What is greenwashing? How terms like “net zero” and “carbon neutral” are used to justify continued fossil fuel use

In previous blog posts, we’ve written about concepts like net-zero emissions, just transition frameworks, and the need for Canada to take drastic action to limit the effects of climate change. In fact, one of the Green Resilience Project’s main goals is to start a conversation about what diverse communities want and need in order to take part in the net-zero transition at a local level. 

However, when we use concepts like these (net zero, carbon neutral, etc.) it’s important to also understand how they and other climate buzzwords are repurposed and reinterpreted by a wide range of actors – from governments to corporations – who want to appear as though they’re doing more to respond to climate change than they really are. Many of these terms are even used to justify continuing high-emitting practices. For instance, a large corporation can claim that it is net-zero because it is committed to planting enough trees to offset its total greenhouse gas emissions—but this does little to actually reduce fossil fuel emissions. This practice is sometimes referred to as greenwashing, i.e. when a company claims to care about climate change or environmental practices without meaningfully supporting those claims.

Fortunately, Vice Motherboard recently created a helpful glossary of terms which are often used in attempt to greenwash harmful environmental practices, full of insights about what they mean and how they’re (mis)used. It provides a good overview of the pitfalls of climate buzzwords and the importance of paying close attention to the specifics of strategies, programs or corporations that claim to be net-zero, or anything else. Check it out!

And if you’d like to read more about greenwashing, you may be interested in a recent opinion piece from Rebecca Solnit that explains how oil company British Petroleum coined the term “carbon footprint” to shift the responsibility for responding to climate change onto the individual, rather than the corporations who actually bear responsibility for the majority of global emissions.