Too Many Carbon Offset Claims Are ‘Greenwashing’ Us into a Hotter World

Originally published by Joseph Romm and Auden Schendler for The Messenger on September 17, 2023

Apple recently released a five-minute ad in which a fictional Mother Nature grills executives on the company’s environmental performance. The ad made Apple look self-critical and diligent.

But, to us, it represents monumental greenwashing. Worse, the company’s dubious carbon-neutral claims may even set the company up for a potential lawsuit. And Apple is not alone: Rival Microsoft — and many other companies — are playing similar games.

Apple used the ad to announce “its first carbon neutral products” — Apple watches. Fictional Mother Nature herself approved!

Yet, a new report finds that legal cases against corporations for questionable claims quadrupled this year. Among many others, DeltaKLM and the makers of Evian have already been sued.

The Swiss commission regulating ads ruled in June that FIFA misled fans by calling the Qatar World Cup “carbon-neutral” and told it to stop. Then, Nestle abandoned offsets along with its pledges to make products like Perrier and KitKat carbon neutral. This month, Bloomberg reported that Shell “ended the world’s biggest corporate plan to develop carbon offsets.”

Many of the lawsuits revolve around the dubious nature of carbon offsets, in which a company claims reductions of carbon dioxide emissions from an activity in one place to make up for emissions elsewhere. A company that wants to keep polluting might, instead of reducing its own emissions, pay a developing country to reduce emissions. If the buyer purchases enough offsets to cover all its emissions, then it calls itself “net zero” or its products “carbon neutral,” as Apple is doing.

But research on offsets shows “the large majority are not real or are over-credited or both,” as Barbara Haya, director of The Berkeley Carbon Trading Project, said earlier this year.

One of many recent media exposés reported that “more than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets by [the] biggest certifier are worthless.” Most of these deforestation avoidance offsets — used by big companies like Shell, Disney and Gucci — are, according to the report, “phantom credits” and may even “worsen global heating.”

And so the prices of the most popular “nature-based” offsets — planting trees or paying people not to cut down trees — have plummeted 80% in just the past 18 months.

As for Apple, it has decided it can call its watches carbon neutral if it has achieved “at least a 75 percent reduction in product emissions for each model” and then cover the remaining emissions with “high-quality carbon credits.”

But the courts have made it clear that companies don’t get to decide this, fictional Mother Nature notwithstanding. The leader in setting and verifying credible voluntary targets for thousands of companies is the Science Based Targets Initiative. They require a company seeking to make a net-zero claim to cut its own emissions 90% to 95% — which is hard to do — before it can offset the rest with “high quality carbon removals.” The UN’s High‐Level Expert Group on the Net Zero Emissions Commitments of Non‐State Entities embraced this approach in November.

In its Wednesday press release, Apple wrote that it “has so far reduced total emissions by over 45 percent since 2015.”

Saying that your entire company is far from carbon neutral while claiming a tiny number of your products are carbon neutral is like claiming your pinky is cancer-free when the rest of your body is not.

Apple’s new climate ad sounds like it could have been written by the fossil fuel industry; it fails to mention a single action that might disrupt the fossil fuel economy, such as corporate activism or lobbying. Instead, it focuses on tweaks to its own operations, which can never solve a global problem like climate change.

Double Claiming Offsets

In our view, Microsoft’s greenwashing is very different but equally problematic, as it has been claiming offset credits already claimed by their rightful owner.

The story reads like a crime novel. In May, the Danish government announced it was paying the bioenergy company Orsted to capture 450,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year from two biomass plants and bury it under the Norwegian Sea. Denmark is claiming all those tons and will put them in its national greenhouse gas registry to help meet its official emissions reduction pledge for the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Seems straightforward, right? These were Denmark’s emissions to claim. But Orsted also announced it was selling over half of those very same tons to Microsoft, which is using them offset some of its emissions. It’s like selling a piece of cake to Magnus, and then later to Sally. Sally’s probably going to go hungry.

Remarkably, such an absurd deal is not (yet) banned under the Paris climate agreement. And the voluntary market is entirely unregulated, which means that offsets don’t undergo any verification. It’s the Wild West.

Nothing here is technically illegal. The only crime is against a livable climate. Indeed, studies warn that allowing this type of deal could create “a race to the bottom in which the voluntary carbon market undermines the objectives of the Paris Agreement.”

Microsoft’s claim shows the voluntary market is a make-believe exchange that doesn’t sell anything other than PR. Ironically, offsets are turning into the bad kind of PR — the kind that lands you in legal trouble.

No wonder Mother Nature is assaulting humankind with every form of extreme weather imaginable to get us to take real action.

Joseph Romm, Ph.D., is senior research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media. He is the author of the new report, “Are carbon offsets unscalable, unjust, and unfixable — and a threat to the Paris Climate Agreement?

Auden Schendler is the author of “Getting Green Done” and a sustainable business practitioner with 25 years of experience.