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“Net zero is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” says UN’s greenwashing watchdog

The Former Canadian environment minister Catherine McKenna is taking on the forces behind disinformation and polarisation.

By India Bourke

“Has anyone told our climate Barbie!” was how the Canadian Conservative MP Gerry Ritz tried to undermine Catherine McKenna, then the country’s environment minister. The jibe, tweeted in 2017, took aim at the Paris Agreement, which Mckenna had helped to negotiate, after a report was published showing that major industrialised nations were failing to meet their emissions reduction targets.

Such misogynistic language is all too familiar for female politicians and, after much outcry, Ritz deleted the post and apologised. But the intended damage to the wider climate cause was done, the international agreement’s aims belittled.

McKenna is still fuming. “I was absolutely furious that a colleague in the House of Commons would do that,” she says over the phone from her book-lined home office in Ottawa. “It was intended to discredit me personally, but also to make light of the science behind climate change.”

Such efforts to undermine climate action — by attacking individuals and institutions, or greenwashing environmentally-dubious practices — contribute to public cynicism about climate change. They foster what McKenna identifies as “the rise of disinformation and polarisation”, and play into the idea that pledges from politicians and businesses to address the crisis are meaningless.

Making sure promises to meet net-zero emissions by 2050 actually mean what they say is of utmost importance to McKenna, 50. In her role as head of the UN’s new greenwashing watchdog, she will be at the heart of efforts to make cities, regions and businesses accountable for their words.

Within twelve months, the group (catchily named the High-Level Expert Group on the Net-Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities), is tasked with publishing recommendations on how such commitments should be rigorously defined, judged and regulated. Its sixteen leading figures from climate science, campaigning, business and politics — including Bill Hare, an Australian scientist, Oumar Tatam Ly, former prime minister of Mali, and Amanda Starbuck, the British director of the NGO Sunrise Project — will focus on identifying instances where organisations and companies plan to over-rely on carbon offsets or carbon removal technology, such as tree-planting or other largely speculative processes, instead of bringing down emissions at source.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” McKenna says. “The more there’s a requirement for transparency, with short, medium and longterm goals, then companies, financial institutions and subnational actors can be held to account.”

“We need to build confidence that when you go to buy your net-zero bacon, it’s actually a thing,” she adds, referencing an example I raised of a 2021 meat industry advert in the New York Times promising bacon with net-zero emissions. 

Could anti-greenwashing regulation be undermined by national governments’ own policies? The UK has announced new oil and gas projects in the North Sea, the EU included natural gas in its sustainable taxonomy, and Canada has approved a deep sea oil project. Given that global emissions need to be in decline by 2030 to meet climate targets, is this not greenwashing too?

“Obviously you want as much ambition as possible from governments,” McKenna says, “but the Paris Agreement is also supported by corporates, financial institutions and cities.” She saw the important role of these bodies, she says, in the US during the Trump administration, which did nothing to further climate action at a federal level.

“[Net-zero promises are] not a get-out-of-jail-free card. You don’t just say ‘we’re net zero by 2050’ and can then go on doing business-as-usual.” Rather than delaying emissions reductions and expanding reliance on carbon removal schemes (which she believes should “be saved for hard-to-decarbonise sectors, like cement and aluminium”), the world needs “immediate action” from everyone, she argues.

To illustrate her point, she references an article from Australia’s satire news site, the Shovel, which sends up net-zero pledges through the analogy of a 73yearold man with a target to stop drinking alcohol by 2050, when he will be 101. “Obviously he’s not really stopping; he’ll be dead.”

McKenna’s ability to quickly find an amusing, relatable anecdote feels integral to the success of her whirlwind political career. In 2015, just days after being elected as an MP, she was appointed Canada’s first minister of environment and climate change in Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government and whisked away to Cop21 to help negotiate what would become the Paris Agreement.

She links her down-to-earth attitude to her upbringing in the working-class town of Hamilton, Ontario, home to Canada’s largest steel company. “It’s not fancy and I’m not fancy,” she has said. Yet behind her plainspoken style (she says “folks” no less than 16 times during our 30-minute conversation) is a serious intent. “You have to be careful when you’re in government that you don’t feed into elitism or technocratism,” she explains. If voters lose confidence in a government’s climate and energy strategy, they can vote them out of office, and “you can lose everything you’ve done”.

Policies must similarly feel accessible and non-punitive. “I’m not saying I was perfect, or Canada is perfect, but when we brought in a price on pollution, we gave all the money back to people,” she says in reference to a carbon tax scheme in which 100 per cent of the revenues collected federally go back to families and states. The people that spread disinformation, or lie, are very happy to take advantage of governments or policies that are seen as elite, so you do need to bring along people as much as you can.”

Urging greater accountability and credibility on netzero promises is also part of a bigger political picture, McKenna notes. Climate scepticism is linked to broader anti-democratic trends and agendas, with Russia one of the “chief perpetrators” in spreading disinformation of all sorts. “Two of the biggest threats the world faces are to democracy and to climate, and they’re related,” McKenna says. “You’re not going to get credible, serious climate action if you don’t have democracy.”

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