COP26's 'greenwashers' are polluting the climate narrative
Saudi Arabia's pretence at green credentials was exposed as a hollow sham just two days before its new all singing-all dancing environmental strategy was unveiled.
As the desert kingdom prepared to impress US climate envoy John Kerry with the launch of its Middle East Green Initiative, documents were leaked to the BBC which revealed its true colours were anything but.
They showed how the world's biggest oil exporter had been working behind the scenes to try and get UN scientists to delete from the conclusion of a major report the pressing need to decarbonise the energy sector and phase out fossil fuels.
As British prime minister Boris Johnson prepared to tell the opening of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow that the planet was "one minute to midnight on the doomsday clock", it emerged that Saudi officials had been busy pushing for any sense of urgency to be scrubbed from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change document.
"Far from doing everything in its power to stop that minute hand ticking closer to midnight, Riyadh announced they will actually be increasing oil production from 12 million to 13 million barrels a day by 2027"
Then, barely 48 hours later, Riyadh's green summit was turned into some kind of eco re-working of the famous Christian prayer: "Please God, make me good - but not just yet" .
Talking about the need to save the planet the Saudi leadership came out with its own version which boiled down to: 'We'd love to help – but before we do we've got a lot of money to earn making the problem much, much worse'.
Far from doing everything in its power to stop that minute hand ticking closer to midnight, Riyadh announced they will actually be increasing oil production from 12 million to 13 million barrels a day by 2027, and would not reach net zero emissions until 2060 – ten years after the rest of us.
With spectacular chutzpah, the announcement was accompanied by grandiose displays of green credentials through huge reforestation projects and carbon capture using technology that has not really been tested yet.
Not only that but, according to Bloomberg Green, it emerged Saudi Arabia's carbon footprint could be double what it admits to because emissions from its refineries and petrochemical plants are not included in its self-reporting.
Saudi energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman boasted that his country would not "lose its global standing". As what? The world’s largest producer of oil that is so destructive to the planet? That's clearly true.
But what he also meant was that Saudi Arabia would not lose its position as the world's leading energy provider – when in reality it would need the millions from churning out oil to finance a move into the megabucks emerging industries which will pave the way to a world with cleaner air.
So when all is said and done, and the world has turned net zero, Riyadh's global standing will have been maintained by its new position as the leading producer of green energy – achieved by the oil it sells for the next 40 years.
Now, I am not so wide-eyed as to not realise that we are not there yet and the world still needs oil but let us be honest about it: It is a grotesque spectacle when the world's biggest exporter of oil tries to claim credit by using the billions of dollars it makes harming the planet to build the world's largest green hydrogen plant that runs on solar and wind energy in its new city, Neom.
There's a term for it – greenwashing.
Just as the Saudis have for years been "sportswashing", namely using the glamour and excitement of sport to cleanse it of its toxic human rights reputation, so too with its bid for the moral high ground by pretending to go green.
Bahrain's leader, Crown Prince and Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, was held up for ridicule after going to Glasgow to highlight his country's commitment to achieve net zero by 2060, tackle climate change, protect the environment, and so on.
"This is greenwashing!" Greta Thunberg and Jennifer Morgan interrupt and challenge Shell, BP and the big banks' #COP26 carbon offsetting panel.— Greenpeace (@Greenpeace) November 3, 2021
Carbon offsetting is a way for polluters to avoid real emissions cuts, avoid real climate action! pic.twitter.com/X1jIffuDz0
He got a bucket load from a group of British MPs who sent a letter pointing out that his country's support for the war in Yemen has caused "irreparable damage" to the environment.
"Boasting about your green credentials while backing a coalition that bombs agriculture and water resources is textbook greenwashing," said Baroness Bennett.
Like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates too is trying to ride two horses. On the one hand, producing three million barrels of oil a day and with enough reserves to keep going another 60 years, while on the other promising net zero emissions by 2050.
The head of Abu Dhabi's national oil company, Sultan Al Jaber, even doubled as his country's special climate envoy in Glasgow.
For those just tuning in, here's the link to the webinar, happening right now: https://t.co/OPXYxleRTU— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) November 3, 2021
So, amid all the fanfare of COP26 in Glasgow, watch out for all that greenwashing whereby governments are keen to burnish their green credentials while hiding the fact that they’re as big pollutants as ever, hand-in-hand with finance institutions and big corporations, too.
One clear example is the American bank, BNY Mellon, which was revealed by the Financial Times to have been in talks to sign up to a net zero initiative, while its subsidiary was preparing to invest in a huge new coal mine in Australia.
The bank had been looking to join the Net Zero Banking Alliance (NZBA), an initiative by the former Bank of England boss Mark Carney with US$130 trillion of private capital at its disposal to be directed at meaningful decarbonisation.
Many banks have even been altering the wording of climate commitments to make them less restrictive and provide wriggle room for financing the fossil fuel industries, while others are just breaking their own rules.
"The challenge is to not be taken in by the greenwashers - and we must all push them to put progress before profits"
According to the same report by the Financial Times, Barclays acted as lead underwriter for US-based Monongahela Power whose generation fleet is 86 per cent coal-fired – despite a pledge by the bank to "not provide any financing to clients that generate more than 50 per cent of revenue from thermal coal activities".
As we watch the headlong rush by these countries, and many politicians in the West, to embrace a green future, remember one thing: It is not being done out of any sudden conversion to the perils of man-made climate change, but because there is money to be made.
There is public support for decarbonisation because people can see how global warming is producing extreme weather systems that destroy communities, whether it be through floods or wildfires. The penny is finally dropping.
The challenge is to not be taken in by the greenwashers - and we must all push them to put progress before profits.
Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.
Follow him on Twitter: @anthonyjharwood
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