Youth involvement was the big theme today at the conference, with ministers and delegates praising young people for their growing role in the battle against catastrophic climate change. Outside, thousands were rallying in central Glasgow, accusing countries and companies of ’greenwashing’.
It’s not an unreasonable accusation. Take the multilateral agreement on phasing out coal by mid-century announced yesterday (with China, India and the USA notably missing). Poland, which has clashed many times with the European Union over its large coal operations, surprised everyone by signing the pact. Just a few hours later however, climate and environment minister Anna Moskwa said that Poland is ‘not planning on phasing out coal until 2049’. The agreement prescribes that rich countries must end coal usage in the 2030s, and developing ones in the 2040s. Poland, which at the same time is applying for a seat in the G20, wants to be ranked among the second group. It is a blatant example of greenwashing.
The same could be said about Brazil which, under the Jair Bolsonaro presidency, has witnessed a huge increase in deforestation in the Amazon region. Here in Glasgow, Brazil signed the international pact on halting deforestation entirely, raising activists’ and observers’ eyebrows. The promise, at least until the 2022 presidential elections, is highly doubtful. But here lies the problem: how many other countries are faking sincerity? And how many others will change course for political or economic reasons?
The same dilemma applies to corporations and their often bombastic pledges. NGO Carbon Market Watch unveiled a report on the topic titled 'Net-zero pipe dreams: Why fossil fuels cannot be carbon neutral'. It analysed 18 recent carbon neutrality claims from oil and gas majors such as Shell, BP, Total, Gazprom, Eni, Petronas and PetroChina, saying they all amount to ‘brazen greenwashing.’ ‘These firms expect the outside world to unquestioningly accept that their continued production and burning of fossil fuels is climate-compatible as long as they stick a carbon-neutral fig leaf over it.'
The reasoning behind the study is complicated. But in short, all of these net-zero aspirations rest largely on buying carbon credits to ‘compensate’ for unabated emissions.
Which leads on to another problem. The carbon market, encapsulated within the infamous Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, is one of the hottest issues at COP26’s negotiating table, but details are fuzzy to say the least. Many polluters typically seek out the least expensive credit, not necessarily the highest quality one on the voluntary market. While the price of carbon is around €60 on the EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS), a delegate from an African nation that sells credits, told me that ‘a majority of carbon credits are purchased at $5 per credit’. That means that polluting is still cheaper than cleaning up emissions.
Now let’s think of a country that is both nation and corporation: Saudi Arabia and its Saudi Aramco, whose net income jumped to $30.4 billion last quarter, up from $11.8 billion a year earlier, thanks to rising oil prices. The company is now worth $2 trillion. The Saudi kingdom has reiterated its pledge to be carbon neutral by 2060 – a promise so questionable it is beyond greenwashing.
A much bigger wave of protests is expected tomorrow and COP president Alok Sharma was keen to point out that the best is still to come. He said that negotiations will enter their crucial stage next week, during the so-called ‘high-level segment’ of the conference, when energy and environment ministers from around the world will land in Scotland. ‘Rubber is going to hit the road,’ he said repeatedly – i.e. the grand theories will be put to the test. For Greta and the other youth activists, that test has already failed.