At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres was quite candid in his address: “We are flirting with climate disaster.  Every week brings a new climate horror story. Greenhouse gas emissions are at record levels and growing. The commitment to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees is nearly going up in smoke.”

“Without further action, we are headed to a 2.8-degree increase,” he warned. The consequences, as we all know, would be devastating.  Several parts of our planet would be uninhabitable. And for many, it would mean a death sentence. But this is not a surprise.  The science has been clear for decades.”

A task force led by Catherine McKenna, past Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change, has laid out a plan that applies that science and actively battle companies, institutions, and provincial and municipal governments that are presenting phony commitments to achieve “net zero” or zero net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

One has only to follow the environmental press to recognize that large numbers of the net zero commitments and reports made by these organizations are far from meeting anything that is recognizable as a genuine net zero carbon emissions target in compliance with UNFCCC recommendations.

In releasing the report of the United Nations’ High‑Level Expert Group on the Net Zero Emissions Commitments of Non‑State Entities, McKenna and Guterres used some strong language to describe what is going on in the world of corporate announcements of net zero plans and achievements.

The word “greenwashing” was used frequently but was one of the less derogatory descriptors of the behaviour of many non-state actors. Guterres has warned that many businesses are setting up climate targets based on “dubious or murky” criteria.

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“This misleads consumers, investors and regulators with false narratives. It feeds a culture of climate misinformation and confusion. And it leaves the door wide open to greenwashing.”

Guterres welcomed participation of the community of non-state actors in the battle against climate change but added that: “The problem is that the criteria and benchmarks for these net‑zero commitments have varying levels of rigour and loopholes wide enough to drive a diesel truck through.”

In the Chair’s introduction to the report McKenna said that non-state actors must not:

  • claim to be net zero while continuing to build or invest in new fossil fuel supply;
  • buy cheap credits that often lack integrity instead of immediately cutting their own emissions across their value chain;
  • focus on reducing the intensity of their emissions rather than their absolute emissions or tackling only a part of their emissions rather than their full value chain;
  • lobby to undermine ambitious government climate policies either directly or through trade associations or other bodies.

If you recognize your organization as doing any one or more of these things then it might be reasonable to expect that the UN, through its climate change organizations and through your domestic government, might soon come knocking!

The Report’s recommendations include:

  • A net zero pledge must be a commitment by the entire entity, made in public by the leadership, and be reflective of the city, region or corporation’s fair share of the needed global climate mitigation.
  • A net zero pledge must contain stepping stone targets for every five years, and set out concrete ways to reach net zero in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) or International Energy Agency (IEA) net zero greenhouse gas emissions modelled pathways that limit warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot. The plan must cover the entire value chain of a city, state or business, including end‑use emissions. It needs to start fast and not delay action to the last minute.
  • Non‑state actors must prioritise urgent and deep reduction of emissions across their value chain. High integrity carbon credits in voluntary markets can be used but cannot be counted toward a non‑state actor=s interim emissions reductions required by its net zero pathway.
  • Non‑state actors must publicly share their comprehensive net zero transition plans detailing what they will do to meet all targets by aligning governance and incentivising structures, capital expenditures, research and development, skills and human resource development, and public advocacy, while also supporting a just transition.
  • City, region, finance and business net zero plans must not support new supply of fossil fuels: there is no room for new investment in fossil fuel supply and there is a need to decommission and cancel existing assets.
  • Non‑state actors must lobby for positive climate action and not against it.
  • By 2025, businesses, cities and regions with significant land‑use emissions must make sure that their operations and supply chains don’t contribute to deforestation, peatland loss and the destruction of remaining natural ecosystems.
  • Non‑state actors must report publicly every year, and in detail, on their progress, including greenhouse gas data, in a way that can be compared with the baseline they set. Reports should be independently verified and added to the UNFCCC Global Climate Action Portal.
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The report can be found here.

Colin Isaacs is a chemist with practical experience in administration, municipal council, the Ontario Legislature, a major environmental group, and, for the past three decades, as an adviser to business and government. He is one of the pioneers in promoting the concept of sustainable development for business in Canada and has written extensively on the topic in the popular press and for environment and business platforms.

Featured image credit: Mathias Reding/Unsplash


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