Is the climate for corporate climate protection getting harsher?
Stefan Baumeister – myclimate Germany: There is currently a very critical examination of the subject. Everything is checked carefully: How do companies fulfil their responsibilities? Are efforts to avoid or reduce emissions credible? Are people really taking responsibility for unavoidable climate gases? Is ‘climate neutrality and compensation’ beneficial or counterproductive? And do climate protection projects and participating organisations actually meet expectations? So yes, there is currently a lot of activity in the area of climate protection.
Kathrin Dellantonio – myclimate Switzerland: We are responding to this with different measures in all the areas described by Stefan. Both to strengthen climate protection as a whole, and to support and assist companies with their commitment. We are convinced that a joint effort is needed to reach the global climate target. European companies need to reduce their own emissions while also contributing to climate protection outside their value chain.
Let us look specifically at the criticism of climate protection projects. How do you see this development?
Kathrin: I welcome the increased attention and, with it, the criticism of climate protection projects. When we as an organisation started to push climate protection forward with new ideas more than 20 years ago, creating awareness of climate protection was one of our concerns. The fact that climate protection commitments of all kinds are now being perceived and critically questioned by the public shows that our work has borne fruit and that climate protection has arrived where it belongs: In the middle of society and every debate. There, we continue to empower and encourage people to make a measurable contribution to climate protection.
Christof Fuchs – myclimate Austria: Criticism is also a wake-up call. It highlights the urgency of developing, promoting and communicating high-quality climate protection projects. This can help to increase transparency and quality in climate protection. Let’s face it. There are enormous differences between providers. All those in the industry who are seriously interested in climate protection must face up to this fact. It is therefore up to the quality leaders to explain how effective and high-quality climate protection projects can be identified. As a charitable foundation, we see this as a clear mandate. However, companies also need to act carefully when selecting partners and climate protection projects as well as in sustainability communication in order to make effective use of the responsibility they’ve assumed. In doing so, we support our partners to ensure that climate action remains a competitive advantage.
So criticism also has advantages?
Kathrin: Of course! It makes us aware in many ways that we need to look even more closely and always be vigilant. But it also challenges us to take a stand. A few weeks ago, for example, one of our projects in Nicaragua was criticised in the media. We immediately met with all those involved, including the researchers cited in the report. It was important for us to tackle this as quickly, thoroughly and transparently as possible. That’s why we not only issued a detailed written statement at almost the same time, but also took up the topic in our event format ‘Cloud Talk’ and gave all interested parties the opportunity to ask questions live. In the end, we were able to refute the accusations. For me, that is climate protection with responsibility. In this way we can stand up for the climate and stand up for our partners.
Stefan: However, this is also an example of how criticism can be problematic if it is not precise enough. We need a serious in-depth debate if we really want to have an impact. I see the media as well as the climate and consumer protection organisations having a part to play in this. Generalisations do not help climate protection. They end up putting those who engage at risk, while those who do nothing rub their hands with glee. What needs to happen in the climate protection industry now is twofold:
Firstly, an honest debate which will stimulate change. For example, we started to develop a new label in mid-2022 to replace our ‘climate neutral’ label that had been in force until then. There were many reasons for this, including regulatory changes. But also the changing public perception of terms such as ‘climate neutral’ or ‘compensation,’ the use of which has subsequently been criticised. With the introduction of the myclimate ‘impact label’ at the end of 2022 and the definitive abandonment of these terms, we have set a new benchmark for the entire industry. Our partners appreciated this forward-looking measure, even if the change was a significant effort for all concerned. So you can see: Responsible climate protection is constantly evolving.
Secondly, representatives of different approaches to climate protection should refocus on the actual goal. The climate needs every approach and every stakeholder that contributes to the achievement of the climate targets. It is no secret that organisations that are also committed to climate protection strongly criticise various climate commitments or climate protection financing. We need the dispute, but it should be conducted in a constructive way in the interests of climate protection. We all agree on the goal. We have to learn to a certain extent to accept that not only are there different paths, but we need each one of them. In short: Criticism should add nuance and reflect the impact on climate protection.
I think it would be a good idea for us, as a non-profit organization, to develop a policy paper on good practice together with the critics who are open to it. The Transparent Civil Society Initiative represents something similar in the field of civil society. This would provide valuable guidance to organisations, project operators, consumers and companies, build trust and ultimately serve the climate. We have already held individual talks on this.
In particular, a report on VERRA-certified forest protection projects has probably impacted confidence in the industry. What happened?
Kathrin: The criticism was directed at so-called REDD+ projects, i.e. projects that aim to reduce emissions from deforestation and destructive forest use. In this particular case, VERRA’s methodology was inadequate. As a result, certificates were placed on the market that saved less CO2 than promised. This action has brought forest protection projects into disrepute. This is a practical example that makes my heart bleed as a climate activist. We have published detailed information on the subject, although myclimate was not affected and does not have any of the mentioned projects in its portfolio. I am grateful to our employees for excluding precisely these projects, as well as the sole use of the VERRA standard, in the due diligence process. But I can understand that supporters of such projects are now rethinking their commitment. There are two facts against this:
First of all: Achieving the Paris 1.5 °C target is no longer possible simply by reducing man-made emissions and technically capturing and storing them. This is why Nature-Based Solutions (NBS), which include forest protection projects, are essential. The world urgently needs, or must preserve, more intact forests with a high abundance of plants and species.
Secondly: Reliable protection and verifiable reforestation are possible. The right tools exist and we use them too. One example is the Plan Vivo Standard, which is not only community-based, but also retains a high proportion of buffer certificates for each project in order to offset unexpected effects such as forest fires or the like in the form of a global insurance. Additional certificates can also cover shortcomings of VERRA-certified projects.
What should companies pay particular attention to now when it comes to good climate protection in general?
Christof: There is no one ‘right’ way. Climate protection consists of a multitude of interlocking processes and opportunities. For this reason myclimate is broadly positioned: In terms of consulting on the prevention and reduction of climate-damaging emissions, raising awareness and activating various target groups, such as learners, as well as climate protection financing. A holistic nature is therefore one of the quality characteristics that should be looked out for. With the myclimate climate strategy, for example, we support companies in significantly reducing their climate impact and achieving their net zero target in the long term. In this way, we combine all processes, opportunities, regulations and requirements in a uniform, understandable approach.
Kathrin: With regard to climate protection projects, I advise companies, whether from the point of view of impact or reduction of reputational risks, to pay attention to the following: Who has certified the project and how is it to be verified? The Gold Standard or Plan Vivo can be mentioned here as the highest quality certification providers. Is there an additional due diligence review by the climate protection partner that goes beyond the standards or includes other aspects? Do the initiators maintain a close and long-term dialogue with the project managers on the ground? Are additional sustainability criteria (such as SDGs) met or, better, are community-based approaches used so that climate protection is not at the expense of local populations? And last but not least: Is everything, from the objectives to the certificates to the use of funds, transparent? These safeguards are very effective at minimising risks.
Stefan: Motivation is another feature of good climate protection. When a company is looking for a reliable partner for climate protection, it should always ask the question: What is the driving force of the future partner? At myclimate, for example, through our non-profit organization, we ensure that the answer is always ‘climate protection’. Structurally, there is no profit motive. As a result, 80 per cent of climate protection contributions flow directly into the projects and all uses are listed in the annual report. This background led to the fact that we only recently rejected a customer request for collaboration with a climate protection project that would have guaranteed myclimate a gross profit of one million euros. Our extensive due diligence investigation revealed that the original project provider was a company with a long history of environmental and corruption scandals, and therefore of course not in line with our values. We’re not going along with that, period. This attitude also protects our customers from reputational risks and accusations of greenwashing.
Does the current debate have an impact on myclimate’s strategy?
Kathrin: We constantly analyse our professional environment. This includes climate conferences, decisions by the EU or individual nation states, new scientific findings and methods as well as the media environment. All insights are incorporated into our products, decision-making processes and industry-specific consulting. Stefan has just mentioned the new Impact Label as a consequence of this. Another change is the update of our flight calculator, which includes increasing the RFI from 2 to 3. The RFI expresses the ratio of the climate impact of all climate effects of aviation as a multiplier of CO2 emissions. Recent studies have now suggested greater weighting by raising the RFI when looking at the essential 30-year time horizon for the 2050 net zero target.
Stefan: We are also developing internally. We want to expand participation and the culture of learning and error-acceptance throughout the organisation. Because our employees are often the harshest critics. They all have high expectations of our work and stand behind our vision of making the best possible contribution to a net-zero society through effective and ambitious climate protection. We can only take these courageous new paths if we also continually question ourselves and hold open discussions.
To make this possible, on the one hand, we have launched an employee-driven ‘Fit 4 Future’ process, which among other things updates our vision and pushes forward space for impulses and criticism of our development. On the other hand, we have opened a new chapter at myclimate with a new management structure: Instead of a single CEO, seven members of the current Executive Board have shared overall management since August 2023, thereby supporting decisions with complementary competencies.
What are the next steps for myclimate?
Christof: In recent months, we have become more active in the field of civil society. For example, with the #Putinyourvoice campaign, which promoted the new climate protection law in Switzerland. Or the open call to halt climate-damaging subsidies in Germany. We will certainly expand this, also through our participation in numerous associations and associations that work with us to promote climate protection. And we will continue along the path of our impact label, placing the impact even more at the centre of our actions. The parameter for this is CO2. We want to make the prevention, reduction and emission savings in climate protection projects, advice and education even more transparent. To achieve this, we have set ourselves the ambitious target of significantly exceeding last year’s record in terms of tonnes of CO2 saved. In doing so, we want to motivate and visibly promote the fundamental objective of our work: Together with our partners, to advance the necessary social transformation with effective and measurable climate protection for sustainable global development.