Greenwashing, Carbon Capture and Climate Change

What is our responsibility?

By Sally Campbell

So what is the Carbon Cycle? The secret to life on Earth ! This has been more or less in steady state in our world over the last 12,000 years since the last ice age, until we started to burn coal, a fossil fuel. Along came the industrial revolution, itself driven by coal which was used to generate steam and which in turn could power machines. Oil and gas, again fossil fuels, were exploited later from the 19th century to propel more industrial growth, cars, planes, power stations, heating our houses and drive what we now know as the consumer economy. Burning fossil fuels generates carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas so-called because it has capacity to trap heat in the atmosphere, a vital natural process for life as we know it. However the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is the highest it has been for at least 100,000 years, largely due to human activity burning our fixed carbon store. So far this has resulted on average in a 1.2C rise across the globe as trapped heat accumulates. Does this matter -yes, if we are to avoid a collapse in our way of life over the next few hundred years, accompanied by a catastrophic destruction of living species important for life support as we know it. By burning fossil fuels we are simply overloading the natural mechanisms that regulate our atmosphere

This is of course all tied in with the environmental and climate change emergency. We know the world community needs to stabilise global temperature if we are to avoid ever increasing disruption to human life globally. To stabilise it at any level – whether +1.5 ̊C, 2 ̊C, 3 ̊C or 5 ̊C – carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions must reach net zero at some point, because of CO2’s long-term, cumulative effect in global warming. Climate scientists tell us there are points of no return, tipping points, such as the closedown of ocean current movements and our total UK dependence on the Gulf Stream. We cannot row back. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), limiting warming to +2 ̊C requires net- zero CO2 to be reached by about 2050.

Much of the language of Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), Carbon Offsetting and Carbon Credits is unfamiliar so first some explanations:
First net zero, what does this mean ? In essence it means either totally eliminating those emissions or finding means elsewhere to increase the uptake of a proportion of those emissions to compensate. This is fundamental in understanding what flexibility exists in tackling the enhanced global warming issue. Next carbon offsetting – this is an accounting mechanism that recognises there are less expensive, less technically challenging, and perhaps more efficient ways of capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere elsewhere rather than trying to eliminate your own emission contributions, that is if you are prepared to invest in projects anywhere in the World that have the capability of absorbing or utilising atmospheric carbon dioxide in equal amount to offset your own emissions. Often, offset projects are associated with enhanced uptake of carbon in plant growth. Unfortunately these offset projects do not at present collectively add to our worldwide efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions due to the ever increasing world population and ever expanding urban growth consuming our existing carbon sink capacity. Carbon credits are a means applied by economists and investors as market tools to direct monetary resources to where the greatest benefit in terms of elimination of carbon dioxide emissions for the level of costs involved can be achieved. It enables those economic entities to trade quantities of carbon dioxide, essentially permits to pollute, that have a market value. The money flows to those most cost effective investments first getting the ‘biggest bang for the buck’ while industries and commercial activities where difficult challenges lie essentially subsidise others by paying for the privilege to continue polluting. As regulators continue to tighten emission control standards so these credits exchange hands at ever greater cost eventually driving action at even the toughest sites such as the worldwide steel industry which accounts for some 12% of total industrial emissions. This industry is not only extremely energy intensive but is also dependent on carbon as a chemical reducing agent in smelting iron oxide ores. Finally, carbon dioxide removal (CDR) refers to those measures designed simply to remove carbon dioxide from existing processes without really solving the problem at source, in other words more of the same keeping on using fossil or carbon based fuels such as wood pellets and stripping the gaseous carbon dioxide from the waste process gases then burying it somewhere out of harm’s way. It is possible, extremely costly, technically challenging and effective measures remain unproven at any practical scale. As a concept however it is attractive in forward planning (good for inclusion in company annual reporting) but huge doubts remain over its practicality

Many carbon offset schemes increase rather than reduce atmospheric CO2 and are a minefield. However, since the IPCC’s 2018 special report on 1.5 ̊C, numerous companies have committed to reducing their emissions to net zero. Over 300 companies have signed the “Business Ambition for 1.5 ̊C pledge”, and initiatives involving over 1,000 companies are part of the UN Race to Zero campaign.

But, companies’ net-zero plans to date vary widely in terms of scale, purpose and mechanism:

Some companies even in hard-to-abate sectors – such as cement, steel and marine freight – plan to cut emissions directly, by innovating where necessary. Conversely, others plan to use CDR to offset even easy-to-abate emissions, such as in power generation.

Many companies plan to simply purchase credits on carbon markets, which have been beset with integrity problems and dubious accounting, even where certified. Once again certification is being found to be flawed, and even corrupt, giving the impression that everything is fine!

So, how does all this work in reality?
If a project can quantifiably and consistently produce less greenhouse gases than the current alternative, it will be eligible to earn carbon credits. For example, replacing a coal fired power plant with a planned life of 30 years with a solar farm after year 5 would avoid 25 years of coal emissions. These carbon credits can then be traded, the price being determined by the financial market, the money being earned through sale contributing to the replacement plant and equipment. As emission limits are tightened by regulators so there is an increasing financial incentive for even the most difficult technical challenges to be tackled by those industry laggards rather than simply buying ‘get out of jail permits. Carbon credits are awarded not only to companies and industries reducing their carbon footprint but also to projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for instance by preserving forests or restoring natural landscapes such as peatlands that store carbon, and for introducing “clean technology” such as renewable energy generation in developing countries. Offset schemes currently in vogue vary widely in terms of the cost, though a fairly typical fee, too low to drive major change needed, would be around £8/$12 for each tonne of CO2 offset. At this price, a typical British family would pay around £45 to neutralise a year’s worth of gas and electricity use, while a return flight from London to San Francisco would clock in at around £20 per ticket.

Over the past decade, carbon offsetting has become increasingly popular, but it has also become – for a mixture reasons – increasingly controversial. The credits are sold to companies, which count them towards their efforts to reach net zero emissions and trade them to pay for their own initiatives. Some credits come from certified international carbon trading schemes run by governments, but others are from the so-called voluntary market, which is largely unregulated. The voluntary market has been the subject of repeated scandals in which credits were awarded to projects that did not reduce carbon dioxide, or credits were not properly traceable, were mis-sold or were double counted, and cases where forests supposed to be protected were later logged.

Proponents of carbon markets say they form a vital source of funding for projects such as keeping forests standing or restoring degraded landscapes. Without funding from the carbon markets, it would be much harder for developing countries to resist pressure from loggers and agribusiness to exploit their remaining forests, peatlands, cerrado grasslands and other land for profit. Detractors say the markets are used as a cover by companies that wish to give the appearance of working towards net zero.

This week, Mark Carney, the UN climate envoy and former governor of the Bank of England, presented plans at this year’s virtual Davos World Economic Forum of global business and political leaders for vast increases in the number of carbon credits or offsets sold, aiming to expand the market from about $300m at present to between $50bn and $100bn a year. He “categorically rejected” criticism that offsets were greenwash. Companies buying offsets in the market would be subject to scrutiny, and must have clear plans to reach net zero, “not something written on the back of a napkin”, he said, but would need offsets to fulfil their plans: “This is bringing those companies into a formal system,” he said. “This is about maximising the use of a very limited [global] carbon budget. This is complementary [to companies taking action to reduce their own emissions] and is one piece of the puzzle. We do need this market.” He sounded convincing !

However John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace UK, and Craig Bennett, the chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, wrote to Carney this week to raise concerns that the taskforce’s recommendations would not close loopholes in the carbon market. “There is a danger that it becomes a large international greenwashing exercise, creating a market with low standards but high PR value,” they wrote. Sauven told the Guardian newspaper: “This initiative risks setting a terrible example ahead of the critical carbon market negotiations at the global climate summit in Glasgow later this year. [It] seems to have ignored past failures of offsetting schemes to guarantee emission cuts. At the same time, it assumes that the natural world has unlimited potential to absorb climate-wrecking emissions. It fails to acknowledge that the most important thing companies must do is to reduce their own emissions and use of fossil fuels. For as long as these critical issues remain unaddressed, Carney’s scheme will serve as a giant get-out-of-jail-free card for polluting companies. It will undermine tighter controls in international agreements while doing little to actually tackle the climate emergency.” The jury is out on all this !

So what is Greenwashing? It is the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company, an industry, a government, a politician or even a non-government organisation to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy, or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy. The 10th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines greenwash as “disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.” As long ago as 2008 Greenpeace started to “confront deceptive greenwashing campaigns, engage companies in debate, and give consumers, activists, and lawmakers the information and tools they need to … hold corporations accountable for the impacts their core business decisions and investments are having on our planet”. In January 2021 Greenpeace’s latest Briefing is Net Expectations: Assessing the role of carbon dioxide removal in companies’ climate plans.

This all reminds me of a discussion on ISO 9001 way back in 2002. This international Quality Standard specifies requirements for a quality management system. Organisations use the standard to demonstrate their ability to consistently provide products and services that meet customer and regulatory requirements. A banker said that an organisation could obtain an ISO 9001 in “concrete lifejackets” if they “ticked the right boxes”! I always remember that conversation when reading about quality standards on sustainability and conservation. “Meeting the standard” tick boxes are often suspect as we can see with MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) and the latest ASC (Aquaculture Stewardship Council) certifications. They are defined so closely that wider ecosystem damage, cumulative impacts on seabed, ecosystems or local small fisheries are hardly considered, if at all. Independent auditing is a profitable business in its own right !

What is being promised? The Reality

To put these in perspective, two examples:

1. Members of the Sustainable Aviation coalition, which includes most major airlines, including British Airways owner IAG and airports, as well as aerospace manufacturers, will sign a commitment to reach net zero by mid-century. More than a third of the proposed net reduction will be achieved through offsetting. A “decarbonisation road map” will be published outlining how aviation can cut its carbon footprint – replacing a previous road map that only committed the industry to halving emissions over the next three decades. About 25.8 million tonnes of CO2, out of 71.1 million tonnes set to be created annually by the UK sector, will need to be addressed through what Sustainable Aviation calls “market-based measures”, or offsetting. easyJet is already offsetting all jet fuel on all its flights.

2. Shell has proposed planting 50 Mha of forest to offset its own emissions; doing so could thus effectively claim one tenth of the sustainably available total for just one company, but is there enough suitable land if food production takes prime position in land use?

In no modelled pathway to net zero can the Paris Goals be achieved without genuine rapid emissions reductions. The remainder of emissions reductions (the vast majority) must be achieved through driving energy efficiency, by changing fuels, possibly to hydrogen, by end-of-pipe capture or by reducing activity levels. As new technological options become available, residual fossil fuel and industrial process emissions can be reduced further. What we individually need to remember is that we use these companies’ products and services: we drive cars, using carbon intensive fuels, fly to long distance holiday destinations, use plastics made from oil, in our homes from washing up bowls to plastic containers and bags, and wear clothes made in part from oil products often produced far away and come here by ships burning fuel oil; in addition we eat products flown in from far away that demand extensive chemical fertilizer input. There are plenty of examples in our own lives where our own behaviour and expectations need to change.
John Sauven in referring to offsetting, “This whole strategy is a flight of fancy. Finding ways to fix carbon elsewhere is simply an excuse to carry on with business as usual whilst shifting the responsibility to cut emissions on to someone else, somewhere else, and some other time. It’s Greenwash pure and simple and ministers should be wary of lending it any credibility.”

The idea is that Greenwashing is one of a number of practices used by oil companies, airlines and others to evade questions about their actual environmental impact: “look at all the nice trees we are planting and not at the report saying we’re destroying the planet.” Corporations cause the vast majority of the problems and the consumer is unable to mitigate a company like Shell’s carbon footprint through any action or choice available to them. Putting the responsibility on the consumer to drive less or recycle more is another tactic used by companies to avoid having to discuss the fact they (and more broadly consumer capitalism, as a system that demands constant growth) are the problem. Carbon trading and offsetting is anticipated to be a key subject of discussions at COP26, to be held in Glasgow in 2021, because decisions on how to incorporate these measures under the Paris agreement were put off from the last UN climate meeting, COP25, in Madrid in 2019. What is also really required is political will. Make your voice heard!

Today, in the press, I learn the Conservative government is intent on joining another trading bloc, the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). “More generally, people will rightly ask why we have been through five years of debate in Britain over leaving a trade bloc with our closest neighbours only to rush into joining another one on the other side of the world without any meaningful public consultation at all.” Just think of the extra CO2 which will be released by ships, planes etc to-ing and fro-ing to the Pacific. It is utterly ridiculous on the cusp of COP26!

When engaging with our government, local authorities, investors and companies on their climate plans, voters and other stakeholders might find these questions a helpful starting point.
• How much of the target is to be achieved by offsetting rather than direct emissions reduction?
• On what basis are any remaining emissions to be judged unavoidable?
• What technological innovations are being pursued in order to reduce these “unavoidable amounts”?
• Whether any offsetting relied on or invested in is included in countries’ or other companies’ climate targets (to ensure it is not double- counted)?
• Where offsetting is taking place, by what mechanisms, and with what governance to ensure its carbon integrity and to prevent negative social and environmental impacts?

References: (2021) Net Expectations. Assessing the role of carbon dioxide removal in companies’ climate plans. (2021) Carbon markets: A conversation with Bill Gates, Mark Carney, Annette Nazareth and Bill Waters. Introduces and discusses the findings of the recent Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets at World Economic Forum, Davos.

Sally Campbell
January 2021