Vigorous greenwashing

Jay Owen Green Prosperity, Beyond GDP, Latest Headlines 0 Comments

As concern mounts that it’s already too late to rescue the planet from the worst of global warming, companies in almost every industry are rushing to assure consumers that they’re taking the climate crisis seriously. Some of these companies seem genuine. Others, not so much.

Amazon, a huge polluter, on Tuesday announced a $2 billion investment in “sustainable and decarbonizing technologies” in an effort to eliminate its carbon footprint. The goal, the massive shipping company said, is to move up its 2030 deadline for powering operations with renewable energy to 2025. Amazon has also pledged to eliminate or offset carbon emissions by 2040, and challenged other companies to do the same.

Then there’s Royal Dutch Shell Chief Executive Officer Ben van Beurden, who recently insisted he doesn’t run an oil company anymore, despite the fact that he, in fact, does.

The aviation industry, meanwhile, is trying to take funds from the European Union’s coronavirus recovery plan to help it speed up reduction of its substantial greenhouse gas emissions. Bailout packages on the continent have come with environmental strings attached (unlike in the U.S., where such things have been strictly forbidden by the Trump administration).

France, for instance, plans to ban commercial air travel on the country’s shortest domestic routes in a bid to prevent low-cost carriers from picking up links Air France is being forced to abandon. Austria has also placed constraints on short-haul air travel as part of a state-funding plan for the local unit of Deutsche Lufthansa.

There are some encouraging signs that such steps are trending in the right direction, while others could be classified as vigorous greenwashing

An employee of SunPower Corp. trims the edges and checks solar panels at the SunPower Corp. module manufacturing plant at Flextronics in Milpitas, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The cost of solar power in the U.S. is plummeting.

In the U.S., the cost of solar power is dropping faster than expected even as the coronavirus stifles demand. Residential-system prices will fall 17% over the next five years, according to a new report. That’s steeper than the 14% expected before the virus began to spread.

Carbon dioxide emissions in the EU are set to fall 10% this year, reaching a level not seen since the late 1950s. Of course, part of that decline is due to the pandemic, but 2019 saw a record decline as well.

The issue, said Faith Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, is how Europe avoids a rebound in emissions as the economy recovers. It won’t be easy, and mistakes will be made.

Norway, for instance, is warning that its plan for a full-scale carbon capture and storage project could end up a financial disaster. The likely cost of building and operating the project over 10 years—most of which would be funded by the government—could be as much as 25 billion kroner ($2.6 billion), according to an independent report published Thursday. That’s 8 billion-kroner more than previously estimated. (A new Australian project is trying to lower the cost of the technology by using microscopic fungi.)

We must still grapple with the mistakes of the past as well. Global warming giants Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries withheld critical information about the impact of fossil fuel use on climate change for decades, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said in announcing a lawsuit against the companies.

ST PAUL, MINNESOTA – JUNE 03: Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announces that charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter had been filed against former Minneapolis police officers Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao in the death of George Floyd on June 3, 2020 in St Paul, Minnesota. Ellison also announced that charges against former officer Derek Chauvin were upgraded to second-degree murder. On May 25, Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes while detaining him on suspicion of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. Floyd went unconscious and died at the scene. The other officers were part of the responding team. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison

The complaint, which also names the industry lobby American Petroleum Institute, alleges the three violated the state’s Consumer Fraud Act by issuing misleading statements about global warming, part of a 30-year “campaign of deception,” since they understood the threat in the 1950s.

“They didn’t just not tell the truth,” Ellison said Wednesday. “They actually misled you.” It is the latest in a widening effort to hold the fossil fuel industry liable for its leading role in destroying the Earth’s atmosphere.

Finally this week, the Trump administration proposed a rule change that may make it harder for ESG funds to attract interest from retirement plans. The new rule would require those overseeing such plans to put economic interests ahead of “non-pecuniary” goals such as ESG investing.

ESG investments keep getting more profitable, thus making them justifiable both on financial and planet-friendly levels. But opponents of the Labor Department effort fear the new red tape created by the rule may be what dissuades fiduciaries from incorporating ESG funds.

“This is not just unnecessary rulemaking, but it’s damaging to the interests of long-term investors,” said Lisa Woll, CEO of the US SIF Foundation, an industry group for sustainable and responsible investing.

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