The head of the United Nations announced the appointment Thursday of an expert panel led by Canada’s former environment minister to scrutinise whether companies’ efforts to curb climate change are credible or mere “greenwashing”.
Recent years have seen an explosion of pledges by businesses — including oil companies — to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to “net zero” amid consumer expectations that corporations bear part of the burden of cutting pollution. But environmental campaigners say many such plans are at best unclear, at worst designed to make companies look good when they are actually fuelling global warming.
“Governments have the lion’s share of responsibility to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, adding that this was particularly true for the Group of 20 major emerging and industrialised economies that account for 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
“But we also urgently need every business, investor, city, state and region to walk the talk on their net-zero promises,” he said.
The 16-member panel will make recommendations before the end of the year on the standards and definitions for setting net-zero targets, how to measure and verify progress, and ways to translate that into international and national regulations.
In addition to examining net-zero pledges by the private sector, it will also scrutinise commitments made by local and regional governments that don’t report directly to the UN. However, it will not “name and shame” individual companies, UN climate envoy Selwin Hart said.
The panel includes prominent Australian climate scientist Bill Hare, South Africa-based sustainable finance expert Malango Mughogho and the former long-time governor of the People’s Bank of China, Zhou Xiaochuan.
It will be chaired by Catherine McKenna, who was Canada’s minister of environment and climate change from 2015 to 2019.
McKenna urged businesses not to view net-zero pledges as a “get out of jail free card”, and said she backed the idea of including all emissions in the new standards, including those resulting from the use of a company’s product.
One outside expert called the creation of the new panel “well overdue”, noting that targets such as “net zero” are interpreted in different ways by companies and officials.
Harry Fearnehough, a policy analyst at the NewClimate Institute, said the think-tank had recently reviewed several major companies and found “a number of critical issues with net-zero pledges, many of which are misleading consumers, regulators and shareholders”.
Gilles Dufrasne of the non-profit organisation Carbon Market Watch also welcomed the UN new expert group, but urged it to issue clear and meaningful recommendations.
“Just like the targets it will aim to regulate, this group needs to go from words to actions, and deliver strict criteria that put an end to greenwashing,” he said.
A report last month by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that more than three billion people worldwide are already at risk from global warming.
The panel will publish another report next week which is expected to confirm that the world is not on track to meet the goal of capping temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, which was laid down in the 2015 Paris climate accord.
“If we don’t see significant and sustained emissions reductions this decade, the window of opportunity to keep 1.5 alive will be closed – forever,” said Guterres. “And that will be disaster for everyone.”