The annual United Nations climate change conference, COP, is an opportunity for governments from around the world to come together and agree on ambitious action to take on the climate crisis.

Unfortunately, it’s also a major opportunity for corporations to engage in greenwashing – that is, making themselves out to be more environmentally friendly than they actually are.

The same companies which got us into this mess, and continue to make it worse – through their investments in fossil fuel production, or their complicity in the destruction of climate-critical forests – are now trying to sell themselves as the ones who can get us out of it.

The problem, though, is that the actual climate solutions we need would result in a massive hit to their bottom line. So instead they present false solutions which sound great in theory, but if you dig deeper into the substance of their plans they are either meaningless, insufficient, or would actually make things worse. Below we’ve compiled a list of some of the more common examples of this to look out for during this year’s COP, and to call out whenever you see them.

1) Natural gas as a low-carbon fuel

The fossil fuel industry is keen to talk up the climate-friendly credentials of natural gas (or, more accurately, fossil gas). They say that it’s ‘low carbon’, and can act as a bridge fuel to help us transition to a sustainable future of clean energy. This would suit them nicely, as it would allow them to keep profiting from fossil fuel extraction, without facing the backlash which their harmful investments in coal and oil have rightfully received.

The problem is that fossil gas isn’t low-carbon at all. Sure, it produces lower carbon emissions than coal or oil, but that’s not saying much – it’s still the third most carbon-intensive method of generating electricity, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

As for plugging the gap while we invest in renewables, that’s nonsense too. The fossil fuel industry bigging up gas as a climate solution is one of the biggest barriers to securing the level of investment in genuinely sustainable energy solutions that we need. Already existing gas investments are more than enough to take us over 1.5°C of warming, so any further investments would take us further away from our climate goals.

2) “Blue” hydrogen

Another fuel being pushed by the fossil fuel industry as a climate solution is hydrogen. This one seems to be more promising than fossil gas, as it’s carbon-free at the point of use. However, the process by which the fossil industry advocates producing hydrogen is by using…(you guessed it)…fossil gas. If the fossil fuel industry gets their way, then, hydrogen will simply allow them to keep extracting fossil gas, without saying that’s what they’re doing.

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Hydrogen does have a role to play in the renewable energy transition, when produced using renewable electricity. But this will be for specific, limited uses where direct electrification is impractical. The scale at which the fossil fuel industry advocates using hydrogen could only be met by using fossil gas, and so is simply not a sustainable energy solution.

3) Net zero”

Net zero” is not the same as “zero emissions”. While the latter is what all companies should be aiming for in order to meet our climate goals, the former simply makes it look like you’ve achieved the latter through the use of accounting tricks.

Companies can continue polluting as usual while sticking to their net zero pledges, as long as they include “carbon-negative” activities on their balance sheet. The problem is that there’s very little regulation or standardisation as to what constitutes a carbon-negative activity.

Many net zero policies rely on purchasing carbon offsets – essentially, buying up a load of land in a (usually) developing country which will supposedly absorb the carbon from your other activities. Not only are carbon offsets based on some fairly sketchy science, but they are often procured by grabbing land from Indigenous communities, who have a much better track record as stewards of vital ecosystems than polluting corporations.

Furthermore, Oxfam has calculated that the fossil fuel industry alone could require 500 million hectares of land to offset their emissions by 2050 to reach net zero. That’s the same area as one third of global cropland. There simply isn’t enough available land to offset our current level of emissions.

Other net zero plans often depend on non-existent negative emissions technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS), despite there being no evidence that this technology will be able to work at anything like the scale or level of efficiency required.

4) “Nature-based solutions”

Like “net zero”, “nature-based solutions” as a concept serves to conceal more than it illuminates. There is no standard definition as to what is meant by this phrase, so it is used to mean everything and nothing. Big polluters frequently make use of it in their promotional materials to placate increasing public pressure to cut emissions, rather than actually take action to cut their emissions.

The phrase has become so corrupted by continued misuse that it is now virtually meaningless, and so any mention of “nature-based solutions” must be followed by an examination of exactly what concrete action the speaker is referring to. If they’re unwilling or unable to explain what they mean, you can assume that they’re using the phrase disingenuously.

5) “Green finance”

At COP28, banks and other financial institutions will doubtless be keen to talk up their “green finance” initiatives, promoting themselves as the funders of renewable energy and other climate solutions.

However, by directing our attention to the specific funds they’ve set aside for “green finance”, banks hope that we won’t notice all the rest of their financing which continues to bankroll fossil fuel expansion, or companies linked to deforestation and human rights abuses.

Assessing how “green” a particular financier is requires looking at the overall effect of their entire investment portfolio, not just the select bits they choose to highlight. And even then, it’s the banks themselves who decide what constitutes “green finance”, so there’s no guarantee that these parts of their portfolio are genuinely sustainable anyway.

6) Voluntary anti-deforestation pledges

When they’re not bragging about their “green” finance initiatives, expect financial institutions to be showing off their environmentally friendly policies and pledges. For example, at COP26 around 450 financial institutions signed up to the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), promising to reach net zero by 2050.

But there’s just one issue: they continue to plough eyewatering sums of cash into global deforestation. If previous experience is anything to go on, voluntary commitments such as this are barely worth the paper they're written on.

Many of the banks and financiers we’ve exposed for bankrolling environmentally destructive companies have made no-deforestation pledges in the past. So we should be very sceptical about any similar pledges announced at this year's COP.

When forced to choose between protecting the environment and making a quick buck, history shows that by and large banks will opt for the latter. So rather than take them at their word when they announce yet another toothless pledge, world leaders need to pass laws at home to force them to make sure their investments are not doing harm, with penalties should they fail to do this properly.

COP Climate Summit