Authenticity in going net zero

POINT OF VIEW - Frances L. Ariola - The Philippine Star

Now more than ever, governments and businesses around the world are being taken to task for climate action, given the stark reality of the ongoing adverse impact of climate change. The globally recognized milestone for this concerted effort is the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference or COP28, where most recently, the goal for limiting global temperature rise was definitively set at 1.5 degrees.

At COP28, the Net Zero Transition Charter was also set into motion. It seeks to mobilize as many commitments and pledges as possible to net zero emissions by 2050 or transition plans toward it, especially within the private sector. This has led to “net zero” becoming the strongest buzzword in the corporate sphere in recent years.

In the Philippines, many companies and enterprises have adopted a net zero stance in their sustainability efforts. However, it pays to pause and take stock of the situation to ensure that we are headed in the right direction. What does it exactly mean to be net zero?

“Carbon neutral” is the previously used parlance for describing how an entity successfully offsets the carbon it emits in its operations. For many years, many enterprises relied on concepts such as carbon credits to achieve this – purchasing the efforts expended by other entities elsewhere to absorb atmospheric carbon, primarily through reforestation or tree planting.

In time, this proved problematic as the results of these activities are difficult to verify, or the emission reduction effects may be overestimated. For instance, an investigative report by UK publication The Guardian in 2023 revealed that more than 90 percent of supposed carbon offsets by the world’s biggest certifier may be untrue. Called “phantom credits,” these claims cannot be relied upon to represent genuine carbon reduction.

Most importantly, this is where the danger of “greenwashing” comes in. Companies and organizations that subscribe to strategies such as carbon offsetting may give the false impression that they have made significant reductions in their emissions, when in fact they have not made any real effort to reduce their environmental impact. This leads us all down a dangerous path of destruction through a false sense of security.

In a way, the net zero movement is a response against such greenwashing. The term net zero pertains to a balance in which any emissions produced are correspondingly eliminated from the atmosphere. More than just offsetting, net zero poses the challenge of reduced emissions from the get-go and includes not just carbon but all types of harmful greenhouse gases.

Net zero is a term that is also not to be taken lightly or bandied about, as the COP28 charter clearly outlines stringent rules and procedures toward achieving this status. More than just a label or a catchphrase, net zero is an institutionalized program that requires pledgers’ accountability for developing a practical plan of action, as well as reporting progress quantifiably and transparently.

According to the Net Zero Stocktake 2023 report by Net Zero Tracker – the definitive compendium of net zero targets by countries, regions and cities as well as corporations – at least 1,475 already have a net zero target, up from 769 in December 2020 and from 1,180 in 2022. This progress truly bodes well for the global movement toward net zero by 2050.

As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stated, “We urgently need every business, investor, city, state and region to walk the talk on their net zero promises. We cannot afford slow movers, fake movers or any form of greenwashing.”

So how can we ensure authenticity in going net zero? The UN High Level Expert Group on Net Zero Commitments has come up with a list of 10 recommendations to ensure the integrity of net zero goals, but they can be summarized in four points:

First is setting science-based goals and employing verified reporting. Our actions need to be aligned with climate science and global standards. The Science Based Targets Initiative is one of the most reputable and widely used frameworks in net zero tracking and reporting. Other options include the Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials, the Paris Agreement Capital Transition Assessment, Transition Pathway Initiative and the International Organization for Standardization, among others.

Second is attaining credibility through partnerships. This is critical especially in terms of working with verification bodies, to bolster accountability and gain stakeholder trust in terms of attaining genuine climate impact. Third is investing in innovative and sustainable technologies toward emissions reduction. Partnerships and collaboration are also vital in order to build capacity where needed and to implement real change in company operations.

Last is ensuring transparency and stakeholder engagement. Organizations must build trust and welcome others along their net zero journey by being transparent not only about progress and achievements but also regarding challenges and obstacles. Only by being truthful can the problems of climate change be addressed effectively; otherwise, we are fooling nobody but ourselves.

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Frances L. Ariola is lead convenor of the Net Zero Carbon Alliance.

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