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20 Jan 2023

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Greenwashing is a Sin in a Time of Dire Challenges

We can all agree that greenwashing is a cardinal sin.

More heinous than cloudwashing in that greenwashing is not merely putting old wine into new bottles, but directly affects GHG reduction and climate-change abatement. Greenwashing is burning coal to make the new bottles. It's not helpful in addressing a very serious situation.

There is a de facto greenwashing vocabulary emerging, at least throughout the English-speaking world. A recent example comes from Greenbiz, listing greenwashing terms “that must be avoided at all costs.” The list includes general marketing claims such as "Green," "eco-friendly," "environmentally friendly," "natural," "sustainable." More specific terms receiving the Greenbiz evil eye include “carbon offset,” “compostable,” “degradable” and “bio-degradable,” “Certified” and “Seal of Approval,” “recyclable,” “clean,” “regenerative,” and many others. It's tough for a greenwasher out there.

The Trouble with Offsets
Speaking of carbon offsets, word has broken that “more than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets by biggest provider are worthless,” according to a story from The Guardian. The newspaper conducted a nine-month investigation with the German magazine Die Zeit and investigative journalism company SourceMaterial.

The study found that Verra, based in Washington, DC and the voluntary-offsets market leader, applied “phantom credits” to the rainforest carbon offsets, overstated the environmental threats it addressed, and that “human rights issues are a serious concern” in at least one of the Verra programs. Verra strongly disputes the findings, according to The Guardian story.

This report comes amidst the background that “engineered approaches for CO2 removal must increase by a factor of at least 1,300 by mid-century,” according to a Bloomberg story.

The EU Takes Action
Western Europe is trying to address the issue through tough regulation. France has a new anti-greenwashing law going into effect this year that addresses “écoblanchiment”(eco-whitewashing, as stated in a so very French, unyielding-to-English way). The French Consumer Code has added two clauses that addresses environmental impact “in a particular way,” and prescribes prison terms, multi-100K-euro fines, and revenue seizure for violators. The EU as a whole is preparing to update its Unfair Commercial Practices Directive to scrutinize environmental claims. A 2021 decision in the Netherlands, reported by Corporate Knights, requiring Shell to reduce its GHG emissions 40% by 2030 also follows this regulatory spirit.

It's unlikely that the US or Canada would regulate the use of language in this manner, although the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) does have some latitude in monitoring deceptive advertising practices. In the litigious US, one can always get sued, too, for chicanery that causes financial and other damage.

How such regulation might be considered in the rest of the world seems like either a low priority or unable to be more than speculative.

The Deadly Scope 3 Issue
A related and deadly serious issue is that of Scope 3 emissions. Companies that mitigate GHG emissions by moving toward renewable power, carbon-capture programs, and the use of e-vehicles can still be, in essence, bad actors if their sub-contractors, supply-chain partners, and facilities contractors are uncommitted or obtuse about the need for green. Scope 3 emissions are the dark matter of the climate-change abatement universe, constituting 75% of a company's overall carbon footprint, according to the World Resources Institute.

Research Reflects a Dire Reality
Internal IDCA research has examined the specific challenges the nations of the world face in addressing their existing carbon footprints and doing something about them. Integrating total CO2 emissions, emissions per capita, emissions per billion dollars of GDP, and the EESG factors that can either aid or impede progress, the results describe each nation's Emissions Reduction Challenge (ERC). The results are fairly dire.

With 142 countries under purview, separated into color-coded tiers, the results find only 36 countries in the “green” tier, facing minimally difficult challenges. There are 39 countries in the “yellow,” moderately difficult tier, and 59 countries in the “red,” very difficult tier. The red group includes the United States (the world's second-largest CO2 emitter), Canada, Mexico, Russia (the world's fourth-largest emitter), Germany, Japan (the world's fifth-largest emitter), Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

Facing even-more dire challenges are eight countries beyond red, in a “purple” tier. This group includes the world's largest emitter, China, along with third-largest emitter India, and a few smaller countries in Africa and the Middle East.

The presence of the top five CO2 producers in either the red or purple tiers skews the entire globe into the purple tier.

Greenwashing is not the enemy of climate-change abatement per se but it is decidedly unhelpful to efforts to address the problem. Strict regulation by itself will not rectify things. Until the governments of the world can lead their people into realizing the existential threat posed by runaway climate change, the people and organizations taking the issue seriously today need all the help they can get.

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