Gap between pledges and action sparks criticism at COP27 climate summit

As nearly 200 countries negotiate at the COP27 climate talks on reducing emissions, there's a call for greater regulation and transparency around prior and future pledges. A United Nations report targets governments, corporations and banks for what's called "greenwashing," or making false or exaggerated claims of progress. Jamie Hannan of Fossil Free Media joined William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The talks at the COP 27 climate meetings in Egypt have been very difficult. There's even been growing tension about whether some countries will remain committed to prior pledges to try to limit the rise in average global temperatures.

    Now, as nearly 200 countries negotiate on reducing emissions, a new report is calling for greater regulation and transparency around prior and future pledges.

    William Brangham has more.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, this United Nations report targets governments, corporations and banks for what's called greenwashing, or making false or exaggerated claims of progress.

    It says any promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions needs to be backed with actual evidence, and it challenges the idea that groups can claim to be moving in the right direction, while simultaneously investing in new fossil fuel projects.

    For more on this push for greater clarity about what progress really means, I'm joined by Jamie Henn. He's director of the nonprofit Fossil Free Media and co-founder of 350.org, one of the biggest global climate change activist groups.

    Jamie, great to have you on the "NewsHour."

    So, the U.N. is decrying this issue of greenwashing. Meanwhile, in Egypt, we have all of these countries and companies pledging to do better, many of them simultaneously deploying ongoing coal plants. How serious a problem is this? And, from your perspective, who are the biggest culprits?

  • Jamie Henn, Founder, Fossil Free Media:

    Well, I think greenwashing is a serious problem, in part because greenwashing has become a new form of climate denial.

    Greenwashing as an idea is when companies or banks or institutions pretend that they are doing more for the climate than they actually are. And we see this around specific products like pretending a shampoo is free range, organic, climate-positive, when, really, it's the same old chemicals.

    But we also see it around entire industries, where the fossil fuel industry or the financial sector will pretend that they're taking bold action to address the climate crisis, when, in fact, they're just continuing business as usual. So I think it's really important to see the United Nations calling this out and taking this problem head on.

  • William Brangham:

    So, the E.U. financial regulators said they're also going to try to tackle this issue.

    What would a realistic sort of fact-check or enforcement mechanism to try to crack down on greenwashing actually look like?

  • Jamie Henn:

    Well, I think that we really need to focus on where greenwashing takes place, which is in advertising and public relations.

    Our Clean Creatives campaign has tracked billions of dollars of advertising from the fossil fuel industry and allied industries. And a huge majority of that advertising is about their supposed climate credentials.

    Take one company like Chevron. Over 80 percent of their advertising mentions words like sustainable, environment, clean, but only less than 2 percent of Chevron's actual capital expenditures are going into climate solutions. So that's not just greenwashing. That's really lying. And that's false advertising, something that we already regulate, and supposedly we already take a close look at.

    So, strengthening the ability for our regulatory agencies, like the FTC here in the United States, to really take a closer look at these statements and hold corporations accountable if they're not doing their part is one place to start.

  • William Brangham:

    Hold them accountable would be what? Regulatory actions, lawsuits, public naming and shaming campaigns? What would that look like?

  • Jamie Henn:

    I think all of the above.

    And, actually, that's already beginning to happen. There are a number of instances in Europe and here in the United States where companies have been forced to take down advertising that actually was lying about their product.

    That's happening to BP in the U.K., for instance, where they were saying that they could — they were selling a more environmentally friendly fuel, when, in fact, it was continuing to emit the same level of carbon emissions. Here in the United States. We have seen multiple state attorney generals go after fossil fuel companies for deceiving the public about their record on climate change.

    And we have had the House Oversight Committee actually looking into this issue of false advertising and climate deception.

  • William Brangham:

    This U.N. report laid out a bunch of recommendations of things that might happen going forward.

    And one of them was to say that any company that claims it's trying to achieve net zero cannot simultaneously be funding or supporting ongoing oil and gas projects, fossil fuel projects. But, on some level, isn't that the definition of net zero, that, if you are emitting carbon on one side, you're then finding ways to reduce it or sequester it on the other?

    Explain why that that's a problem.

  • Jamie Henn:

    Let's talk about the problem as a whole, which is that, since the Paris agreement, financial institutions around the world have poured hundreds of billions of dollars into new fossil fuel projects.

    The 60 largest financial institutions in the world have poured over $740 billion into new coal, oil and gas projects since Paris. Many of those institutions, including the leading U.S. banks, like J.P. Morgan, Bank of America, Citi, are supposedly committed to a net zero pathway.

    The problem is that they really take that net and stretch it for all it's worth. So they argue that they can continue to finance fossil fuels, because, someday, they will plant enough trees or buy enough carbon offsets to reduce those emissions down to zero.

    The science just doesn't back that up. There's a reason why the International Energy Agency has said that, in order to meet the net zero target, we have to stop all financing of fossil fuels last year, not some time in the distant future.

  • William Brangham:

    And what about this issue of deforestation pledges?

    We have certainly seen companies and countries say, we're going to stop deforestation, I mean, most — perhaps most critically and most recently in Brazil, with the new president, Lula, there saying he's going to stop deforestation of the Amazon. How seriously should we take those pledges when we see them being made publicly?

  • Jamie Henn:

    They certainly give a certain degree of hope.

    And it matters who it's coming from. Someone like Lula has a track record on the environment. It's a complicated one in Brazil, but I think we can hopefully assume that he wants to wants to move things in the right direction.

    But the important thing is really verifying these pledges on the ground. And deforestation is a complicated one. We know that the real solution is protecting true biodiversity and investing, often in the indigenous communities that live on those lands to be caretakers of those forests.

    What we tend to see instead is big corporate programs, where, often, they have already cut down trees, and they're replacing a vibrant, diverse ecosystem with something like a palm oil plantation, which technically is made up of trees, but is certainly not the forest that it replaced.

    And so I think a lot of these pledges, the devil is in the details. And as we get into the era of actual climate implementation, vs. bold, distant pledges, that verification is going to become all the more important.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Jamie Henn of Fossil Free Media, thank you so much for being here.

  • Jamie Henn:

    Thank you.

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