Climate crisis spawns high tide of greenwashing

Paris (AFP) –


From big tech to Big Oil, global corporations in all sectors are churning out climate action plans to reduce carbon footprints and adapt to tomorrow's low-carbon economy.

At Davos' annual conclave of the rich and powerful, "it is all that anyone is talking about," Alain Roumilhac, CEO of ManPowerGroup France, told AFP Wednesday.

But many of these seemingly ambitious pledges are more greenwashing than green, experts caution.

Indeed, the tsunami of eco-initiatives sparked by a rising tide of climate anxiety range, for the most part, from doubtful to deceptive, they say.

One planet-saving idea with serious traction among titans of industry -- including major fossil fuel companies such as Shell, BP and ENI -- is planting trees, which absorb and store CO2 as they grow.

"We are facing a planetary climate crisis and trees are one of the most effective ways to sequester carbon," Marc Benioff, founder and chairman of cloud computing powerhouse Salesforce, said in the Swiss resort.

Even notorious climate sceptic Donald Trump, also in Davos, backed a "trillion trees" reforestation scheme hailed by global media as a silver-bullet solution when unveiled last year by Swiss researchers.

The plan calls for covering nearly a billion hectares -- an area larger than the continental United States -- with foliage.

Big business in general has jumped on the tree-planting bandwagon, with many signing up to "offset" schemes that allow them to continue pumping CO2 into the atmosphere.

But the Swiss study, published in Science, came in for a severe drubbing from peers, with four top experts -- writing in the same journal -- dismissing it as "incorrect scientifically and dangerously misleading".

"Heroic reforestation can help, but it is time stop suggesting there is a 'nature-based solution' to ongoing fossil fuel use," Myles Allen, head of the Climate Dynamics Group at the University of Oxford, told AFP at the time.

"There isn't."

- Flawed science -

The study's long list of flaws, according to Allen and dozens of other scientists, includes overestimating the CO2-absorbing capacity of the trees, overlooking the possibility that their dark canopy will absorb the Sun's radiation, and the fact that much of the land earmarked will be needed to feed 10 billion people in 2050.

The authors of the study defended their findings, but described it as a thought experiment more than an action plan.

"Sometimes these climate policies are decent, but often -- and especially when it comes to the financial sector -- they are incremental or voluntary moves," said Greenpeace executive director Jennifer Morgan, who is participating in several Davos events this week.

"Greenwashing is misinformation, a blurring of reality, and given the urgency of the climate emergency we have no time left for spin or hypocrisy.”

Microsoft, meanwhile, announced a plan last week that would not only allow the software giant to become "carbon neutral" within a decade, but also to erase its entire carbon footprint since its creation in 1975.

But here again, the claim depends on blanketing large swathes of the planet with dense foliage, as well as technologies that do not yet exist on a meaningful scale, such as machines that suck CO2 directly out of the air.

Without these compensating measures, Microsoft's CO2 emissions -- which it estimates at 59 million tonnes per year -- would be reduced by just over half in 2030.

Perhaps even more problematic are highly lucrative deals that Microsoft has supplying major oil and gas companies with state-of-the-art tools to boost extraction rates and supply forecasts.

Last year, for example, ExxonMobil said it would use the software giant's cloud technology to analyse oil reserves in its Permian Basin project in the US southwest.

"You simply cannot claim to support ambitious climate action one moment and then continue to cosy up to industries that are at the core of this crisis," said Sriram Madhusoodanan, deputy campaigns director at Corporate Accountability, a watchdog group.

- Say one thing, do another -

That same type of cognitive dissidence crops us across all sectors of the economy.

The industry-led Alliance to End Plastic Waste, for example, is investing one billion dollars on recycling, but at the same time its members are spending many times that amount to open up new plastics production.

Pledges like Microsoft's are often accompanied by lobbying efforts to ward off government regulations, resulting in an unenforceable web of voluntary corporate commitments, according to some experts.

"A totally voluntary and unregulated corporate responsibility approach facilitates the diffusion of greenwashing," researchers led by Lucia Gatti from the Universita della Svizzera Italiana concluded in a peer-reviewed study last year.

Governments have started to crack down on greenwashing.

Last week, Italy's Competition and Marketing Authority fined Italian oil and gas giant ENI a maximum five million euros for deceiving consumers over its "green diesel" claims in advertising.

On Monday, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that the oil and gas sector worldwide spent less than one percent of capital investments in 2018 outside their core business areas, such as on renewables.

In December, the European Union tightened the rules for which financial investments can be labelled "environmentally sustainable".

"The EU's green standard means that people can no longer be sold fake green investments," said William Todts, executive director of watchdog group Transport & Energy.

- *Climate disclaimer -

Last week PepsiCo said that its US operations would be run on entirely renewable energy by the end of 2020. The announcement featured what might be a new species of greenwashing.

"PepsiCo is pursuing 100 percent renewable electricity in the US because the severe threat that climate change poses to the world demands faster and bolder action from all of us," the company said in a statement.

But in a lawyerly rider at the end of the press release, a small-print "Cautionary Statement" appeared to undercut the commitment.

Noting that the press release contained "forward looking statements" of an aspirational nature, the rider listed all the problems -- from loss of business to changes in regulations -- that could affect the company's bottom line.

"Investors are cautioned not to place undue reliance on any such forward-looking statements, which speak only as of the date they are made," it concluded.

PepsiCo said it could elaborate on the announcement, but refused to comment on the "Cautionary Statement."