As the race to net zero emissions becomes more imperative, governments and big companies around the world are making commitments to massively cut their carbon emissions through various strategies. These pledges have been announced at the COP26 in Glasgow, which was considered a major milestone to the bold steps humanity must take to limit global warming to below 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels.
However, this task has become even more daunting as those commitments can be tainted by actions that are not truly green. When a commitment is simply full of words but no real actions and no tangible results that can be verified and measured, it falls into the trap of greenwashing.
How can the public and investors be more empowered to discern what is a greenwash and what is truly green? David Carlin, who leads the climate risk program at the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI), shares the key questions that can help stakeholders evaluate climate commitments.
Carlin noted that there are three main areas that must be clarified in a net zero commitment. The first is the definition of commitment adopted by the organization. The second is the transition plan, and the third is the transition pathways and scenarios used.
When defining commitment, it is important that the organization is part of an accredited initiative which follows standards aligned with the UN’s Race to Zero science-based criteria. In addition, the net zero pledge must truly reflect a net zero goal.
“Net zero or climate neutral? Many key terms within a commitment have specific technical meanings. The Race to Zero considers an actor to have reached net zero when “any remaining GHG emissions attributable to that actor [are] fully neutralized by like-for-like removals exclusively claimed by that actor.” Like-for-like means that the source of emissions and the sink for removing emissions align in timescale and durability of carbon storage,” Carlin explained.
Removing emissions from burning fossil fuels must include a permanent carbon storage and that the organization must be checked that there is no double-counting of the removals that could be claimed by another actor or another aspect of the business value chain, he added.
Other aspects that must be monitored are the activities covered under the three scopes of emissions – that is, Scope 1 or direct emissions; Scope 2 or indirect emissions from energy used; and Scope 3 or all the indirect emissions within the value chain. Carlin warned that commitments that promise to reach net zero operational emissions as early as 2025 are “often less impressive than they sound”.
He also suggested that emissions reported should also consider if other types of greenhouse gases such as methane are being emitted by the organization.