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Greenwashing is the threat to climate action, says Al Gore

July 14, 2021, 2:03 PM UTC

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Hello from London.

Last week, I spoke to Al Gore (yes, that Al Gore) about the state of action on climate change—and the tsunami-like rise of ESG investing. Mostly, I was pleasantly surprised by his optimism. He seemed genuinely energized by the momentum we’re seeing this year, including in finance and politics (he had, as you might expect, supportive words for the Biden administration).

The tone seemed to be: hey, better late than never. (You can read that full interview here.)

But there was a nagging footnote to all this hopefulness: where momentum has grown on transitioning the economy, so too have “green” claims that are vague, unhelpful, ludicrous, and outright malicious.

“We have to be very diligent and vigilant because of the threat of greenwashing is rising,” he said. “And if if we were to fail and let greenwash get out of hand, then that would bring a risk of derailing the progress.”

But what is greenwashing?

It seems basic enough to nail down. Answering the question of what is a dubious marketing or lobbying exercise, rather than real movement, is often as clear as looking at whether a company is actually spending any money, or enforcing existing goals, regardless of the mind-numbing length of their sustainability reports.

And in response, Gore quickly offered a clear example.

“If you wanted a primer, you could do no better than to watch the videos of Exxon Mobil’s chief lobbyist describing the deception and the intentional effort to mislead the world into thinking that Exxon Mobil was committed and was making progress when actually it was just engaged in falsehoods and deception,” he said. “That’s greenwashing.”

But there are other, more green-grey areas, too: what if a “net zero by 2050” goal is made in good faith, but the people who made it won’t be around to see it happen? What if a company’s whole green strategy seems to be based around carbon offsets? (Here, Gore stated that the lack of “guardrails” is a concern.) What if a strategy relies on carbon capture and storage and hydrogen—qualifying that such technology is currently not economical?

So I asked him a highly controversial question that comes up all the time, and that people tend to answer very differently: is any net-zero goal by an oil and gas company inherently a case of greenwashing?

It’s all in the details, he qualified. Some, like Shell, seem to be genuine, he said. Others, not so much.

“I hear people in the industry saying, well, we’ve tripled the amount of capital we’re putting into low carbon, zero carbon alternatives. Well, when you hear that they’ve tripled their commitment, that sounds quite impressive—until you look at the overall percentage of what they’re doing. You can triple a tiny amount, and it’s still a tiny amount,” Gore added.

But he also pointed towards an even bigger question when it comes to the oil and gas giants of the world: are even good intentions enough? And to illustrate, he brought up the “burden of implausibility”—as illustrated by a dancing hippo: Hyacinth, from Disney’s Fantasia.

“That’s kind of the problem with some of the large multinational oil companies transforming themselves into renewable energy powerhouses,” Gore said.

“I hope they can do it,” he added. “But Hyacinth the hippopotamus had a great difficulty dancing ballet.”

Write in and tell me what you think.

In other news, Fortune has two exciting new projects. This week, we launched a list of the best U.S.-based MBA programs, along with a whole drop of articles on everything from salaries to admissions advice, which you can see here. We’re also accepting nominations for our Top 40 Under 40 list, MBA not required. You can submit your picks here.

More news below,

Katherine Dunn
– katherine.dunn@fortune.com
@katherine_dunn

CARBON COPY

Greening Europe

A new set of proposals in Europe out today calls for the bloc's member states—all 27 of them—to reduce their emissions by 55% by 2030, compared with levels in 1990. The plans have sprawling implications for the continent's aviation industry (it will require cleaner or synthetic fuels), auto industry (it's going EV), and shipping (no docking without using cleaner fuels). But there is already plenty of resistance—the EU has faced internal blocks in the past from coal-dependent countries, and Fortune's Christiaan Hetzner and David Meyer also tracked the resistance from manufacturers

Sugar and Smoke 

This sprawling, visually-gripping investigation from ProPublica and The Palm Beach Post tracks how the practice of burning sugar cane fields—a harvesting tool—blankets neighboring communities in the Glade region of Florida with secondhand smoke, affecting air quality and sending kids to hospital with respiratory infections. The industry also provides many of the local jobs. ProPublica

Jane Goodall

The infamous primatologist, now 87, talks conservation and activism, and makes a powerful case for hope in this interview with the New York Times magazine. "If you don’t have hope, why bother?" she says. "Why should I bother to think about my ecological footprint if I don’t think that what I do is going to make a difference? Why not eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die?" NYT Magazine

Cosmic quarantine

If the spread of invasive species—and, for that matter, viruses—are an issue on Earth, imagine the impact they could have off of it. This fascinating long read explores Nasa's efforts at "planetary protection", or attempts to avoid accidentally letting micro-organisms loose in environments that aren't equipped to handle them—and what they've discovered in the mean time. The Guardian 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Carbon credit explainer: how the business of buying and selling emissions really works by Geoff Colvin 

Plant-based menus are taking over at top fast food chains by Alyssa Newcomb

Europe's manufacturers fear landmark carbon import tax may do more harm than good by Christiaan Hetzner and David Meyer

CLOSING NUMBER

1 billion 

The number of sea creatures that were killed by recent heat waves, according to Christopher Harley, a researcher at the University of British Columbia. Even worse, he estimates that that's a "substantial underestimate", and that increasing heat waves mean that sea populations can't recover. "If it happens that frequently, the system won't have time to recover in between the die-offs." 

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