Greenwashing: How the economy is going climate neutral

Measuring and offsetting CO2 emissions is becoming increasingly popular in business. How easy is it for companies to become climate neutral?

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If companies are serious about sustainability beyond the offsetting, they need to question their supply chains. Einhorn, for example, now has rubber tree forests planted in Malaysia for its rubber instead of the usual monocultures.

(Bild: Einhorn)

  • Jan Vollmer

(Hier finden Sie die deutsche Version des Beitrags)

At first glance, the electric Porsche "Taycan Cross Turismo" doesn't look particularly climate-friendly: It is 1.96 meters wide and 4.97 meters long - making it six centimeters wider and seven centimeters longer than a current VW Transporter. It weighs 2.3 tons empty - about as much as a male white rhinoceros.

A Taycan Cross Turismo is supposed to be many things: A sports car with 476 hp. A family car with a 446-liter trunk and five doors. An off-road vehicle with all-wheel drive. An electric car. Porsche advertises that the "Cross Turismo" is "CO2-neutral" in terms of its balance sheet. It will be available for purchase in March 2021. The year in which more than 50 degrees Celsius are measured on the American West Coast; in which the forests of the Amazon-formerly known as "the green lungs of the planet"-emit more CO2 than they absorb for the first time; in which more than 170 people die in floods in western Germany. It is "the new Porsche" in the summer in which the climate catastrophe arrives in the German public eye.

It feeds consumers' hopes that both are possible: accelerating from 0 to 100 in 5.1 seconds and not having to have a guilty conscience in times of forest fires and flood disasters. But it also feeds the industry's hope: that you can actually carry on as before, only with the label "climate-neutral". We can also fly "climate neutral" with Easyjet from Berlin to Fuerteventura. Aldi-Süd sells "climate neutral" milk. "Hofer" in Austria sells "climate neutral" beef. You can even grill it on "climate-neutral" charcoal.

Behind all this climate neutrality is a concept that is becoming increasingly popular with companies: carbon offsetting. As with all other products, CO2 is generated during the production or consumption of a product in a rich country such as Germany, England or the USA. Companies like Porsche, Easyjet, Aldi-Süd or Hofer then pay a certain sum to environmental projects in poorer countries that are supposed to save CO2. One ton of CO2 is emitted here, money is transferred, and one ton is saved elsewhere.

Offsetting has been sharply criticized for 15 years. The arguments of opponents such as environmental activist and Guardian columnist Georg Monbiot are that, firstly, CO2 is still produced even if a product bears the label climate neutral. Secondly, rich countries in Europe, the USA, Canada and China produce far more CO2 than can be saved in the Global South. And thirdly, it is only clear for a few offset projects how much CO2 they actually save. In 2006, Monbiot coined the image of climate blow-off trading. "In selling us a clear conscience, offsetting companies are undermining the political fight needed to address climate change at home," Monbiot said.

The criticism is currently supported by the research of the weekly newspaper ZEIT and the British daily newspaper Guardian. Editors have been following the issue of CO2 certificates, focusing in particular on corporations that claim to be "climate neutral". These include Disney, Netflix, Shell, Boeing, Bayer, SAP and many other companies that have purchased certificates from forest protection projects that do not lead to any CO2 savings. In discussions between the two media companies and several players involved in the trading of the certificates, problems become apparent. At issue is the role and standards of the world's leading certifier in the market, Verra. The evaluation suggests that over 90 percent of the certificates from the projects investigated do not save any CO2. This amounts to 89 million tons of CO2.