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Environment Agency chief criticises greenwashing ‘deception’

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The failure to identify greenwashing creates a false perception regarding how the climate crisis is being addressed, the outgoing chair of the Environment Agency is expected to say.

In one of her final speeches before leaving the leadership of the Environment Agency, Emma Howard Boyd is expected to warn about the need for more transparency regarding organisations' environmental policies.

Speaking at the UK Centre for Greening Finance and Investment Annual Forum at the Institution of Civil Engineers, Howard Boyd will warn that businesses are embedding liability by giving the false impression that infrastructure and buildings they own or are developing are resilient to climate change. 

As a result, nearly £650bn of public and private infrastructure investment planned by 2030 is reportedly at considerable risk unless urgent action is taken. 

The danger, she plans to say, is that people “won’t realise this deception until it is too late”.

Her warning comes after the Climate Change Committee’s latest report, released last week, which warned that government plans for tackling global warming will not deliver on legal targets to cut emissions in the coming decades.

“The more businesses are transparent about their plans to transition to net zero and prepare for climate shocks, the easier it is to benchmark best practice, set standards and celebrate the companies that really are delivering on their commitments," she is expected to say. 

“If we fail to identify and address greenwashing, we allow ourselves false confidence that we are already addressing the causes and treating the symptoms of the climate crisis.”

Greenwashing is defined by ClientEarth as where a company uses advertising and public messaging to appear more climate-friendly and environmentally sustainable than it really is.

Earlier this year, the Bank of England’s first climate stress test suggested that UK banks and insurers would end up taking on nearly £340bn-worth of climate-related losses by 2050 unless action was taken to curb rising temperatures and sea levels.

Currently, UK emissions are now almost half (47 per cent) their 1990 levels, after rising 4 per cent in 2021 as the economy began to recover from Covid-19. At the moment, some 1.3 million people are employed in carbon-intensive ‘brown’ jobs that will need to adapt to cleaner technologies and processes if the country is to meet its net-zero goals. 

In one of her final speeches before leaving the Environment Agency in September, Howard Boyd is expected to praise such NGOs “for their tireless work to call this out” and call for private investment into climate adaptation, saying “just five per cent of climate finance goes towards resilience and virtually none of that comes from the private sector”.

Howard Boyd's warnings come after the UK’s top financial watchdog, the Financial Conduct Authority, announced last week that it backed calls to bring ESG ratings and data within its remit in a bid to prevent inflated ESG ratings.

“We see a clear rationale for regulatory oversight of certain ESG data and rating providers – and for a globally consistent regulatory approach informed by the recommendations on ESG data and ratings developed by the International Organization of Securities Commission in 2021,” the FCA said. 

Last month, ministers from the G7 countries – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the United States – agreed to significantly curb the use of coal and other fossil fuels in electricity production, although they did not set a target date for doing so.

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