Greenwashing is whitewashing

John D Anderson considers the easy claims of companies making only token efforts towards climate change.

Greenwashing is becoming a staple of the public relations industry. It means claiming that a firm or activity is not exacerbating global heating; the evidence of this is often dubious and opaque. Many people have an ardent desire that something should be done about climate change, especially if it’s done by someone else.  We are predisposed to believe greenwashing. 

The aviation industry is desperate to attract flyers back to the skies.  Frequent claims are made about ‘sustainable aviation fuels’ and ‘fly carbon neutral’. I was in the Royal Air Force.  I loved flying. And yet the reality is that there are no sustainable aviation fuels for large jet aircraft. Electricity can only be used for the very smallest and lightest planes. Hydrogen is only viable for heavy land-based vehicles. Biofuels are unsustainable.  We need the earth to grow food, not fuel; to produce enough biofuel to fly our planes would mean starvation for some. Mono-cultural palm oil plantations decimate biodiversity. Subsidising fuels is always in the long term a cul-de-sac; the present subsidies for biofuels are facilitating the use of an ultimately climate-destructive fuel.

Airports wish to expand. Leeds-Bradford airport is attempting to update its terminal buildings and claims, correctly, that they will be climate-friendly. But the aim of the reconstruction is to vastly increase the number of flights; this is plainly not climate-friendly. The airline industry has been very successful in mutating the word ‘holiday’ to mean ‘holiday overseas’.  Our generation in the rich countries is so desperate to ‘fly to the sun’ that ‘guilt- free flying’ is a powerful slogan. Greenwashing claims often include a partial or palatable ‘truth’ so that they may be more credible.  

‘Carbon neutral growth’ is touted with the encouraging message that we can become more comfortable without emitting more carbon.  In a finite world, endless growth is ultimately disastrous. We can develop our means of producing energy; we can change how we produce and eat food. But if we do not make corresponding reductions in activity elsewhere so that we reach a steady state economy, biodiversity will decline and carbon emissions increase. Unless we reach a plateau in our global human population size, especially for the richer humans, we will, as the Russians say, “dig our grave with our teeth”. 

‘Net zero’ is now greenwashing its way into common parlance; it usually refers to carbon emissions, often by planes, being offset by growing trees. Tree planting, together with vital subsequent tree-care, is an admirable activity. But there will never be enough trees in the world to offset our carbon emissions. There are extensive schemes for buying credits to protect threatened forests. But it is very difficult to quantify how much forest is not destroyed; some ecologists and forest experts have withdrawn from participation in such carbon offset schemes because there is no evidence from satellite pictures of less deforestation as a result.  Moreover there is no central regulatory body to verify carbon offset calculations.  Controlled forest protection schemes need to be for a century, not a decade, to have any real effect. Our aim must be to reduce carbon emissions to as close to zero as possible, without the obfuscatory distraction of the weasel word ‘net.’ 

BP rebranded itself as ‘beyond petroleum’. Their beautiful green and yellow logo shows greenwashing at its most seductive. In fact the vast majority of BP’s activity is still fossil fuel based. The campaign to divest from investments in fossil fuels has found them a ready target. If they had gone ‘beyond petroleum’ when they proclaimed that they would do so, they would have had fewer stranded assets, emitted less CO2  and had a  more secure future.

So let us “save the planet”?   No: sadly this evocative slogan is misconceived. Our earth will continue to exist: it is we who will not all survive, together with much of the biodiversity that is being reduced at an alarming rate.  At the heart of this slogan is the basic problem: we identify the planet with ourselves. That way lies hubris. Greenwashing is whitewashing our sins and errors. We are but one tiny spark of life in the great flooding light of existence.  Until we accept humbly our interdependence with all creation and our need to cooperate, not compete with, exploit and destroy,  the miraculous life around us, we are greenwashing our failures.

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