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If China chooses a phrase of the year for 2021, “carbon neutrality” has to be on the shortlist.

Since Chinese president Xi Jinping announced the world’s largest emitter will reach net zero emissions by 2060, carbon neutrality has become one of the key phrases in every meeting and speech in the country, no matter whether it’s about the economy, finance, technology, or even culture and tourism. It shows a growing climate awareness in Chinese society, but at the same time it’s creating unprecedented levels of hype and greenwashing.

In the past few months alone, at least 10 companies have sent out invitations to us to visit their “carbon neutral” industrial parks or to learn about their “carbon neutral” products from beer to T-shirts. Accompanying the invitations are always descriptions of the nifty technologies used to reduce emissions, charts showing the amount of energy or water saved, and of course slogans echoing the words of top leaders in Beijing.

However, they’re often missing the key bit of information: their emissions. How much carbon dioxide was released making the product? How much fuel was burned producing its raw materials? What kind of offset programs are you funding to counterbalance those?

Several other related terms are also gaining wider adoption: “ecological,” “clean,” “green” and “environmentally friendly.” They’re even worse, as their vagueness allows companies to mislead customers, confuse the public and cover up industries and companies that continue to pollute.

Carbon neutrality is not an exciting slogan, but a goal that requires careful calculations and detailed action plans.

“Climate and carbon neutrality are the latest most popular words in the past year,” said Li Shuo, global policy analyst at Greenpeace East Asia. “Although it’s better that people talk about it too much than too little, soon everyone has to wake up and realize there isn’t much time left for the hype; real questions need to be faced and answered.”

Since Xi’s climate pledge in September 2020, several Chinese companies announced net-zero deadlines. But many of the proposals consist of vague promises rather than concrete measures, and some plans even run counter to the direction of moving away from fossil fuels.

Barges carrying coal on the Grand Canal in China's eastern Jiangsu province, on Nov. 22, 2021. | AFP-JIJI
Barges carrying coal on the Grand Canal in China’s eastern Jiangsu province, on Nov. 22, 2021. | AFP-JIJI

Take, for example, China National Offshore Oil Corp., the largest offshore oil and gas producer in China. To reach “carbon neutrality,” the company has promised to eliminate emissions from its own operations, though won’t act to address the greenhouse gas released when the oil it sells is burned. In addition, it’s planning to increase its output of natural gas, which not only emits carbon dioxide when it’s used but is a major source of the even more potent heat-trapping gas methane.

So-called “clean coal” is another phrase industries and companies use to cover their continued investment in the dirtiest fuel. The central government recently endorsed this controversial concept by allocating more than 200 billion yuan ($31 billion) to finance clean coal projects at preferential rates, under the country’s efforts to “promote a green and low carbon development.” The announcement came just days after China helped lead a last-second effort at the COP26 climate summit to weaken language on a global phase-out of coal power.

There is no national standard or mechanism to verify all the carbon-neutral claims made by companies, and the institutions that judge offset projects vary significantly, said Qin Yan, lead carbon analyst at Refinitiv.

“To unify the crediting and verification system will be the next step to go for China,” she said. “The Chinese way is top-down and it relies on administrative regulations, while in Europe there is supervision from independent groups, and media often call out companies’ greenwashing behaviors.”

Chinese media outlets are not helping. Instead of policing greenwashing, many have joined the craze of blindly using “carbon neutrality.” Last month, Shandong province proposed a new scheme only allowing companies to launch high-emissions projects when they can prove they’ve avoided the same volume of emissions from other projects, through technological upgrades, reducing capacity or switching to clean energy. While the requirement does nothing to reduce total emissions, several outlets interpreted the policy as requiring that “new projects must be carbon neutral.”

“Empty slogans won’t last long without reachable plans, and the green lies will be seen through soon,” said Greenpeace’s Li. “It’s no longer a time when a long-term goal set for decades later is enough to please people. Now after Glasgow, we need to know what the plan is for the next three years.”

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