Seven questions to detect net zero greenwash

David Thorpe

In this era of a fast-closing window of opportunity to limit the worst excesses of future climate heating, net zero greenwashing by companies is blossoming. Here’s to spot and avoid it.

Let’s try and stick to the science. It’s all we’ve got. 

So the first question to ask is how much carbon dioxide-equivalent gases can we emit into the atmosphere and get away with it? The answer is, that depends.

The carbon clock is ticking

The MCC Carbon Clock shows how much carbon dioxide can be released into the atmosphere depending on whether you want to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5° Celcius or 2°C global average above pre-industrial levels, respectively. We are already at least 1.2°C above, so the former target is unlikely to be reached – we have just six years left to meet that.

When I last looked the remaining carbon budget was just over 1000 billion tons, or giga-tons (Gt) to limit the temperature to 2°C, which sounds a lot until you realise annual emissions of carbon dioxide – from burning fossil fuels, industrial processes and land-use change – are estimated to be 42.2 Gt per year, which gives us 23.8 years, or until 2045.  

That sounds a long way off, but will we be able to stand that much heating given how much chaos 1.2°C is already causing? Anyway, it’s not so far. We are halfway there if you start from the year 2000, not so long ago.


This calculation depends on whether there are no hidden tipping points. For example, we don’t know at what point the melting of the ice caps or tundra becomes irreversible and accelerates in a positive feedback loop.

If a tipping point does kick in soon then this seemingly linear relationship between emissions and danger becomes unpredictable. After all, we already know that the weather is chaotic in the scientific sense.

It depends on a number of other things as well, including if we carry on burning fossil fuels at the same rate. If we burn more we have less time, but if we burn less, we would have more time. Similarly if we destroy more forests or plant more trees, carbon sequestration will run at a different rate.

Promises, promises

The website Climate Action Tracker examines what countries have pledged to do compared to what they are actually doing and whether it matches what is required. 

It says the real-world action based on present policies would only limit global heating to 2.7°C, based on the above linear scale.

The best case optimistic scenario, based on total implementation of all announced targets, would keep global heating to 1.8°C. NB: this table is one year old. Credit: Climate Action Tracker.

Every day my inbox is bulging with emails from companies boasting about their net zero pledges, often made under pressure from consumers and legislation. This all sounds great until you look closer and find that many are too vague to be meaningful.

So here is your guide to detecting greenwash

Simply ask of all claims the following 7 questions:

  1. Is net zero clearly defined? They should have a balance sheet covering all positive and negative emissions.
  2. Are targets near in time? If targets are a long way off (like 2050)  the organisation is likely to think they can carry on as normal for now and kick the can down the road.
  3. Are they measuring progress? Only frequent and regular monitoring can provide the necessary feedback loop to limit emissions.
  4. Are they independently monitored? Marking your own homework does not inspire confidence. Is the assessor trustworthy?
  5. Is the activity of supply chains and customers included? Companies can outsource emissions or supply inefficient goods and services and so cause pollution up or down the line.
  6. Are all activities covered? Some areas may be monitored or greened (and trumpeted loudly) while the others can carry on as normal.
  7. Do they rely on carbon offsetting? Carbon offsetting is unreliable. It’s great to plant trees for many reasons, but they can burn down or die, at which point they emit all the carbon they have saved. To properly offset, new renewable energy investment must not have happened anyway.

If you are creating your own organisation’s net zero policy these are also essential questions.

Race to the top?

With the public increasingly concerned about climate change, organisations are facing a reputational risk by not taking action on climate change.

If they take the wrong action, and are found out to be greenwashing, this can backfire.

Some people therefore think, particularly in the field of investment, that this leads to a race to the top, which gives them a reason to be optimistic. 

What are the trends?

This question is about optimism or pessimism. 

The US government’s official position is somewhere in between: 

“Without dramatic action in the next couple of decades, we are unlikely to keep global warming in this century below 2.7° Fahrenheit (1.5° Celsius) compared to pre-industrial temperatures – a threshold that experts say offers a lower risk of serious negative impacts. But the more we overshoot that threshold, the more serious and widespread the negative impacts will be, which means that it is never “too late” to take action.

The European Commission’s latest view is that “climate change will increase crisis risk and could lead to extremely significant crisis impacts and related requirements for crisis prevention and humanitarian assistance”. 

It’s up to us

The latest report from the UK government’s Environment Committee carries this very important message: “32 per cent of emissions reductions up to 2035 require decisions by individuals and households to adopt low carbon technologies and choose low-carbon products and services, as well as reduce carbon-intensive consumption”. 

One final point

It’s about justice and fairness. 

The present plans for net zero of developed countries use up the entire remaining global carbon budget leaving nothing for all the other countries.

Let’s remind ourselves that developed countries got rich in the past by burning fossil fuels, and thereby causing climate change.

They now want to have their cake and eat it, preserving global inequalities.

This is why you can expect justice to be at the heart of the forthcoming COP27 talks.

  • David Thorpe is the author of ‘One Planet’ Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits and Director of the One Planet Centre Community Interest Company in the UK. More by David Thorpe