After greenwashing: A guide to effective environmental and offsetting targets

As pressure mounts on organisations to introduce environmental policies with tangible impact, and studies show many efforts are failing, we ask carbon accounting expert and Emitwise founder Mauro Cozzi how to tackle your footprint properly. 

Sustainability, carbon neutral, climate action. We all know the buzzwords and headline-grabbing targets like net zero by 2050. But the number of decision makers who still fail to consider what all this actually means is a cause for concern. 

According to global research by IT consultancy Accenture, 93% of businesses currently signed up to net zero targets will fail to meet their own goals if they don’t double the pace of action by 2030. The result of ill-conceived and poorly-executed ideas, unrealistic expectations and – worst of all – buying into schemes amounting to greenwashing. 

Don’t take our word for it, though. Back in January, Environment Journal reported on an in-depth analysis of the world’s leading carbon standard, Verra, by The Guardian, Die Zeit and Source Material. According to this assessment, 90% of all offsets sold through the platform failed to deliver any reduction in fossil fuel use. Instead, they simply allowed organisations to falsely sell themselves on green credentials. 

According to Mauro Cozzi, CEO and Founder of Emitwise, this scandal was expected. An expert in guiding organisations through the process of identifying, tracking, and reducing their carbon footprint, for him the Verra story is worrying but hardly revelatory. 

‘As an insider in this industry I wasn’t surprised at all. You could just tell with the behaviour and attitude of people leading these initiatives and buying into these efforts, the level of care often wasn’t there,’ Cozzi tells Environment Journal. ‘There are such extremes. On the one hand, you’ve got organisations like Pachama, the offsetting monitoring company, who use technology and also have people on the ground going into forests to take physical measurements…. Then you have other offsetting companies who you can tell couldn’t care less about the space. It was a money grab.’

‘We set up the company Emitwise in summer 2019, and then sustainability was not a super-hot topic. Then by September that year, I call it ‘The Greta Effect’, everything starts really boiling over,’ says Cozzi, explaining this continued through the height of Covid-19, leading to ‘an explosion of interest in becoming carbon neutral, which doesn’t really mean anything at all… Anybody can define [carbon neutral] how they want. And lots of companies were saying: ‘Hey, we’re offsetting our Scope 1 and Scope 2 output, our energy-related emissions, so we are carbon neutral’. But that’s really less than 2% of emissions for many firms. And as we now know, a lot offsets sold were really low quality, essentially fake,’ 

In many ways, this cycle matches that of new technology. An innovation hits the market and sees exponential growth, then a crash, before the sector levels out and the market stabilises. For Cozzi, this process was necessary in order for the remainder of this decade to see significant leaps forward in the effectiveness of carbon accounting, footprint reductions and offsetting measures. 

‘I can’t tell you how many heads of sustainability I’ve spoken to in the past few years who said their CEO wanted a net zero target introduced by X date, but had no idea what that actually meant or looked like. There’s been no thought process behind it. Instead, businesses are now taking a more reasonable approach, the right approach, which starts by understanding where they are, what is possible, and setting targets accordingly,’ Cozzi tells us. 

‘The best framework for this is using the Science Based Targets Initiative, or SBTI. This aligns any organisation with the Paris Agreement, which itself is about getting us as close as possible to a global temperature rise of 1.5C,’ he explains. ‘This approach is tried and tested by some of the biggest businesses in the world – IKEA, Nestle, Unilever, Toyota, Google. The beauty is that SBTI approaches include Scope 3: supply chain emissions. One of the best ways for an organisation to address these is by engaging suppliers and getting them to set their own targets in order to trade with you.’ 

silver and black necklace on yellow textile

Despite using proven approaches to setting climate targets, many of the companies Cozzi cites have faced staunch criticism for their environmental impact over the years. And that’s precisely the point. Without the largest polluters being onboard, reaching net zero will be impossible. Furthermore, the deep pockets of major corporatons can help push widespread change through faster. 

‘Right now, we are still mostly counting on these companies being pragmatic and understanding that ultimately climate is a risk to them. That’s why they need to invest in this, and it comes down to money… they’ve done studies to show that climate change will affect their supply chain, with a net cost effect over time. Consumers have also been shown to prefer sustainable products if they are at the same price point… But, very soon, I believe in the next five or 10 years, we will have some sort of carbon tax mechanism in place,’ says Cozzi. ‘At that point, inaction is not an option.

‘The real pressure and push [for change] now is coming from the biggest companies, and there’s some great work happening behind the scenes. A lot maybe isn’t being reported yet – again because organisations are worried about greenwashing and getting ahead of their comms,’ he continues. ‘But I can tell you some of the biggest names are spending a lot of money to sit down with suppliers and help finance their transition.’ 

According to Cozzi, ‘one of the biggest food and beverage companies in the world’ is now lending suppliers money to pay for clean energy installations, paying out hundreds of millions each year to bring them into the low carbon economy. A return on this investment won’t be seen for decades, but it will pay off in the long run. As our conversation comes to an end, we ask for basic recommendations for any organisation starting the process of setting targets to reduce emissions and clean up their environmental record. 

‘My recommendations are to go slow to go fast. Get the measurements and understand what your organisation can do. Then focus on the areas that are really material and you have a lot of control over, and are significant to your carbon footprint,’ says Cozzi. ‘Let’s say for public institutions, a local council or something, procurement is likely the biggest source of emissions. So a substantial step is to introduce a sustainable procurement policy saying you only buy from suppliers who are setting their own targets…. Also remember there are consultants that specialise in helping those with limited budgets. For a fee as small as £5,000 you can get assessed and be handed a really useful roadmap.’

Image: 1599 (Top) / Jim Rush (Middle) / Diana Polekhina (Bottom)


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