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Fighting climate change must be more than an advertising gimmick

To make any tangible change to our climate approach, companies must commit to real action, and move on from simply labelling products 'sustainable', writes Joshua Jahani.

Fighting climate change must be more than an advertising gimmick. By tapping into the modern consumer's noble desire to save the planet, companies make spurious claims about the 'sustainability' of their products. Some of these claims may be baked in half-truths, yet they still facilitate more sales, which in turn, leads to more consumption, and ultimately, more waste.

We're at a fork in the road as to how we fight climate change. Either we allow old businesses to simply put on a shiny new green mask, and carry on with business-as-usual.

Alternatively, we pile investment and energy into new technologies, like carbon capture and storage, that could realistically remove historic carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It's time to focus our energy on making a real difference, not just a cosmetic one.

The 21st century gave rise to the eco-friendly consumer; the world's biggest brands have taken note. Coca-Cola, for instance, has been banging the 'recyclable' drum when advertising its iconic beverage. Regardless of the claims, they only use 20 per cent recycled content in their packaging globally.

The fashion industry is a notable culprit; one analysis found that 60 per cent of sustainability claims made by fashion giants are greenwashed. Even if a t-shirt is fully recycled, it still needs to be packaged, transported, sold, and probably thrown away again. The more consumption there is, no matter how ethical the material, the more damage will be done to the environment.

The most notable example is carbon-crediting. EasyJet, a company whose business model obviously relies on carbon emissions, claims it will be able to deliver 'net-zero carbon flights', and Delta claims it will be the 'first carbon-neutral airline globally'.

Both these claims rest on the promise of carbon credits. Yet upon a deeper inspection, it's clear that these are another tool in the green-washer's arsenal. A 2017 study of offsets, commissioned by the European Commission, found that 85 per cent of offset projects under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism had failed to reduce emissions at all.

It's too late for fashionable, marketable solutions. We need to focus on solutions that work. There's an inconvenient truth behind climate change; it's not today's emissions that are driving up the world's thermometer. Instead, it is the CO2 that has been emitted every year since the dawn of the industrial revolution.

Even if we could turn a magic switch and turn off all emissions today, the nature of the greenhouse effect is that temperatures would continue to rise. Capturing, storing, and re-using historic CO2 is the only realistic chance of rolling back the seemingly inevitable march of global heating.

In fact, the Royal Society predicts that even if we managed to stop all emissions today, it would take many thousands of years for atmospheric CO2 to return to the levels recorded pre-industrial revolution.

Historic emissions don't just disappear. They make up 137ppm of the total emitted CO2, compared to the 3ppm of CO2 emitted annually. That means that just two per cent of total carbon emissions are caused by our actions today. In the first half of 2021, global investment into renewable energy projects reached a record high of £126.3 billion. This essentially means that we've spent this money trying to deal with the two per cent, not the 98 per cent.

The vast majority of remaining carbon emissions is being left relatively unaddressed. Our ship has a leak, and we're only focussing on plugging the hole, whilst ignoring the water that has accumulated on the bottom deck.

We need to focus on carbon storage and capture. This is the robust, realistic opportunity to actually make a dent in the carbon in our atmosphere. So-called 'direct-air capture' is the leading edge that could become the largest environmental industry aimed at saving the planet – and investors are piling in.

Currently, Climeworks, a Swiss company ahead of the curve on this, are able to remove about 900 tonnes of CO2 a year. But globally we're emitting 40 billion a year. Yet the costs of these technologies are plummeting, and the need for them is growing by the day.

This technology, coupled with capturing and storing carbon dioxide directly from power plants and industrial facilities can be a game-changer. However, it is being met with resistance from some 626 environmental groups, including Greenpeace.

In a letter to politicians in the US, they opposed strategies to store or remove carbon dioxide, as they believe it "promotes corporate schemes that place profits over community burdens and benefits."

There is a segment of the green movement that believes that climate change can only be solved through suffering and dramatic, crippling lifestyle changes. Many believe that humans deserve to suffer for their past sins; any other route out is blasphemous.

Spurious greenwashed advertising only hoodwink well-meaning consumers and ultimately allows old business models to continue ravaging the planet. We need to turn our attention to those solutions that will actually stop the world's thermometer from pushing upwards. Addressing historic emissions through carbon capture and removal is our best bet at doing that.

Joshua Jahani is a lecturer at Cornell and New York University, and a Board Advisor at the investment bank Jahani and Associates, specialising in the Middle East and Africa.
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