Voluntary reporting on net-zero not enough, says UN expert group member

UN body created to scrutinise net-zero commitments encourages regulators to feed into new call for input.

Voluntary reporting against net-zero commitments is not enough, a member of the high-level expert group (HLEG) tasked by the UN with scrutinising the net-zero pledges of non-state entities like companies and investors has warned.

Speaking on a webinar to launch a call for input to the HLEG’s work, Helena Viñes Fiestas, who also acts as commissioner of the Spanish Financial Markets Authority and rapporteur of the EU Platform on Sustainable Finance, said: “Reporting on a voluntary basis is much work, it’s commendable and a step in the development of regulatory standards, but – and it’s a big but – it’s not enough.” 

Specifically, she said: “It does not allow for a level playing field, it renders comparability and accountability difficult, it enables greenwashing, and penalises those that are seriously acting.”   

Viñes Fiestas added that we do not have the time to take a voluntary approach. “We need to accelerate the process, fast track it, to find viable and practical pathways to regulation. And that’s our goal. We’re working on a roadmap to translate the [existing] standards and criteria … into international and national level regulations.” 

Regulators in particular were called on to participate in the consultation. “We’re working on a better understanding of what is currently happening in the regulatory space globally and across jurisdictions, because we want our recommendations to fit in the current normative frameworks,” Viñes Fiestas said. 

Earlier this month, Race to Zero, the umbrella organisation for climate initiatives including the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), updated its criteria for members, including a requirement that they develop fossil fuel phase out strategies within the next year if they are to remain members of UN-backed net-zero initiatives. 

The UN’s HLEG, which is made up of 18 members, was launched in March. It also includes Günther Thallinger, chair of the Net-Zero Asset Owners Alliance and a board member at Allianz.

The aim of the consultation, which runs until the end of August, is to help the HLEG “develop stronger and clearer standards for net-zero emissions pledges by non-state entities – including businesses, investors, cities and regions – and speed up their implementation”. 

Input received will inform the recommendations the HLEG will deliver to UN Secretary General António Guterres in advance of COP27. 

Submissions are requested on four topics: 

  • Standards and definitions of net-zero: 1.5 C degrees alignment 
  • Credibility criteria: short-term interim targets, transition plans, measurement and reporting 
  • Verification and transparency: governance of targets 
  • Pathway to regulation: standards and criteria in the context of a Just Transition 

Another HLEG member on the webinar, Bill Hale, co-founder and CEO of German non-profit Climate Analytics, said the group is also looking “in some detail” at the question of offsetting.   

“We simply can’t afford greenwashing to happen, can’t afford offsetting to be a greenwashing technique rather than a way towards achieving real net zero emissions,” he said. 

Camila Escobar, CEO at Columbian coffeehouse chain Juan Valdez Café, said that in initial consultations the HLEG had “identified that most net-zero pledges are based on targets which are so far into the future that there is no action implied right now or only a few actions right now”. She added: “Net-zero cannot only be about cutting emissions 18 years from now. Net-zero commitments must contribute to immediate change in how the company, the investor or the city takes actions with regards to their investments and their transitions.”