Could The IPCC Climate Report Unleash A New Type Of Greenwash?

The new IPCC Climate Report has included consumer action as a valid climate solution for the first time. But, we must beware this unleashing a new raft of ‘sustainable lifestyle’ campaigns that can’t count (the carbon).

It’s been eight years since the venerated, and Nobel prize-winning, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) set out its previous plan for combatting climate change. Indeed, this is only their sixth ever report into the science of what the hell we should do about, well, the hell on earth that climate change could release. This year, the scientific authors and the governments who sign-off the report, have agreed a new chapter on the ‘demand side’ of climate – on what drives consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. This is a significant departure from their usual near exclusive focus upon the ‘supply side’ of climate change – the burning of oil, gas, coal and forests etc.

The new demand-side chapter might transform how we solve climate change – if we’re smart about it. But I predict a frenzy of advertising campaigns from big brands and governments trying to persuade us to eat less meat, travel by public transport and turn our air-conditioning/heating down. All claiming credibility because the IPCC is now calculating the impact of lifestyles changes for the first time. People have just become part of the climate math – with a 5% cut in carbon ‘rapidly’ possible if we do the right things. That is a huge amount of carbon, an important way for us all to help prevent further climate chaos and also a very controversial addition to the IPCC methodology.

For decades, climate activists have hotly debated the role of consumer action and behaviour change in climate action. Some argue it lets governments and big business off the hook, while others contend that ‘people power’ is both directly impactful and pressures powerful people to act. Especially as even the optimistic projections of renewable energy and other low-carbon technologies won’t fully meet our global energy demand by 2050. Making these demand-side reductions, including how ‘over-consumers’ behave every day, is a way to create the breathing space needed for meeting climate targets. Balderdash others say, pointing to the apocryphal story that BP invented the concept of consumers ‘carbon footprint’ to shift the blame from them pumping all the oil. The new IPCC report will fuel all sides of this unending dispute.

But, if this fight over the inclusion of lifestyle emission data is fraught, wait for what happens next!

A new greenwash wave?

Because, faced with a new avenue to meet their carbon targets, governments are going to turn to business to intervene in their consumers’ lifestyle emissions. And those businesses will turn to their marketing and advertising agencies to activate ‘behaviour change’ and ‘sustainable lifestyle’ campaigns for them to show governments how responsive and proactive they are being. I know, because for 20 years I’ve been running those campaigns for governments, businesses and even the United Nations itself. Back in 2004, I wrote the first guide to behaviour change for climate on behalf of the UK Government and I sat on the United Nations Sustainable Lifestyles Taskforce. Today, I’m deeply worried about the advertising agencies salivating at the big behavioural and sustainable lifestyle briefs about to pop out of every company seeking a new way to prove they are contributing to climate action.

Many of these campaigns are likely to ‘reach’ millions, or even billions of people, and ‘engage’ hundreds of thousands. Which is shorthand for people watching the ads and clicking links in the campaign posts on social media.

But clicks aren’t carbon.

We advertisers tend to measure ‘engagement’ figures of people clicking, liking and reposting the campaigns, or increasing preference, or generating ‘opportunities to see’. These are all very valid for awareness campaigning, and I’ve used them myself in big campaigns seeking to raise awareness of wildlife crime for the UN, refillable shampoo for P&G and ocean protection for WWF.

But as demand side/lifestyle emissions are now to be officially counted as a climate mitigation factor by the world’s scientists, it’s time to apply the same rigour to measure if all our behavioural insights, creative magic and social media wizardry is actually changing a darn thing.

Lifestyle emissions campaigns must start demonstrating that someone really did something (that they wouldn’t have done otherwise), and that the something they did then measurably avoided or reduced carbon emissions. Which is a long way of saying: we need to count the carbon. Without the metric of carbon in place, it’s just marketing spin.

Work is underway to generate measurement protocols for setting new standards for claiming avoided carbon. Mission Innovation, a global initiative of 22 countries and the European Commission has published an Avoided Emissions Framework for approaching lifestyle and product calculations of impact. With the inclusion of demand-side change in by the IPCC, other tools, principles and standards will emerge.

And the critics are also lining up to hold these campaigns accountable. Diet shifts towards plants and reducing meat/dairy consumption made it into the IPCC report, not least because those consumer shifts could save gigatons of carbon. But, an advert for Alpro almond milk was banned in the UK after regulators concluded that its slogans “Good for the planet, good for you” and “Next stop. Your recipe to a healthier planet!” were misleading. The Advertising Standards Authority said Alpro failed to explain why its product had a lower environmental impact than dairy-based alternatives. Even when your claim is right in principle, you’ve got to count the carbon properly.

Let’s do this properly

Done right, business does have a powerful potential to affect lifestyles emissions at scale. IKEA sells solar panels alongside bookcases, Google plans to save over a million tonnes of carbon just by tweaking the routes on Maps, and Mastercard can now display the carbon footprint of different purchases. These are tangible and measurable product and service offers to consumers interested in cutting their lifestyle emissions. And my own research reveals 88% of consumers in the US & UK want brands to help them live more sustainably.

The best way for brands to help is by offering measurable interventions and product solutions that provably avoid specific amounts of carbon, and that if undertaken by many of us, will reach levels of change the IPCC sets out as desperately needed.

The worst way would be another beautifully creative campaign that doesn’t count the carbon, because those campaigns must no longer count as climate action.