Are Governments at COP26 Guilty of “Greenwashing?”

Lack of full transparency by governments and other entities offers an opportunity for greenwashing, says management professor Vanessa Burbano

A hand holding a green marker, coloring in gray smoke that's pouring out of a smokestack
Social Impact
Katie Gilbert

At the end of the U.N. Climate Change Conference’s first week, after several days of headline-grabbing pledges from world leaders, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg stood on the streets of Glasgow with a microphone in her hand, grabbing some headlines of her own.

“This is no longer a climate conference,” she said of the convening. “This is a Global North greenwash festival.”

Vanessa Burbano, associate professor of management in the strategy area at Columbia Business School, who has researched greenwashing in the private sector, can see Thunberg’s point. She defines greenwashing as positive communications on environmental and sustainability practices when the reality is not so positive, and says the concept can certainly apply to governments.

“To the extent that we don’t have full transparency, whether from companies or government, there’s an opportunity for greenwashing,” Burbano says.

At the same time, Burbano emphasizes that she believes there are important differences between sustainability-focused communications from companies and the types of government pledges emerging from COP26. While the motivations behind company announcements on the topic often tie back to the bottom line, the motivation (and impact) of government environmental commitments is broader, and more complex. For one thing, she says, an announcement from a government is more likely to drive action among a broad group of stakeholders—including corporations looking to get out in front of possible regulations.

“Sometimes these initial statements are symbolic, but necessary as a means to an end,” Burbano says.

At the same time, Burbano hardly disagrees with Thunberg’s central criticisms that the pledges and commitments could use more teeth.

One specific step she believes governments can take with an eye toward dramatically expanding transparency among the corporate carbon emitters under their jurisdictions: requiring non-financial reporting from them.

Burbano argues that greater transparency around firms’ environmental performance would be the most direct step toward combating corporate greenwashing and encouraging more sustainable practices from sectors as a whole—which will be necessary in making good on the country-wide commitments coming out of COP26. These specific metrics from firms would be significantly more useful than vague “net-zero by 2030” commitments to the nonprofits and other watchdogs looking to hold companies accountable over time—and to academic and government researchers who would have reams more data to use in tracking broader progress toward climate goals.

For those reasons, Burbano argues, if governments are serious about tracking their progress toward the commitments made at COP26—and about proving wrong the charges of greenwashing—non-financial reporting requirements will be an essential step.

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