HONG KONG - Having pressured South Korean oil giant SK E&S into retracting claims it would produce carbon-free gas, former fossil fuel lawyer turned climate advocate Ha Jihyeon now wants tougher action against corporates in a greenwashing crackdown in Asia-Pacific.
South Korea in January became the first nation in East Asia to draft a law that would fine firms for false or exaggerated green claims, as companies in the region face more scrutiny over their environmental credentials and net-zero emissions pledges.
This followed a landmark lawsuit in 2021 by advocacy group Solutions for Our Climate – where Ms Ha is head of legal operations – accusing SK E&S of greenwashing after the oil major said it would produce “CO2-free” liquefied natural gas (LNG).
In March 2022, South Korea’s Environment Ministry warned SK E&S that it needed to base its claims on facts, and the company ultimately changed the wording on its website to say the Barossa gas project off Australia’s northern coast was “low-carbon”.
“Massive gas projects will have serious, irreversible impacts on the climate, contrary to their ‘CO2-free’ claims,” said 35-year-old Ha in an interview.
“Green fossil fuels are a myth and an oxymoron,” added Ms Ha, who was previously legal counsel for S-Oil, a major refiner.
SK E&S did not respond to requests for comment.
South Korea’s draft greenwashing law – which includes fines of up to US$2,300 (S$3,060) – is expected to be passed in the first half of 2023, a spokesman for the Environment Ministry said.
Ms Ha said that while the fines are small, the Bill signalled a major shift in approach from the government, with regulators having only previously tackled greenwashing by giving “administrative guidance” to oil refiners and steel giants.
“Just as regulating tobacco adverts stopped misleading consumers, the same kind of regulation with the right sanctions will prevent greenwashing,” she said. “To achieve net zero by 2050, business practices cannot remain the same.”
Globally, greenwashing is in the spotlight, with United Nations experts issuing a warning at last year’s COP27 climate summit about its prevalence, and new standards on environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials currently under consideration by an international body.
In Asia-Pacific, where research shows growing ESG investment and public appetite for environmentally friendly products, an Australian regulator has launched its first greenwashing case against a pension fund, while Hong Kong and Singapore are vying to be the region’s green finance hubs with stricter ESG rules.
“Efforts to tackle greenwashing are not just happening in the US and Europe – some Asian countries may actually be moving faster than the US,” said Ms Kathlyn Collins, vice-president and head of ESG at investment firm Matthews Asia.
Patchwork of corporate disclosure standards
Trillions of dollars have been poured into funds touting their green credentials via various voluntary disclosures as the world economy seeks to accelerate its low-carbon transition.
More than 90 nations, representing an estimated 80 per cent of global emissions, have pledges that commit to reaching net zero, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI), a think-tank.
Despite growing global momentum to curb greenwashing, financial and green analysts say the fact that there are several ESG and sustainability standards mean that even defining the problem, let alone finding consensus on it, is difficult.
The European Union and the United States have drafted respective corporate disclosure rules, and the Group of 20-backed International Sustainability Standards Board in February announced it would support two sets of rules – one on climate and one on sustainability – to form a “global baseline” beginning in 2024.
Governments will ultimately decide whether to make the standards mandatory, but ESG analysts said this could compel – and incentivise – companies to put climate at the core of their operations, and signal that greenwashing will not go unchecked.
“Companies can’t go out and say my product is sustainable, fully recyclable and climate-friendly. The label they put on it needs to be controlled carefully,” said Ms Inna Amesheva, director of ESG regulatory research at sustainability data firm ESG Book.
This also applies to banks and asset managers, she added.
“If I’m marketing a climate fund or a climate ETF (exchange-traded fund), I need to be able to justify that methodology, rather than a business-as-usual product.”
A recent high-profile and first-of-its-kind example involved pension fund Mercer Superannuation, which was sued in February by Australia’s corporate regulator for alleged greenwashing regarding the sustainability of seven of its investment options.
The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (Asic) said these “Sustainable Plus” options were marketed as fossil fuel-free but in fact had holdings in several companies extracting or selling carbon-intensive fossil fuels.
A Mercer spokesman said it has cooperated with the Asic, but could not comment further because of the court action.
In a separate development, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in March said an online review of 247 companies over potential greenwashing found more than half had made “concerning claims” about their environmental credentials.
In a statement, the watchdog said companies were obliged to back up any green or sustainable claims with evidence including reliable scientific reports, transparent supply chain information and reputable third-party certification.
Regulations and penalties
Asia’s global ESG fund market share doubled to 4 per cent between 2020 and 2022, analysts at Barclays said in January.
And ESG experts say more governments in Asia-Pacific – the world’s fastest-growing region and top consumer of fossil fuels – ranging from Hong Kong to India are implementing or working on sustainability, transparency, and anti-greenwashing regulations.
In Asia-Pacific, 57 per cent of investors are concerned about political pressure or legal action if they do not act on climate change and other ESG issues, against 63 per cent in Europe and 40 per cent in North America, a report by fund manager Robeco found in March.
Financial hubs Hong Kong and Singapore have made some ESG disclosures mandatory for companies listed on their bourses, which has kick-started more proactive measures, said Mr Woo Pat-Nie, partner and head of ESG practice in Hong Kong at KPMG China.
“It started with a pure compliance mindset... now many companies are striving to receive better ESG ratings as the market takes note,” he said.
Nine Asian countries have also devised sustainable finance taxonomies, in addition to a South-east Asian regional one, giving guidance on what is green and sustainable, ESG Book said.
Ms Amesheva said the region has also started regulating the agencies that give ESG ratings, referring to the situation in the past as the “Wild West” with various methods being used – often resulting in the same firm receiving different ESG scores.
While ESG analysts note that penalties for greenwashing are still rare regionally, such enforcement should rise as more disclosure and regulatory requirements are rolled out, according to a recent report from global law firm Clifford Chance.
“There’s been a flurry of activity in Australia as regulators are intent on taking action where companies are not accurately representing their green credentials,” said Ms Naomi Griffin, a partner at Clifford Chance, in an interview. “Asia is at a different part of the cycle, but that interest is coming.”
Several other ESG experts, including Mr Woo of KPMG China and Ms Anne Copeland, the chief executive of sustainability firm Copeland & Partners, agreed that Asia-Pacific will soon up the ante.
“It is only a matter of time before the implications of not being truthful with sustainability-related claims has reputational, business and legal consequences,” said Ms Copeland. REUTERS