Burn Now, Pay Later: Why the new ISO standard won’t fix the problem with carbon neutrality

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Together with policy makers private companies play a critical role in ensuring that we reduce emission in line with the Paris Agreement goals of. However, pledges made by businesses today often remain vague and unfounded and, more dangerously, give the impression that enough progress is being made, thus diminishing the sense of urgency surrounding the need to reduce emissions.

The issue with carbon neutrality claims is rather fundamental: there is simply no such thing as a climate neutral company or product. These claims usually rely on offsetting credits rather than on real progress. Most consumers do not understand what the claim is based on, and it gives them a false reassurance that consumption patterns do not need to change. In fact, such claims impede structural change as they divert our attention to small, inefficient gains, enabling a ‘burn now, pay later’ approach, where planting trees could simply offset the burning of coal, oil and gas.

This is why misleading carbon neutrality claims should be banned. Instead, priority should be given to the absolute reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

While the European Commission is busy putting forward a set of initiatives meant to regulate climate neutrality claims, the international standardiser ISO is, as we write, developing an international standard on carbon neutrality (ISO 14068) planned for publication at the end of 2023. The standard aims to guide companies, local authorities and financial institutions to achieve and demonstrate carbon neutrality claims.

The standard is now open for comments (enquiry stage) and all ISO members as well as ECOS have until mid-April 2023 to submit input on the draft version.

ISO 14068 on Carbon Neutrality will provide a standardised approach for planning, achieving and communicating carbon neutrality. While the aim of the standard is to address the proliferation of ‘wild’ carbon neutrality claims on the market, it also sets itself up to fail by trying to achieve the impossible: make the concept of carbon neutrality reliable at company and product level – which makes no sense from an environmental point of view.

If the standard is published with its current formulation, it will open a pandora’s box of misleading carbon neutrality claims with a detrimental effect on actual emissions reductions. Falsely ‘neutral’ products will be certified and sold to the consumers, but now with an ISO standard (rubber)stamp on it. A textbook case of – legitimised – greenwashing.

For this standard to play an active role in adequately combatting climate change, it is critical to tackling the following aspects:

• The scope of the standard should be restricted to organisations. Extending it to products and services makes no sense from an environmental point of view. This risks leading to a mere calculation of the GHG emissions followed by a counterbalancing accounting exercise through carbon offsets.

• Claiming carbon neutrality should not be allowed when emissions are totally, or to a large part, offset through carbon credit purchase. In its current formulation, the standard rewards companies that have made little effort towards any GHG emissions reduction.

• The standard should include interim and long-term targets based on a robust methodology consistent with the Paris Agreement. The current method lets the company decide how to take into account climate science and international environmental commitments.

• The definition of “removals” should include technologies that are permanent (able to store carbon for several centuries) and have a low risk of reversal. Activities such as carbon sequestration in soil, and forest restoration are not suitable to counterbalance companies’ carbon emissions.

We need to ensure that companies primarily invest in deep and rapid emission reductions across their value chain before making claims on their climate performance. This is the last call for ISO members to either take the opportunity to include the necessary modifications or agree the method is insufficient to drive climate action.



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