Climate Active is the Australian government’s voluntary climate action program for companies and organisations. Created in 2010, it has, so far, issued more than 700 carbon-neutral certifications for some of Australia’s best-known brands, and become a de facto way for companies to signal they’re doing something about the climate crisis. You may recognise the green logo that’s stamped on products, events, or business websites.
Climate Active was intended to set the benchmark for the integrity and credibility of voluntary corporate climate action in Australia. But after more than a decade and no shortage of criticism, the Climate Active certification process is now under review – and it needs engaged individuals, businesses and organisations to help make it fit for purpose.
How it works
First, let’s summarise how Climate Active works.
“To become carbon neutral, businesses and organisations calculate the greenhouse gas emissions generated by their activity, such as fuel or electricity use and travel. They reduce these emissions where possible by investing in new technology or changing the way they operate. Any remaining emissions can be 'cancelled out' by purchasing carbon offsets. Carbon offset units are generated from activities that prevent, reduce or remove greenhouse gas emissions from being released into the atmosphere. When the offsets purchased by an organisation equal the emissions produced, they are carbon neutral.”
So, what’s the problem?
Let us start by saying that the fact Climate Active exists is a really good thing. Certification schemes like this exist everywhere around the world, though it is quite rare for them to be run by governments themselves.
But, the program has been the subject of heavy criticism – see examples here and here – over the past few years. In fact, one of Climate Active’s most vocal critics is someone who was deeply involved in the scheme’s creation, Polly Hemming, who says there’s no evidence that the certified businesses were taking genuine steps to reduce their impact on global heating.
“Our prime concern is that, at a time when science tells us we need to reduce absolute emissions, the Australian government is running a program that does not enforce that and instead says to fossil fuel companies and other firms that it’s fine just to offset them,” Polly said.
The opportunity before us
Following this wave of criticism, the Climate Active program is currently under review and the proposed changes are the subject of a consultation, giving climate-concerned individuals, businesses and organisations the opportunity to provide feedback on the proposed reforms and help shape the future of the program. This time, we can ensure Climate Active actually does what it’s designed to do.
Below, we explain why the program currently falls short, and what we, as professionals and employees, can do about it.
3 key ways Climate Active falls short
When looking to improve or build on the Climate Active program, it’s important to understand the current version’s shortcomings. Here are three of the key issues right now.
#1: There’s a lack of credibility and integrity for carbon neutrality claims
Climate Active requires companies to calculate their emissions – but not all of their emissions. And often, companies conveniently omit emissions categories that happen to be their biggest sources of pollution.
For example, a bank will include the emissions generated by their head offices and branches, but won’t include the emissions generated by their investments, even though international accounting standards say they’re officially a part of their footprint. This means NAB can be certified carbon neutral for over a decade while financing new coal mines (although activist pressure is helping).
In a similar vein, Cooper Energy was able to claim carbon neutrality for offsetting 0.4 per cent of its emissions while planning to double its gas production.
The program also allows companies to claim to be carbon neutral through simply purchasing offsets, instead of requiring actual emissions cuts. In fact, there are no minimum requirements for emissions reductions at all, meaning a company can keep polluting as much as they want, as long as they pay someone else to promise to pollute less.
The very idea that companies can neutralise their negative climate impacts by purchasing offsets is misleading at best. There’s a strong push from industry experts around the world to move away from the term ‘offsets’ altogether, with Europe implementing a ban on climate-neutral claims from 2026.
#2: Poor quality of offsets
On the topic of offsets, Climate Active currently offers little to no due diligence on the purchased offsets that support carbon neutrality claims. There is no process to check the veracity or legitimacy of the offsets, despite the fact that they’re critical to support whatever claim is being certified or promoted.
This is a problem because it’s an unregulated market that lacks integrity. In 2022, a research team from the Australian National University conducted a review of Australia’s carbon credit system and found that 70% of the credits issued under these methods do not represent genuine emissions abatement. They called it “environmental and taxpayer fraud”, and Climate Active’s reliance on offsets plays into this systemic issue.
#3: The certification of fossil fuel companies and products, and other highly damaging industries
Climate Active’s liberal standards have allowed climate-harming companies (or just harmful companies, full stop) to greenwash, take advantage of loopholes, and falsely position themselves as climate or community champions through the simple act of purchasing often-questionable offsets.
Fuel-brand Ampol was able to certify “carbon-neutral” fuel, Coles was able to advertise “carbon-neutral” beef, and Climate Active was found to be in breach of international guidelines for certifying a tobacco company.
These certifications undermine the credibility of the entire program.
How we can change Climate Active for the better
We’ve outlined the main reasons why Climate Active is not exactly the gold standard for ambitious climate action. But the good news is, some of these issues are actually addressed in the current consultation process.
You might feel like responding to a government consultation will not have a lot of impact. After all, what tells us that the decision makers will consider any of the feedback and they haven’t already made a decision on the program direction?
Well, to be honest, we don’t know for sure. But writing responses to consultations has proven to be a really effective way to drive change. And in this particular case, the program managers do seem genuinely interested in hearing feedback from the community on the program direction. They are asking a lot of the right questions.
The more individuals and organisations that voice their concerns and provide feedback, the higher chance there is to see actual change.
To respond to the consultation, you can either:
- Respond as an individual.
- Respond as an organisation.
If your company has a sustainability team, you can ask them for advice on how to go about responding as a business. If your company doesn’t have a sustainability team, you can go to the highest competent authority who can sign off on something like this. Do leverage us to help you write your submission!
To make this process less daunting, we’ve created a guidance document that outlines general principles for raising the ambition and integrity of the program, as well as our position on proposed changes and our submission.
Consult our guidance document: Link
Download the issues paper: Link
Make your submission: Link
Submissions due: Friday 15 December 2023
If you are considering making a submission and you have some questions, or you find yourself needing accountability buddy, drop us a line at email@example.com.
Or, we will be engaging with members of our community on this issue, so join us (it’s free) and let’s get cracking!