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Sources of information, ecological media, and more

Women reading the newspaper at Museums Victoria.

to support independent and ad-free ecological thinking

author
Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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How do I learn more about climate change? Where should I look for quality news and information regarding what’s going on in the world? Can I stay up to date with things through Plurality.eco?

We explore some of the best sites for ecological information, social critique, and solutions to the ecological crisis. If you have something you’d like adding to this page, please leave a link to it in the comments below!

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Ecological media from around the world...

Bon Pote (French site, also with an English version)
Critiques of society, information about the ecological crisis, and mythbusters on common misconceptions about the ecological crisis. 

Grist.org
A nonprofit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future. Based in the United States. 

British Ecological Society Journals
The British Ecological Society have multiple journals with information related to the ecological crisis from multiple perspectives. 

Carbon Brief
Indispensable source of information on global ecological crisis and carbon emissions.  A news website dedicated to the climate crisis.

Happen Films
A New Zealand film company producing documentaries and short stories about different ways of relating to the environment, caring for it, and restoring our natural ecosystems. 

The Ecologist
Ecological magazine from the United Kingdom. Regular publishing of articles on the ecological crisis, as well as different approaches and solutions to confront the problems.

Low Tech Magazine
A blog/media site from the United States about low-tech solutions. Site powered entirely by solar so sometimes offline.

New Zealand Geographic
Magazine and online review of nature, ecology, geography, and human experiences in nature. Focus on film and photo testimonies. Based in New Zealand.

Re: News NZ’s ‘The Planet’ section
For reporting from a social perspective on climate issues in Aotearoa, this media platform offers diverse perspectives and engaging video content.

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Sources of information on the ecological crisis

For beginners:

Nate Hagens’ 4-hour course for university students ‘Reality 101’ 
This offers insight into the climate and ecological crisis, with information he believes should be taught to all students. 

Climate Q&A
Created by Ekimetrics, Climate Q&A is a chatbot like ChatGPT which uses artificial intelligence to answer your questions about the climate with IPCC data.

NZAEE (Educating for Sustainability)
New Zealand’s Association for Environmental Education catalogues climate and ecological resources for teachers and students, as well as interested public, on their website. For use in all contexts, from early childhood education to adult education. 

For the science-minded:

Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)
The panel provides the most comprehensive overview of biodiversity and the state of the planet’s systems, whilst being composed of researchers from across the globe.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
The United Nations’ body for assessing the science related the climate change, they have a great synthesis of information about what’s going on in different corners of the globe.

NIWA Monthly Climate Summaries
This indicates the changes in climate that we are experiencing in New Zealand, and provides a summary of the climate around the country.

Environmental reporting Ministry for the Environment NZ
The Ministry provides reports on the state of the country’s climate, freshwater, marine ecosystems, air, and terrestrial systems every six months.

Our World in Data: The Environmental Impacts of Food Production
Researcher Hannah Ritchie and others have put together an amazing array of information regarding the impacts of our food system. Not just limited to carbon dioxide, the information covers ecosystem changes too.

Performance indicators and real-time information

The Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI)
This site provides a yearly review of climate-change and emissions reduction policies of many countries around the world. 

NASA’s Vital Signs measurements
US climate and space agency NASA regularly tracks the carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere, as well as global temperature increases, methane levels, ocean warming, and more. 

Podcasts

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We've spent a lot of time reading about ecology to find the best resources. Our information will always be open and free for everyone to read, without any advertising.

All our articles are freely accessible because we believe that everyone needs to be able to access to a source of coherent and easy to understand information on the ecological crisis. This challenge that confronts us all will only be properly addressed when we understand what the problems are and where they come from.

If you've learned something today, please consider donating, to help us produce more great articles and share this knowledge with a wider audience.

Why plurality.eco?

Our environment is more than a resource to be exploited. Human beings are not the ‘masters of nature,’ and cannot think they are managers of everything around them. Plurality is about finding a wealth of ideas to help us cope with the ecological crisis which we have to confront now, and in the coming decades. We all need to understand what is at stake, and create new ways of being in the world, new dreams for ourselves, that recognise this uncertain future.

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IPCC Synthesis Report: what we do now will determine the future impact of climate change

what we do now impacts future generations

to support independent and ad-free ecological thinking

author
Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have finished their sixth cycle of reporting. They published the conclusions of this research in a report released in March 2023.

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In late March 2023, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the final synthesis report of around a decade of research and investigation into climate change and its impacts and effects. This report is incredibly important, as it shows us an overview of what we currently know at a global level, as well as a regional level, about the impacts climate change might have on our environment. The report contains the best guesses about what could happen, and presents future scenarios with different levels of global warming to show us what these futures might be like. What’s clear is that each tenth of a degree makes a difference to the damage that will be caused by human-induced climate change.

Unfortunately, there was not much fanfare or media reporting in New Zealand when the report was released. A look on the Climate page of Stuff’s website 3 weeks after its release shows nothing regarding the report, and to find the articles they did publish requires searching through their archives. Looking at the articles, no news media site seemed to take the time to explain the whole report, its importance, and what NZ could do off the back of this evidence. 

What is the IPCC and why is this report important?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC for short, is the organisation set up by the United Nations (UN) to coordinate and report on climate change science across the globe. It comprises scientists from member nations of the UN, each a specialist in their field of climate research in their country.

The IPCC is divided into three Working Groups, who focus on different areas of climate change research. The first group works on the physical science of climate change; the second on climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, and the third on mitigation of climate change. There are also Task Groups which focus on research in specific areas such as gender-related impacts as a result of climate change.

The IPCC have reporting cycles, meaning that approximately every seven years they release three large reports, one from each Working Group, and a synthesis report, which summarises the findings over this period. In 2022-23, they released their sixth cycle of reports (AR6), which discuss the changes in climate science since 2014, when the fifth cycle was published. The report published in March 2023 was the final report in the cycle, synthesising the findings and delivering important conclusions and possibilities for action for governments worldwide (link to the report).

It’s important to note that the IPCC do not recommend anything, nor are they in the business of making promises of what will happen. They discuss the information that they have gathered through the scientific method, which comes with varying levels of certainty, depending upon many other factors, such as the availability of data, the extent to which this data has been verified, and the likelihood of certain scenarios. The IPCC reports can tell us the overall impact of certain policies, but they will not tell us what to do or how to do it.

We must therefore be careful when reading articles which quote a conclusion from the IPCC report, attempting to defend the arguments of a particular person. The report does not justify actions, but provides evidence for the possible outcomes of global warming. Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is of interest to the scientists; just how we go about that is of interest to politicians.

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The main conclusions of the Synthesis Report of the Sixth Cycle

There are several important conclusions drawn by the report that all citizens should be aware of, if they are to understand climate change and its current and potential future impacts. These are the following:

  • Global warming has already resulted in a temperature increase of 1.1 degrees Celsius in the period 2011-2020, compared with 1850-1900.
  • Time is running out. There is a rapidly closing window of action to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all, and if we do not see a rapid and severe decline in greenhouse gas emissions, we will not keep global warming to 1.5 degrees, and therefore the challenges will become more complex and the impacts and risks more severe. The next 10 years are crucial.
  • Each tenth of a degree counts. Each tenth of a degree of warming results in greater losses and damages, and risks that become much harder to predict and to manage. Current measurements are showing the state of the planet is worse than was predicted in the previous report.
  • Vulnerable populations are the first and hardest hit by climate change. These populations are less developed countries, indigenous peoples, low-income families, and those living in low-lying and coastal regions and small islands. 3.3-3.6 billion people live in highly vulnerable places to the effects of climate change.
  • There is a gap between what we are currently doing, and what we should be doing to both meet our targets and keep global warming within the 1.5-degree threshold. Continuing our current trajectory will result in 3.2 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100.
  • All models desiring to limit the impacts of climate change at least somewhat involve a necessary “rapid, deep, and in most cases immediate reduction in CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors.”
  • Cross-sector, multidisciplinary and democratic approaches are the best ways to implement and adapt to climate change, as well as mitigate losses. Working with indigenous knowledge, working with diverse approaches, working with vulnerable populations, and involving all stakeholders in decision making leads to better outcomes.
  • It is more likely than not that we will hit at least 1.5 degrees of warming in the early 2030’s, however we do have hope. We can still limit warming to 1.5 degrees. The only way to do this would be through large, severe cuts in emissions across all sectors and all developed nations on the planet.

The estimates: What will happen at different levels of warming?

The image below contains the IPCC’s estimates for all geographic regions at different levels of warming. The first scenario is for 1.5 degrees of warming, the last for 4 degrees of warming. As you can see, the impact gets more and more severe, as the average temperature increases. 

Future scenarios at different levels of warming
Image: IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report, figure 2

The report notes that every region is projected to increasingly experience extreme weather events, which happen concurrently. This means that both hottest temperatures will increase, and lowest temperatures will decrease, as well as there being increased precipitation and risk of rain-caused flooding in most regions, increased fire risk, tropical cyclone risk, and drought risk.

For other terrestrial species like insects, mammals, birds, etc., of the tens of thousands of species surveyed, between 3-14% of them face a very high risk of extinction at 1.5 degrees of warming. Coral reefs are projected to decline a further 70-90% at 1.5 degrees – these may very well become something that exist only in our memories.

Alongside these ecosystem changes, we can expect changes to the availability of food, and therefore increases in nutritional deficiencies among those in highly vulnerable regions; increases in pathogens and diseases, heat-related deaths, and more. As the temperature increase rises, so does the complexity of managing the effects of this increase.

Severity of impacts of climate change on populations
Image: IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report, figure 3

Current policy action vs necessary policy action: the enormous gap

If the policies and agreements in place in 2020 such as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, were continued along their current trajectory, we would in no case reach net-zero emissions, nor keep warming to 1.5 degrees. There is a large gap between the current policies in place, and what needs to be done in order to respond to the dangers that we just saw above.

Gap between current climate policies and necessary reductions
Grey at the top of the image shows projected outcome from current policies in place. We should be aiming for the blue, purple, and orange lines: dramatic immediate reductions. Image: IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report, figure 3.6

In the case of finance, globally we need 3-6 times more investment in climate-related programmes, initiatives, innovations, strategies, and knowledge production, averaged between now and 2030, if we are to limit the effects of global warming. In the Australia, Japan and New Zealand region, this figure is 3 times more at the lower estimate, and 7 times more at the higher estimate. For places like the Middle East, a much, much larger investment is required, with 14-28 times the current investment required to mitigate the effects of climate change. The report notes that “There is sufficient global capital and liquidity to close global investment gaps, given the size of the global financial system.” Factors within and outside the global financial system act as barriers to stop this from happening.

tree showing possible outcomes of acting now
What we do between now and 2030 impacts which path we follow long into the future. Image: IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report, figure 4.2

The most important conclusion of the report is that what we do between now and the early 2030s, is what will make the most difference to the impacts of climate change for all future generations. Sea levels will keep rising for millennia, but just how much they rise is determined by how we choose to respond today. As you see in the above image, when we choose early action, we can set a trajectory towards a brighter, more stable, and more liveable future. If we make bad choices now, we put ourselves on the pathway towards greater destruction, pain and suffering in the future.

The good thing is that the report highlights the interrelatedness of the Sustainable Development Goals and the work being done to mitigate the effects of climate change and adapt to new realities. In places where we eradicate poverty, ensure clean air and water supplies, and educate all young people, we not only look after the ecosystems and allow communities to reduce their emissions, but also improve the wellbeing and living standards of these people. There may be some trade-offs between climate mitigation and sustainable development, but there are significant mutual benefits, too.

What can we do about climate change?

The Synthesis Report considers many different possibilities for climate action. These possibilities are both at the individual and collective level. Have a look at the image below, and you will see the various estimated impacts of particular solutions, as well as their relative costs to implement. The largest light blue bars represent low-cost high impact solutions, such as solar and wind energy, electricity efficiency, and public and goods transportation including cycling.

Impacts and costs of different climate actions
There are low-cost high impact actions we can take immediately to reduce warming potential. Image: IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report, figure 4.4

Things that we can choose to act on ourselves include our diet and lifestyle choices. As we can see, shifting to sustainable healthy diets with more plant-based foods and less animal products such as meat and dairy has a reasonably large potential impact. Likewise with reducing food loss and food waste – only buying what we need and making use of all of it can go a long way to reducing emissions.

Similarly, transportation choices make a big difference. Walking or cycling are the lowest-emission options, closely followed by public transportation. A fuel-efficient vehicle or electric vehicle if you do need to use a car also makes a big difference. Our shopping choices also make a difference, opting for efficient lighting, efficient household appliances, and other electronics which require lower energy supplies helps to reduce emissions.

This individual impact is summarised in the Demand-side impacts section at the bottom of the image. Sobriety, that is, making the choice to live a low-emissions, low-energy, low-consumption lifestyle, has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70%. Given that each tenth of a degree counts, these lifestyle and shopping choices makes a real difference. 

Most of the impact does however come from the institutions which make up a society, including government, businesses, and energy production. We can’t make the choice to use solar or wind power unless we have a large investment ready to purchase an autonomous power supply for our own roof, but our energy companies can make the decisions to stop fossil fuel energy production. Solar and wind energy are low cost and high impact solutions. Stopping deforestation and the destruction of natural ecosystems is a reasonably low-cost solution which likewise has a large impact. These kinds of decisions are the policies we need to see our politicians enacting, if they are to demonstrate that they have understood the problems we will face due to climate change.

The report puts specific emphasis on the fact that justice and inclusion are particularly important in the response to climate change.

“4.4 Actions that prioritise equity, climate justice, social justice and inclusion lead to more sustainable outcomes, co-benefits, reduce trade-offs, support transformative change and advance climate resilient development. Adaptation responses are immediately needed to reduce rising climate risks, especially for the most vulnerable. Equity, inclusion and just transitions are key to progress on adaptation and deeper societal ambitions for accelerated mitigation. (high confidence)”

Likewise, solutions that involve multiple stakeholders, and which are arrived at through collaborative means, have far-reaching impacts beyond just the state of the planet:

“4.9 The feasibility, effectiveness and benefits of mitigation and adaptation actions are increased when multi-sectoral solutions are undertaken that cut across systems. When such options are combined with broader sustainable development objectives, they can yield greater benefits for human well- being, social equity and justice, and ecosystem and planetary health.”

Some policy ideas

We need to demand more from our politicians, because as the report clearly states, current trajectories are not sufficient to mitigate the effects of climate change. As a reminder, current efforts put us on track to reach 3.2 degrees of warming by 2100. That means, if you are now 30-40 years old, and we continue as we are, your children or grandchildren will be living in a highly uninhabitable world with large-scale economic and ecological damage.

Here are some things New Zealand and other developed countries could do on the back of the IPCC’s Synthesis Report. These are not part of the report, as the IPCC is not involved in making recommendations or telling us what to do; rather they are my own ideas based on the evidence we find in the report. 

  • Stop all fossil fuel subsidies, spend the money saved on vulnerable populations.
  • Convert 100% of electricity grid to renewable (solar, wind as first choices)
  • Small scale grant programme for community ecology and environment initiatives (max $20,000 per year, per initiative for example)
  • Banning greenwashing with severe punishments, increasing requirements on green advertising, carbon reporting, and introduce mandatory emissions labelling
  • 1 day per week environmental work scheme, paid for by the Government (instead of working at your workplace, you opt to work in local government, or other associations on environmental issues, and your daily salary paid for by Government).
  • New Zealand international cooperation with low-lying Pacific nations on a much larger scale.
  • Free ecological and environmental studies programmes, climate change information sessions for all NZ citizens.
  • Investment priority in public transportation, cycling and pedestrians. Development of road and car projects scaled back significantly. Bike and electric bike rebates (50% off up to $500 per citizen for example).

Moving from science to action

The report is serious and sobering reading. It’s quite tough to think about what the world might look like in 20 years’ time. One of the best ways to confront this is through taking practical action steps in your own life to reduce your ecological impact and your emissions. Here are three ways you can transform your new knowledge into action immediately:

You can calculate your approximate carbon footprint using the NZ-based calculator FutureFit here.

You could think about diet and lifestyle changes that you could implement, focusing on food, transportation and energy use. How can you live better, with less?

You can have a conversation at your workplace about your company’s emissions and ecological impact. Push for more measurements of emissions, and more ambitious emissions reductions targets. Use the information in this article to help you talk about what the dangers of climate change might be, and why we should act now.

Sharing knowledge is also a great gift.
Let others know about this article

It took more than 30 hours of research and writing to produce this article, which will always be open and free for everyone to read, without any advertising.

All our articles are freely accessible because we believe that everyone needs to be able to access to a source of coherent and easy to understand information on the ecological crisis. This challenge that confronts us all will only be properly addressed when we understand what the problems are and where they come from.

If you've learned something today, please consider donating, to help us produce more great articles and share this knowledge with a wider audience.

Why plurality.eco?

Our environment is more than a resource to be exploited. Human beings are not the ‘masters of nature,’ and cannot think they are managers of everything around them. Plurality is about finding a wealth of ideas to help us cope with the ecological crisis which we have to confront now, and in the coming decades. We all need to understand what is at stake, and create new ways of being in the world, new dreams for ourselves, that recognise this uncertain future.

Our network

On social media

We're part of the .eco network of organisations committed to support positive change for the planet.

Copyright © Plurality.eco 2023

The Ultimate Guide to Greenwashing

eco-friendly packaging

to support independent and ad-free ecological thinking

author
Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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Greenwashing is incredibly problematic for the environment, consumers, and the ecological movement as a whole. Not only is it irresponsible and unethical, it values profit and brand image over real impact.

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We are in an economic market where brands, businesses, organisations, causes, and the government, all feel as though they must become virtuous – they must stand for something, promote or explain something, and act towards some social, economic, climate-related or other goal. Businesses need to be seen to be doing good, which often means that they also need to be seen to be good – to be virtuous. Whether big companies should be the promoters of virtue in our societies is another discussion altogether, but here we will focus on the virtue of being eco-friendly, which so many companies now claim to be.

Let’s start off by recognising a simple but sobering truth: the most eco-friendly product is the one you don’t buy. Every time you ‘consume’ something – whether it is eco-friendly natural organic dishwashing liquid, plastic wrap for your lunchtime sandwiches, or a new energy efficient toaster because the one you’ve got ‘seems old’, you are using resources which were grown or produced using fossil fuels, transported around the country or the world, set on shelves with lighting, heating or cooling systems, and eventually sold to you. If you had decided not to make that purchase, no resources would have been consumed. This is the basis of ecological sobriety in consumerism – only purchasing things that we really need, and when we do make purchases, knowing exactly what it is that we are purchasing.

All advertising is an attempt to get you to leave this realisation of non-consumption, and incite you to purchase something – whether you actually need it or not. Advertising creates desires, and then shows you how the particular product or service involved will meet this new desire. Therefore, to some extent, all advertising is taking you away from an eco-friendly standpoint, because it creates desires which you then fulfill by consuming things, which is not eco-friendly.

Some advertising, however, is not merely informative about the particular product. Labels are a good example of informative advertising: we can see the amount of CO2 emitted in the production of a good, we can see how energy efficient it is, we can see the ingredients in a food item: this helps us decide which product to purchase. Other advertising seeks to convince us that the brand is good, the company is virtuous, is looking after the planet, is concerned with its workers’ rights and health, etc. This advertising can be informative, but very often it is suggestive, making claims and associations which are only partly true.

Let’s take the example of Vanish stain remover products. Recently, the company has been advertising on television that huge amounts of textiles are going to landfill each year (link to the international version of the ad, the above is the NZ version). The company sees this part of the advertisement as a commitment to informing the public about the ecological impact of their actions. It’s advertising brownie points because they’re “showing” they “care” about waste. It also creates emotions: we don’t want to be wasteful, we want to save the planet, etc. We’re now more open to receiving their message.

The second part of the advert suggests that by using Vanish products, you can remove the stains from your clothes and stop them from going to landfill. Let’s think about this: when you last stained your white t-shirt, did you immediately think to just throw it out and buy another one? I asked around, and no-one I talked to said that this would be their first response. They would either just wear it stained, they would buy a stain remover when they’re at the supermarket next, they would upcycle the t-shirt and use it for something else, or they would give it away. Vanish seem to think that a large proportion of the textiles (not just clothes, remember) going to landfill go there because they have a stain on them that could have been removed with their stain removal liquid. This is nonsense.

Not only are Vanish trying to appear as if they care for the environment, they are also trying to make you feel bad for throwing away so many clothes which could have been cleaned with their products (which, most likely, you don’t even do in the first place). When you see the advertisement, you’ll either just ignore it, or you might think next time you’re in the supermarket looking for a stain remover that Vanish was the brand that was concerned with the environment, so you choose this one to ‘feel better’ about your consumption decisions. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Most Vanish products contain surfactants, which are highly toxic to aquatic life. Furthermore, the synthetic chemicals in Vanish products such as phosphates cause toxic algae to grow in waterways, starving all other life of oxygen and eventually killing the whole ecosystem. Their products are, therefore, far from ‘eco-friendly,’ and they might pretend to care about waste, but they certainly don’t care about the environment if they sell products which enter the water system and kill whole ecosystems.

This is greenwashing. The company have in this case made a true claim – washing your clothes keeps them from going to landfill – but it is so far removed from the everyday behaviours of most people that it just becomes ridiculous. Further, in order to divert attention away from the harmful effects of the chemicals in their products, they are talking about textile waste to appear as if they are virtuous and care about the environment. They forget that each time someone purchases a BOTTLE of their product, this bottle becomes waste, which in most cases in New Zealand, is unfortunately not recycled. So, they really aren’t contributing to the waste problem in any positive way. In the end, most people who see the advertisement will either ignore it, label it as greenwashing, or unfortunately think that Vanish really do care about the environment.

Why is greenwashing a problem?

Greenwashing is therefore any advertising or advertising message which leads a person to erroneously believe in the real ecological qualities of a product or service, or in the reality of the production process, lifecycle, sustainable development of the company, or any other ‘environmental action’ or commitment performed by the company.

Greenwashing is harmful to the ecological movement, to the consumer, and to the environment:

  1. Greenwashing means that consumers lose trust in companies, and this has a harmful impact on the companies who are actually engaged in climate-friendly practices, regenerative agriculture, and other engagements.
  2. Greenwashing has the opposite effect on the real state of the environment: if we believe that we are acting and we’re not, then the state of ecosystems and the pollution in the environment is just going to get worse.
  3. Greenwashing prevents real solutions from being developed and rolled out on a large scale: because we believe that we are already solving the large ecological issues through consumer behaviours which change very little, we stop innovating and stop trying to implement solutions that might have a larger real impact.
  4. Greenwashing makes us believe that we’re being eco-friendly, it makes us feel good, when in fact we are not having any real, measurable positive impact on the environment in our consumption choices. It also makes us feel like we’re already doing our part, when in fact we should and could be doing so much more.
  5. Greenwashing often diverts attention away from more problematic parts of a company, towards small and insignificant gestures, e.g. a petrol station selling organic coffee. What’s really important is forgotten.

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What laws are in place to stop greenwashing?

In New Zealand, like in the United States, there is a Fair Trading Act which is managed by the Commerce Commission, but no clear anti-greenwashing law. The NZ Environmental Claims Guidelines for companies say that “All traders, large and small, must make sure their environmental claims are substantiated, truthful, and not misleading to avoid breaching the Fair Trading Act 1986.” This is the same for any other claim made by a company. The guidelines focus on information-based claims, rather than suggestive or value-based marketing which tries to position a whole brand as ecological. Information based claims are scientific and fairly easy to prove or disprove, but are often not the basis for adverts that commit greenwashing. These guidelines are non-binding and interpretative – they are not law.

Moreover, companies must have reasonable grounds to make their claims. “‘Reasonable grounds’ means having evidence, research, test results or similar credible information to demonstrate a solid factual foundation for the claim being made,” according to the Guidelines. In the case of ecological and climate-based research, this is incredibly difficult, however. Just as we saw with smoking and cigarette-consumption studies by cigarette companies who aimed to spread doubt among the population regarding the negative impacts of smoking; it is equally possible to find a scientist to “prove” that your product or service is “good for the environment” – because what you measure and how you measure it matters. The book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway investigated this ‘doubt production’. We won’t discuss this in depth here, but a good example of this is the case of emissions and food products, and what we choose to measure these products against. A study can legitimately claim that eating pork is better than eating beef in terms of emissions. However, they haven’t compared all food types, and all the alternatives: eating vegetables, legumes, tofu, etc. is even better than pork and has a significantly lower impact than any meat source, but this doesn’t help someone trying to sell pork. Picking and choosing the measurement and comparison standards is a real practice for finding ‘scientific’ evidence for the ‘eco-friendliness’ of products.

New Zealand also have a Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA), and an Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). I emailed the BSA to ask about greenwashing and their response was: “Since the BSA complaints process only covers programmes that have already been broadcast, we can’t look at programmes that haven’t been on yet, or stop content from airing.” They can only do something if someone has said something that breaks the code, AND if someone reports it. The responsibility is therefore on the watcher or viewer to report content that breaches standards, and not on the producer of the content. Furthermore, there appears to be very little grounds for recourse on greenwashing or irresponsible discussions of the climate in the media with the BSA: it’s simply not something they are concerned about.

I also emailed the ASA, who to date have not responded. In 2019 they removed the Environmental Advertising Code, in favour of a broad Advertising Standards Code, which includes only two clauses regarding the environment, both of which relate to factual claims, and not to advertising in its more broad sense of making connections between ideas, values and engagements, and the products that a company sells. The main way in which greenwashing occurs lies outside the code, and therefore many complaints would likely not be upheld.

The UK’s ASA recently cracked down on greenwashing, pulling several commercials from air including a Persil washing powder advertisement which is still broadcast in New Zealand.  A similar phenomenon seems to be occurring in the United States, with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) purportedly working on much tougher greenwashing legislation and a crackdown on greenwashing in ESG reporting. The United States also have an Environmental Claims Guidance, but again this is not enshrined in law, it is just a guide for companies.

In France, new legislation has been passed in the 2021 Climate and Resilience Law to specifically target greenwashing and give new regulatory powers and punishment mechanisms to enforce the law. This law added ‘environmental impact’ to the list of ways in which allegations, indications and presentations of products can be deemed false and misleading. They also added that the ‘environmental engagements’ of the company making the claim could also be considered misleading or false, and therefore warrant punishment. This change focuses specifically on impact and engagements of the companies in question, rather than simply on the factual claims about the composition of their products. It now means that greenwashing can be more effectively policed, and there are clear ways in which companies can be brought to task over misleading and false advertising.

France also changed the punishment for greenwashing campaigns, which is different to simply breaking their equivalent of the Fair Trading Act. Not only is there a fine, which is 80% of the spending on the advertising campaign, but the company must also inform its customers and media base of the incorrect advertising, and, for 30 days following the infraction, put a notice on their website indicating that they have breached the law regarding environmental claims for their product. This enables all consumers to be made aware that what they may have heard is indeed ‘a load of rubbish.’ For any company concerned with brand image, being forced to admit you have been making false claims should be enough of a deterrent to stop major greenwashing infractions before they occur.

In France, and many European countries, it is also forbidden to write “biodegradable” (everything is biodegradable, this is a natural process which takes between a few hours and several million years to be completed…) or “respectful of the environment” or any other equivalent on the packaging of products. Why? Because these things are “obviously confusing and/or too global for the consumer.” Lawmakers know that these general and meaningless statements may attract people looking for more eco-friendly products, but they lack any specific meaning when it comes to what these words and labels refer to.

In New Zealand, therefore, there would seem to be no binding legislation against greenwashing, no active attempts on the part of the Advertising Standards Authority as in the UK to crack down on greenwashing, and no specific punishments or deterrents to greenwashing. We must be quite happy in this ignorance, believing that we are doing a lot to help the environment, rather than facing the reality that our per-capita carbon emissions are consistently in the top 10 in the OECD (that’s really, really, bad).

Cardboard box with biodegradable label
Biodegradable packaging is great, but all packaging is biodegradable - that's how nature works. Image: Marcell Viragh on Unsplash

How to identify greenwashing

There are some key characteristics of greenwashing that are commonly found in adverts that make claims about the environment. Some of these are from Mathieu Jahnich, a writer for BonPote, a French environmentalist site, who has worked in greenwashing regulation for many years.

  1. Negative environmental behaviours are trivialised, or positive ones are knocked down. E.g. negative images of public transport in a car commercial.
  2. Disproportionate claims, hyperboles, and grand language are used. E.g. “this vehicle is ecological” or “responsible production” or “we care for the planet” or “better for the environment.” Basically anything that refers to a very large commitment which almost certainly isn’t true.
  3. Lack of proof, lack of precision, or an unclear message. E.g., “eco-friendly packaging,” when we have no idea what eco-friendly packaging might be, and no criteria to assess whether this is true or not.
  4. Association between the environment and something which is not essential or not the main product of that company, e.g., petrol stations selling organic coffee to make you forget that you are purchasing fossil fuels, and no, organic coffee won’t make up for that.
  5. Visual or auditory associations with nature. If the advertising includes landscapes, trees, nature, and anything related to the environment to make connections with their product, e.g. Toyota advertising their cars driving through natural landscapes, claiming they are developing better futures.

How to combat greenwashing

Greenwashing is not only bad for the environment, it’s also bad for the whole ecological movement. It means that people believe they’re undertaking meaningful actions when they’re not, which undermines efforts to change things on a systematic level. We cannot effectively respond to the ecological crisis simply through buying more eco-friendly products; we need transformative changes at a societal level, as the IPBES’ Biodiversity and IPCC’s Climate Change reports highlight.

Here are some ways in which we can act in order to reduce or stop greenwashing:

  1. Campaign for your local environmental organisation to put more pressure on the Government to stop or ban greenwashing. There are a lot of organisations out there with a connection to Government agencies and to people who are more able to change the way our systems run. By creating anti-greenwashing campaigns, and making anti-greenwashing law one of the pillars of your environmental movement, you will be helping the integrity of the ecological movement as a whole, helping consumers to make more informed choices, and keeping companies honest and responsible for their actions. Stopping greenwashing is a really effective and easy to implement policy, and can be built upon with environmental impact reporting, carbon emissions reporting, and biodiversity/ecological impact reporting too. All these things help people make informed choices and make sure that what we do has a real impact.
  2. Denounce greenwashing on social media. The worst nightmare of any company is bad publicity. When you point out the greenwashing publicly on social media, these companies are forced to respond and to retract or defend their actions. It also helps make other people aware that they are being misled, which hopefully will mean they adopt a more critical attitude towards greenwashing in the future.
  3. Learn about greenwashing and then stop making greenwashing claims, if you work in advertising, marketing, public relations, communications, or any other forward-facing department in your company. Refuse to work for companies who just want to make it look like they’re doing good without actually having anything to back this up. Require more of your clients if they are seeking to talk about nature, organic ingredients, biodiversity, waste, environmental impact, carbon footprint, etc. If you’re a student in marketing, communications, copywriting, or a similar domain, learn more about greenwashing and about environmental claims, so that you don’t go on to create adverts that greenwash audiences.
  4. Think about what you’re seeing if you see nature in an advertisement, or hear about the environmental impact or the eco-friendliness of a product or service. Ask yourself, how is it possible that they can make this claim? Is there any evidence to back this up? What are they actually selling and does the advert relate to this or is it trying to improve the ‘brand image’?

Right now, the burden of proof and the responsibility lies with the members of the public who have to report these adverts for any investigation to be made. I propose that we reverse the burden of proof and put it back on the companies who are producing these advertisements: in order for your advertisement to be broadcast, if you wish to talk about the environment, nature, ecology, biodiversity, waste, organic/natural components/ingredients, etc., in your advertising, then you must submit, with your advertisement, an analysis of your claims and the proof that lies behind them, as well as a consideration of the ecological impact of the whole company and production process, if the ad is not product-specific. This will then be assessed by a jury before the broadcasting company can broadcast any advertising. This way, companies will be made responsible for their claims before the advertising can reach a public audience. If this were the case, I’m sure we would see a lot less greenwashing, and more responsible company publicities and reporting.

 

Mathieu Jahnich, who has worked to regulate and assess greenwashing for more than 10 years, writes that the work of lawyers checking content before diffusion is very effective at reducing greenwashing in France. Yet, the control of adverts is very often still optional in France, and this means that often adverts are not checked and therefore are released without any verification of the message involved. New Zealand has no such control measures in place, yet due to its small size, it surely wouldn’t be too difficult to set up a regulatory body for this role.

As is the case in France, we should also ban the use of ‘biodegradable’ and other such meaningless terms which seek to sell products without any meaningful foundation. Other such measures could be adding compulsory disclaimers on products which are short-life or single use, alerting consumers to their high environmental impact; disclaimers on products where a local alternative is available that the same product can be found with lower emissions elsewhere; notices on all physical promotional material like flyers reminding people to recycle them rather than littering (this already happens in some cases); compulsory ecological impact tables on the packaging of all products, like the nutritional information labels on food products, and more.

 

Greenwashing is a real issue and a hindrance to the ecological movement and to our efforts to change our societies to respond to the ecological crisis that is developing. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of the extent to which greenwashing occurs, and often those who are developing greenwashing advertising are not aware of the nature of the claims they are making, and the impact that they really have. It’s a problem that is quite easily solved through better regulation and more awareness and knowledge of the ecological crisis, which is why sites like Plurality.eco are incredibly important.

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What is the Ecological Crisis?

Forest burning

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Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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Climate change, global warming, sustainability, environmental management… What is all this really about? And why should we be worried?

image

At this point, in early 2023, I think it’s safe to say that everyone in Western liberal democracies like New Zealand has heard of climate change and global warming. They might deny it, or think it’s not important, but we all know that there is a theory out there which says that the climate is changing.

Quite a few people will have also heard of environmental protection. Perhaps people who work in business-related contexts will have heard of environmental and social governance (ESG) which has become a buzz word in these circles. Sustainability is also something we read about everywhere, and a lot of the things we buy have labels or packaging which make reference to sustainability.

Why are sustainability and environmental protection important? What is actually going on? Climate change is referred to as a bad thing, and the environment must need some kind of help or management if we have a Ministry for the Environment, but what is the problem exactly?

As we’ll see, the problem is more complicated than just different weather patterns and hotter summers. It also extends much further than the icebergs in Antarctica.

The Meadows Report and the Great Acceleration

In 1972, a report was published by Club of Rome researchers Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William Behrens III. This report, called The Limits to Growth, set off alarm bells in many organisations and governments throughout the world. For the first time, we had evidence that a serious crisis was, and would continue to be affecting not just human beings, but the whole planet. Despite the fact that we had known about the effects of industrial farming, capitalist production, and other human activities on local environments since at least the 18th century, this report was one of the first high profile papers to state, very dramatically, the potential future of the whole planet.

This report analysed global trends in many things, and saw that in nearly every category, growth was no longer linear, but instead was exponential. Today we might have three, and tomorrow nine, and in seven days’ time 2,187. Exponential growth means the rate at which this growth occurs is always increasing.

These trends are now known as ‘The Great Acceleration’. The image below represents this, and shows the increases in measures including the number of McDonald’s restaurants, as well as the average temperature of the Northern Hemisphere.

Image: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/275775177167542214/

The report had three main conclusions. These conclusions would influence Margaret Thatcher’s energy policy in the United Kingdom, and act as a motivator for Al Gore’s political ambitions in the United States. Here are the conclusions, straight from the report:

  1. If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.
  2. It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential.
  3. If the world’s people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success. [Meadows et. al, 1972 p. 23-24]

There are, therefore, two possibilities: human beings will be in trouble, their populations will decline, and their capacities to meet their basic needs will become less and less sure. Or, human beings will begin to change things, and have a greater chance of not being in this situation.

When Emmanuel Macron said in January 2023 to the French people, “who could have predicted the climate crisis?”, he must have been quite misinformed. Or perhaps he thought that people were sufficiently uninformed about climate change to be able to fool them with his words. In fact, world leaders have known about the real and disastrous possible outcomes of humanity’s impact on the environment for the past 50 years.

Global Warming and Climate Change

One thing that was measured in this report was the average temperatures at various locations around the world. Records in different countries began at different times, but we can use other measurement tools to determine what temperatures would have been like.

World temperature increases
Stats NZ https://www.stats.govt.nz/indicators/temperature

In New Zealand, temperatures have, on average, been increasing since the middle of the 20th century. Now, almost all regions in New Zealand are experiencing increased temperatures, and meteorologists (weather experts) have declared that there is a warming trend in these regions, meaning temperatures are likely to keep increasing.

New Zealand temperature increases 1972-2019
Annual average daily temperature trends. Image: Stats NZ

The increase in temperature is what we call global warming: the earth is getting, on average, hotter.

Why do small temperature changes matter? NASA explain that “A one-degree global change is significant because it takes a vast amount of heat to warm all of the oceans, the atmosphere, and the land masses by that much. In the past, a one- to two-degree drop was all it took to plunge the Earth into the Little Ice Age. A five-degree drop was enough to bury a large part of North America under a towering mass of ice 20,000 years ago.”

We can even make estimates about the global temperatures as far back as 20,000 years ago – the last time Earth was in the Ice Age. One of the characteristics of the current period in the Earth’s history is the relatively stable temperatures and climatic conditions. Remember that Earth hasn’t always had a stable amount of oxygen in the air, and it hasn’t always had the temperatures that we now experience.

Annual global average temperatures. Image: RealClimate.org

Can you see how dramatic the increase in global temperature has been, since around 1950, compared with all other temperature increases in the past 20,000 years? The red line is a prediction of what will happen if we do not act to stop global warming, up until 2100. An increase as steep as the one we are seeing now has never been experienced before on planet Earth.

Another measure was the amount of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide that was in the air. The increases in these gases in the atmosphere is what is causing the increases in temperature. The increase in these gases, as the Meadows report demonstrates, and many scientists have shown in the past 50 years, is caused by human industrial activity on the planet.

Climate change, therefore, is the term that we use to refer to the effects of this temperature increase. When temperatures get warmer, icebergs in the Arctic and Antarctic begin to melt, which causes sea levels to rise. The rate of extreme weather events increases. Rain stops falling in some locations, including central United States. Some parts of the world will become unliveable, as is already becoming the case in parts of India and the Middle East, where temperatures in summer are consistently above 50 degrees Celsius.

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The wider ecological problem

Climate change and global warming are not the only things to be affected by human industrial activity. This activity is also damaging many other parts of the Earth’s systems, which is proving to have disastrous effects.

In 2009, Johan Rockström at the Stockholm Resilience Centre brought together a team of 28 international scientists to discuss how we could measure the different changes in the environment. Climate and temperature were only one piece of the puzzle.

Their solution was to develop a series of nine planetary boundaries. These boundaries represent the nine different factors which contribute to the flourishing of life – human, animal and plant life – on the planet. These are the most important ingredients, if you will, for life to continue the way it has done for thousands of years.

 Just like in a baking recipe, if you add too much of something, the cake is ruined. The same goes for the nine planetary boundaries – once we have too much pollution in our air, our oceans become too acidic, or our water supplies damaged, then the possibilities for life to flourish become greatly reduced.

 At the end of 2021, humanity had crossed the boundaries of four of the nine different categories. In January 2022, humanity passed the fifth of nine, which was the amount of chemical pollution in our biological systems. In May 2022, we passed the sixth of nine planetary boundaries: that of the fresh water cycle, and in particular for green water. This refers to the humidity of the soil, and the flow of water through the soil systems. When the earth is too dry, and water stops flowing, it is as if the blood flow of a human being has slowed or stopped: life becomes unsupportable.

In the image below, the green area is the area within which life can be properly sustained. This is called the ‘safe zone’. Beyond this, the risks of collapse increase, as does the viability of life on Earth.

Image showing the planetary boundaries
The nine planetary boundaries. Orange indicates how far past the boundary we are. Image: Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, based on analysis in Persson et al 2022 and Steffen et al 2015.

The idea of planetary boundaries is not without critique, however (Biermann and Kim, 2020). In actual fact, there is no determinable ‘boundary’ which can be measured and set. According to researchers at the National Centre for Research in France (CNRS), we generally can only figure out the point at which this boundary lies after the whole system has been disrupted, at which point we have the information to see where the tipping point was (Callioce, 2020). We use these ideas and representations as metaphors and images, to help us understand what is going on in the environment, rather than hard and fast truths about the way the Earth works.

The other problem is that these boundaries are interrelated. Changing the status of one of them can lead to large changes in other areas of the Earth’s systems. One simple example is the fact that more acidic oceans lead to decreases in biodiversity, as fewer species are able to survive in more acidic environments. We see this in the bleaching and dying out of coral reefs across the planet.

The ecological crisis

Now that we have been through the various aspects of the ecological problem, let’s tie it all together. What is the ecological problem?

We know the following things:

  1. The relationship between the activities of human beings and the Earth’s biological systems is evident, and well-demonstrated. Currently, this relationship weighs heavily on these systems, disrupting, destroying, and even eradicating them.
  2. The causes of this disruption are varied, but most certainly human. These include the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, the development of non-degradable materials such as plastics which stay in the system for thousands of years, the increases in industrial agriculture which has destroyed soil and water systems, producing other greenhouse gases, and more.
  3. The biological systems that we are disturbing are the very same systems that support life on this planet. It is because of these systems, and the stable conditions that they have created, that life has been able to flourish on Earth.
  4. The conclusion that ecologists have reached is that this disruption and destruction of the Earth is unsustainable, because Earth’s resources are limited, and its systems are fragile. We are putting the very possibility of life in danger, because these systems are changing in ways that are hostile to life as we know it.

We can see that this understanding of the ecological problem is much, much larger than politicians, companies, and many ecologists would have us believe.

Much of the current debate is centred around the question of emissions. Whilst this is important, the ecological problem is not simply a question of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and consequently too great a carbon footprint for each person in most Western countries. The problems are more varied and complex than this one indicator which has become popularised to the point that it has become vulgar, symbolic of a larger problem but taken, by those who do not know better, to be the only problem.

This is evident in the commitments that countries have made in the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in each country. This approach ignores the larger conclusions which ecologists have clearly drawn: it is not just the fact that we extract fossil fuels and burn them that is the problem; it is our very relationship with nature itself, it is our way of life which the planet cannot support.

 

To conclude

The ecological crisis is that the Earth’s systems are being destroyed in ways that will make Earth a more hostile place for almost all forms of life. The conditions that supported the flourishing of life, and of human beings, are no longer present on Earth. This has happened because of the industrial actions of human beings.

Here on the Plurality site, we use the term ‘ecological crisis’ instead of ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ or ‘environmental problem’ to refer to what’s going on. The problem is much bigger than just the fact that the climate is changing. In fact, this could be the biggest crisis humanity has ever had to face.

When you’re talking about the environment with your friends and family next, try to discuss the ecological crisis with them. Drawing people’s attention to the fact that climate change is just one part of the crisis is important, so that we are able to see just what we are up against when it comes to policy and lifestyle changes.

Sharing knowledge is also a great gift.
Let others know about this article

It took more than 30 hours of research and writing to produce this article, which will always be open and free for everyone to read, without any advertising.

All our articles are freely accessible because we believe that everyone needs to be able to access to a source of coherent and easy to understand information on the ecological crisis. This challenge that confronts us all will only be properly addressed when we understand what the problems are and where they come from.

If you've learned something today, please consider donating, to help us produce more great articles and share this knowledge with a wider audience.

Why plurality.eco?

Our environment is more than a resource to be exploited. Human beings are not the ‘masters of nature,’ and cannot think they are managers of everything around them. Plurality is about finding a wealth of ideas to help us cope with the ecological crisis which we have to confront now, and in the coming decades. We all need to understand what is at stake, and create new ways of being in the world, new dreams for ourselves, that recognise this uncertain future.

Our network

On social media

We're part of the .eco network of organisations committed to support positive change for the planet.

Copyright © Plurality.eco 2023