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Antonio Guterres

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres speaks during the COP27 climate conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt on November 8, 2022. (Photo: Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images)

Climate Defenders Urge 'Zero Tolerance for Net-Zero Greenwashing' as UN Publishes New Report

"The criteria and benchmarks for these net-zero commitments have varying levels of rigor and loopholes wide enough to drive a diesel truck through," warned U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.

Brett Wilkins

Nongovernmental actors who continue to invest in fossil fuels, deforestation, and other activities that exacerbate the climate emergency cannot claim to be net-zero, a report published Tuesday during the United Nations' COP27 climate conference asserted.

"Using bogus 'net-zero' pledges to cover up massive fossil fuel expansion is reprehensible. It is rank deception."

The report—entitled Integrity Matters: Net-Zero Commitments by Businesses, Financial Institutions, Cities, and Regions—was published by the U.N.'s High Level Expert Group (HLEG) and was timed to coincide with the global climate summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

HLEG was tasked by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres earlier this year with developing "stronger and clearer standards for net-zero emissions pledges by nonstate entities—including businesses, investors, cities, and regions—and speed up their implementation."

"A growing number of governments and nonstate actors are pledging to be carbon-free—and obviously that's good news," Guterres said while introducing the report. "The problem is that the criteria and benchmarks for these net-zero commitments have varying levels of rigor and loopholes wide enough to drive a diesel truck through."

"We must have zero tolerance for net-zero greenwashing," he continued. "Today's expert group report is a how-to guide to ensure credible, accountable net-zero pledges. Let's tell it like it is. Using bogus 'net-zero' pledges to cover up massive fossil fuel expansion is reprehensible. It is rank deception. This toxic cover-up could push our world over the climate cliff. The sham must end. "

"We urgently need every business, investor, city, state, and region to walk the talk on their net-zero promises," Guterres added. "We cannot afford slow movers, fake movers, or any form of greenwashing."

However, some experts expressed skepticism, reiterating the claim that net-zero is a form of greenwashing.

"This analysis only scratches the surface of how deeply conflicted these 'net-zero' initiatives are," Sara Shaw, climate justice and energy international program coordinator for Friends of the Earth International, said in a statement. "It paints a picture of how this isn't just about polluters trying to build 'green credibility,' but of how they position themselves to shape and obstruct policy progress."

Hana Heineken, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, said in a statement that "we applaud HLEG's efforts to clamp down on the pervasive greenwashing by fossil fuel companies, financiers, and other corporate actors, who are using the rhetoric of net-zero to mask their business-as-usual climate destructive activities."

"HLEG has rightly called for net-zero pledges and targets to include an immediate end to fossil fuel expansion, no deforestation, and a rapid fossil fuel phaseout aligned to a 1.5°C no or limited overshoot pathway," she continued, referring to the Paris climate agreement's more ambitious warming goal. "The call for similar restrictions on financing and investment is commendable."

"Avoiding overshoot requires deep emissions cuts now," Heineken added, "and leaves no room for reliance on speculative carbon removal technologies or offsets, which only delay needed climate action."

While praising the expert group's "clear-eyed assessment of untrustworthy commitments by financial institutions and businesses to reduce their emissions to net-zero by 2050," Anne Perrault, climate finance policy council at the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said in a statement that "credible net-zero pledges must cover all greenhouse gas emissions and all scopes of emissions, have interim targets every five years starting in 2025, and have transparent, measurable action plans."

"A task force to define a legally binding framework for nonstate actors' net-zero plans is also critically important," she added.

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