October, 2021

Here’s Why Greenwashing is A Lazy Word

James Lloyd, Nature4Climate Coalition Lead

Greenwashing has become a lazy word. Or, more accurately, greenwashing is a word that is increasingly being used in a lazy way, to reduce a complex and dynamic space into a simple talking point.

Let’s be clear: the underlying concern that companies can and do make claims that a product or service they provide, or the organisation itself, is climate-positive, environmentally friendly or sustainable, when it isn’t, is a real and serious concern.

It’s also clear that simply putting forward long-term climate and biodiversity targets isn’t enough to claim leadership. Analysis of the raft of new corporate net-zero targets has revealed that most lack details surrounding steps needed to reach net zero, including near-term milestones.

The issue with the word “greenwash” is that within the world of nature-based solutions (NbS), at least, it is far too often used as a way to chase soundbites. Reducing the narrative to the assertion that NbS are a means for corporates to race to the bottom undermines the effort that needs to be undertaken to work with leading companies to define what their support for nature-positive action should actually look like.

Here’s Why Greenwashing is A Lazy Word

There are two key principles that have broad support and alignment among the initiatives working in this space.

First, nature-based solutions must always be “as well as”, never “instead of”, deep emissions cuts. Second, nature-based solutions must always be of a high quality, ensuring that they are also good for biodiversity and people as well as climate.

In order to achieve global net-zero by mid-century, it’s clear that corporate emissions will need to be cut deeply. This means companies must prioritize cutting emissions from their internal operations and supply chains – including those from land-use and agriculture.

However, rapid supply chain decarbonisation alone may not be sufficient to maintain a 1.5C pathway. The Energy Transitions Commission estimated that even with ambitious emissions reduction pathways to net-zero, 200 gigatons of emissions will still have accumulated in the atmosphere by 2050. This means companies will have to go beyond cutting emissions in their supply chains to align with a 1.5 trajectory.

Leading companies are waking up to this fact. Support for nature-based solutions increases their climate impact by engaging in a cost-effective approach to carbon removal and emission reductions that can compensate for emissions that are not possible to eliminate right now and neutralise residual emissions in the future. Not only are they beginning to see the many benefits to their businesses of investing in nature-based solutions alongside science-based emissions reductions, they are also beginning to understand demonstrating true leadership means taking action that goes above and beyond setting a science-based emissions reduction target, towards additional action that is needed to achieve global climate and biodiversity targets.

There is an immense opportunity to work with leading companies to make this a race to the top when it comes to corporate support for nature-based solutions. However, unlike some other areas in the climate space, this is an extremely complex topic that defies simplification. And so, this brings us back to lazy usage of the word greenwash. The fact is that there is a growing group of leading global companies that are willing and eager to engage in a genuine and meaningful dialogue about the role their support for nature-based solutions can play in our collective effort to achieve global climate and biodiversity goals.

There is lots of complexity that must be sifted through to ensure social and environmental integrity, and companies can be forgiven for feeling a little lost at sea, particularly when they’re hearing conflicting things from the NGOs that they look to for guidance. Rather than sitting on the sidelines hurling greenwashing accusations at those companies that are earnestly trying to navigate the space and avoid pitfalls, I believe it’s incumbent on the NGO community to help them navigate it.

There are a growing number of initiatives providing guidance to companies on their climate targets. The challenge is that a lot of this guidance is still a bit murky when it comes to nature-based solutions. There have been some excellent contributions in the past couple months, including from the NCS Alliance, the VCMI and the Science-based Targets for Nature initiative, but it’s still clear to me that there is significant work to be done to firmly land the point within the mainstream climate circles that support for nature-based solutions, including but not limited to carbon markets, is a critical addition to science-based, fossil fuel reduction efforts.

Companies that are willing to engage on these terms should be welcomed to the table. Perfection should not be the price of entry. Are NGOs perfect? Far from it. A commitment to transparency, ambition and continuous learning and improvement should be instead. Now is the time to work together to help define corporate leadership in the nature space, and to work with the companies genuinely interested in moving in that direction.

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