesn’t care about intensity,” says McKenna. “It’s an important measure, but it’s interested in the actual reductions.”

One area likely to make waves is the report’s call for companies to use their lobbying clout to push for climate-related rules and regulations. Many of the world’s largest corporations—think Walmart, Apple, and other giants—have made significant strides to address climate change on their own, but face criticism for not living up to that record in the halls of Congress. The Inflation Reduction Actthe Biden administration’s landmark climate bill, for example, received limited corporate support.

The willingness of the task force — known formally as the High-Level Expert Group on Non-State Entity Net Zero Emissions Commitments — to call out the long list of questionable practices that have taken hold around net zero quickly won praise from activists. Tseporah Berman, an activist pushing for a treaty to end new fossil fuels, praised the report for its “courage.” Indeed, the report will provide activists with a clear and reliable indicator of corporate accountability.

Activists aren’t the only ones who have been eagerly awaiting the report. Corporate leaders committed to climate closely monitor the committee’s work throughout the year. His expected findings have been the subject of much speculation and discussion.

Time will tell if non-state actors adopt the traffic rules laid out in the report. And this is no small matter: getting clarity about corporate commitments will shape policies, politics and economies – not to mention our future climate.

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Write to Justin Worland c [email protected].

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