In recent times, various banking, transportation, and food companies, such as Starbucks, and others on the web such as Amazon, have claimed their space on the highest pedestal of environmentalism, declaring themselves carbon neutral.

There are also brands of beverages and hygiene products, even public administrations that have a similar certifications.

Europe has set itself to be carbon neutral by 2050. But what is being carbon neutral? What does it mean to have this label? Is the process by which it is obtained reliable? What guarantee does the consumer have that what is advertised as carbon neutral is truly better for the environment?

At first glance, the concept seems straightforward. As explained in the European Parliament, carbon neutrality is achieved when the same volume of carbon dioxide (CO₂) is emitted as that which is removed from the atmosphere.

At this point, the origin of these polluting emissions is quite clear: vehicles, livestock, industry.

The question is, how is the greenhouse gas withdrawn from circulation? That is the most complex question in the equation, but it can be summarized in two main ways:

1. Renewable energy projects to replace pollutants

2. The planting of forests.

Planting trees, people claim, offset CO₂ emissions due to the biological activity of plants, which suck up carbon from the environment so pollution levels sink.

Leaving aside the fact that carbon is not a pollutant gas, as pseudoscience claims, how does planting trees helps reduce CO₂ in practical terms? No one has cared to explain in detail because it is all about conning people into believing they are doing the right thing. We will talk about the con later.

A balancing act

The balance can be applied to almost anything one can imagine: services, products, organizations, transportation, buildings, events … even a family can be carbon neutral if applied, “experts” claim.

It sounds like accounting for beginners; what goes in for what goes out, or vice versa. What can be complicated about it? An easy calculation is all that is needed, taking into account that the carbon-neutral seal is only one of many linked to the climate and the emissions of gases.

At Greenpeace, they calculate that the list of environmentally friendly labels reaches about 400 different ones, among which others stand out such as negative carbon, which serves to positively mark those who reduce more CO₂ than they emit.

The question is, is such a plethora of labels really necessary? Perhaps it is not such a simple accounting …

“In the end, it is all a hoax, it is greenwashing and unsustainable,” says Reyes Tirado, PhD in Biology and researcher at the Greenpeace International Laboratory at the University of Exeter, in UK.

The specialist defines these stamps as “a labyrinth of confusion used by companies to deceive people”, and ensures that they are nonsense.

In her interpretation, these distinctions allow a highly polluting company to appear green. Take the example of an airline that affixes a green carbon-neutral label to the door of all its aircraft.

“There is no space on the planet to plant as many forests as would be necessary to curb CO₂ emissions, so the important thing is to reduce and change the system”, argues Tirado. And she adds: “The key is not to compensate, but to reduce emissions and demonstrate commitments both in the abandonment of fossil fuels and in that the activity of the company does not destroy ecosystems, does not promote deforestation or pollute the oceans.”

It’s a puzzle with thousands of pieces

Tirado’s words sound credible because, after all, all the consumer is going to see in the effort to erase the company’s carbon footprint is a nice label.

And it is hard to imagine that companies like freight transport cannot leave the slightest carbon footprint. So, how can you distinguish if you are facing a “marketing” operation rather than a true environmental campaign?

“At first glance, it is very difficult to know if what they are telling us is true”, admits Javier Pedraza, responsible for the carbon footprint and climate change projects at Green Globe, where they offer environmental consulting.

Pedraza recalls that there are companies that have tried to wash their image by saying that their products are sustainable and more respectful of the environment than they really are: “That is why a seal or a label does not always mean something: the important thing is the verification entities independent, that use standardized protocols and are totally reliable ”.

These entities are the safeguard of trust, but their job is not easy. One of the complaints of the specialists is the complexity to calculate exactly the carbon footprint of any activity since there are infinite ways to generate CO₂.

“It is about identifying the sources of emissions and their intensity”, underlines José Magro, manager of sustainability and corporate social responsibility of AENOR, where they carry out an external and objective certification of carbon neutrality.

But variables as varied as the use of the car, the consumption of plastics and food come into play, and they are not always directly related to the activity of the company or the manufacture of a product; indirect environmental costs are very difficult to calculate.

Continuing with the example of large movie galas, for example, where direct emissions come from the machinery used for setting up the stage, which consumes diesel; generator sets to service television equipment, and natural gas for air conditioning.

The indirect emissions chapter includes everything from electricity consumption to the transport of the 750 people who worked at the event, travel and accommodation of guests, waste management, catering, water consumption, security. ..

In theory, the tangle of indirect emissions also fuels accounting creativity, which can only be constrained through the globally recognized methodologies that have been developed. They are processes that can be verified by a third party, and that is what makes them the most reliable.

Trusting that they have been carried out correctly means that they are audited by verifying entities such as AENOR.

To offset emissions, companies, organizations and governments buy a permit to emit CO₂ for whatever amount of dollars or euros, according to their operation. Those credits are bought from the UN, which makes them available to anyone. Talk about corruption. The organization that claims that CO₂ causes planetary warming and that wants us all to live as people lived in the Dark Ages, is the same that sells the carbon credits that allow polluters to contaminate the planet, with the added caveat that the UN gets rich while allowing these companies and organizations to continue polluting. 

Of course, the UN alleges that the money collected from selling carbon credits is invested in projects that reduce emissions, but the truth is that such a claim has little or no independent auditing.

Neither this initiative from the UN nor any other one erases the skepticism of Greenpeace researcher Reyes Tirado, who insists that these types of plans and labels are nothing more than “a distraction and a deception, delaying action and anesthetizing consumers to continue consuming polluting products simply because they carry a green label ”.

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