From November 6th to November 18th the world’s leaders met in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, aka COP27. This conference is held every year with the purpose of reviewing climate progress and negotiating new agreements to facilitate further climate action. In the leadup, COP27 — the most prominent climate event in the world — was accused of greenwashing.
Greenwashing describes situations where corporations or others in power deceive citizens in order to portray inaccurate levels of climate progress in order to improve public image and gain a competitive advantage. Some of the most common forms of greenwashing include exaggerating the environmental benefits of a product or service, making false claims about a company’s commitment to sustainability, or using vague or undefined terms like “green” or “eco-friendly” without clarification or verification. In misinforming the public as they attempt to make environmentally sound decisions, greenwashing is a serious environmental problem.
So why was COP27 accused of such a tactic? And why did Greta Thunberg, a name we align with activism, skip the conference due to this allegation?
To start, a major sponsor is Coca-Cola, a company that may be linked with happiness, but is also one of the world’s top polluters through its large use of plastic. Coca-Cola produces an estimated 120 billion throwaway plastic bottles a year. Through the sponsorship, many believe that the conference is giving a platform to Coca-Cola while simultaneously allowing their public image to be improved.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only factor stimulating these accusations. For Greta Thunberg and others, it was the limited space for civil society — the non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community groups, and grassroots movements that play an important role in raising awareness about the issue of climate change and promoting sustainable practices. They often advocate for government policies to address climate change, participate in international negotiations, and support community-based projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. By leaving these groups out, the opposers to COP27 get the idea that the conference is just used as an opportunity for people of power and leaders to get attention through greenwashing tactics.
Furthermore, the reported human rights abuses currently happening in Egypt are also driving the talks around greenwashing. For example, Cairo has imposed authoritative funding, research, and registration obstacles that have debilitated local environmental groups. On top of this the African state as a whole currently holds 60,000 political prisoners. Due to such actions activists are claiming the state is using this to bolster its public image, and the UN should be looking at other areas to hold the conference.
Despite these accusations, COP27 continued as planned. It even resulted in the historic establishment of a loss and damage fund to address the unavoidable damages of climate change felt in developing countries.
Moreover, COP27 actually addressed greenwashing somewhat through an enhanced commitment to transparency. For nations and governments this goes beyond just making goals for addressing climate change and emissions, but means they are committing to produce timely and standardized reports that are accessible to the public and thus can be held accountable for making progress towards promises. This will not only help with identifying individual progress, but also allow for global emissions reduction targets to be assessed and adjusted as the years go by. In sharing best practices and outlining the steps states take to reduce their emissions and combat climate issues, goals will also have a greater probability of being achieved.
This new transparency commitment won’t just affect the state. A lot of discussion at COP27 went towards the idea that non-state actors must be a large contributor to progress. Leaders also called for more standardized reporting in this area to avoid greenwashing. Instead of businesses using multiple different reporting measures mixed with metrics and a lack of transparency, we should now expect the implementation of regulations that organizations will have to follow to ensure the avoidance of appearing net-zero through misrepresentation.
Aside from allowing for better monitoring of global climate progress, increased transparency will also aid individuals. By being able to properly understand and evaluate a company, people will be able to better align their investments and purchases with corporations who also value climate action. This transparency allows markets to operate more appropriately, with consumers making more informed decisions.
Was it fair to accuse COP27 of greenwashing? Though there may have been some isolated instances at the conference, it appears the outcomes of COP27 will lead the world down the path of a more informed, climate friendly future.