Greenwashing delays climate action. And yes, it’s happening in Tennessee.

Courtesy of Christian Storto/Canva

Greenwashing is the practice of using media campaigns, publicity gossip, and distraction to mislead the public into believing that an organization’s goals or actions are greener than they really are.

The United Nations released a new report last week that defines how governments and companies are “greenwashing” when they make net-zero promises while choosing actions that cause climate pollution.

First and foremost, the report states that there is no reason for new investment in fossil fuels, the main contributor to climate change, and that existing plants must be shut down.

“It is reprehensible to use false ‘net zero’ promises to cover up massive fossil fuel expansion. It is pure deception. This toxic cover-up could throw our world over the climate cliff. The glow must end.” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in Egypt last week.

In 2021, the Tennessee Valley Authority set a goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. TVA is also currently planning 4,000 megawatts of natural gas, including a new gas plant west of Nashville. Natural gas releases carbon dioxide directly when it is burned, and last week new data analysis showed that oil and natural gas fields are the world’s top 14 polluters.

In 2021, TVA’s power mix was about 44% fossil fuels — 28% gas and 16% coal. About half came from nuclear and hydroelectric power and 3% from wind and solar power. In its 10-K filing released this week, TVA reported that it now has approximately 800 megawatts of solar capacity in operation and has an additional 1,800 megawatts under contract.

TVA was ranked last in a recent Sierra Club report examining climate pledges and actions by the country’s utility companies. TVA has been highlighted as an example of “textbook” greenwashing between its coal phase-out timeline, new gas plans and limited renewable additions. TVA has planned the largest gas expansion of any operator in the US this decade, and the utility plans to replace less than a fifth of its existing coal and gas generation with clean energy, according to the report.

In a statement accompanying the UN greenwashing report, TVA listed previous emissions reductions and its planned clean energy efforts, such as how the utility issued a 5,000-megawatt request for zero-carbon energy. TVA didn’t directly address its fossil fuel plans.

TVA said its journey to decarbonization “may not always be linear”.

Corporations delay climate protection measures through greenwashing

The latest scientific assessment from the International Panel on Climate Change shows that global emissions must peak by 2025 and be halved by 2030 to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

This number is intended to illustrate the urgency of the climate crisis. But utilities, governments and corporations have manipulated the narrative of those deadlines to delay climate action, according to the UN report.

“Unaddressed greenwashing based on substandard net-zero promises will undermine the efforts of real leaders, creating both confusion and cynicism and a failure to implement urgent climate action,” the report’s authors wrote.

just reached earth record high Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen oxide levels this year. Each additional bit of global warming further destabilizes the climate, leading to longer droughts, more intense heat waves, and pandemics.

To transition the energy sector to net-zero emissions by 2035, the nation would reap the greatest net benefits with an energy system that is predominantly wind and solar, with additional energy provided by storage, nuclear, hydrogen and hydropower, according to a study by the National Renewable Energy Lab, which is part of the US Department of Energy.

Greenwashing and the resulting lack of meaningful climate action can drain people, according to Ash Gillis, a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University who studies the psychological effects of climate change.

“It takes a lot of energy to want to do anything other than the status quo,” Gillis said. “You combine that with a greater level of hopelessness about the climate crisis, and you have a recipe for disaster of your own.”

The UN report calls for more transparency, science-based plans and third-party accountability with net-zero targets.