It's a Wash

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Fake claims. Hollow promises. Purposefully unattainable goals. These describe deceptive marketing practices, and consequently also the world of “greenwashing." Greenwashing is at its core communication or actions that mislead people into adopting positive beliefs about an organization’s environmental performance, practices or products.

There is increasing awareness around the world about the misleading or entirely false claims about sustainability initiatives made by companies, governments and even NGOs. This includes assertions and policies revolving around climate, biodiversity and pollution. Such claims can be used to promote an organization’s social status, its relationships with consumers and employees or even short-term profits. But ultimately, greenwashing means changing as little as possible while claiming to do a great deal.

Then there's "carbonwashing,” or greenwashing that’s related to carbon emissions. It's under scrutiny considering the growth of carbon trading markets and the voluntary credits that bolster them. In an analysis by authors in the peer-reviewed journal Science this year, which is based on rigorous research and modeling, the authors were blunt: “…offsetting through paying projects to reduce emissions by conserving tropical forests is not reducing deforestation as claimed and is worsening climate change.”

And UN Secretary-General António Guterres spoke in stark terms about carbonwashing at COP27 last year, stating, “I have a message to fossil fuel companies and their financial enablers. So-called 'net-zero pledges' that exclude core products and activities are poisoning our planet. They must thoroughly review their pledges.” Meanwhile, many critics of this year’s COP28 meeting say the hosts appear to be embarking on a carbonwashing campaign of epic proportions themselves.

But while carbon credits have garnered news stories/media attention around the world, few investigations have gone into great depth across Asia.

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Layer for net change in tree cover

In order to fill the gap in coverage, Internews’ Earth Journalism Network’s Asia-Pacific project, SourceMaterial, Pulitzer Rainforest Investigation Network and seven outlets across Asia, have collaborated on “It’s a Wash.”

Eleven journalists from eight media outlets in nine different countries have spent months investigating offset projects, afforestation and reforestation projects in their home countries; their stories, published in series, are each the outcome of shared sources, leads, data and other resources. In addition, EJN is also putting together a microcourse and a journalistic video game to accompany the reporting.

Reporters and editors from Southeast Asia Globe cover existing and upcoming REDD+ schemes in Cambodia, highlighting concerns about corruption and weak rule of law that could potentially benefit powerful interests through the sale of carbon credits. Kontinentalist in Singapore explores the country’s carbon tax and credit regime, including problems in the making revolving around compliance and REDD+ projects. Both of these stories are being reported in conjunction with SourceMaterial.

Our partner from the Philippines, CoverStory, has also teamed up with SourceMaterial to take on plastics credit exchanges (these are transferable certificates that represent a specific amount of recycled plastic waste being prevented from entering the environment). The actual greenhouse gas emissions from purportedly green efforts to incinerate those noxious polymers are often discounted.

Then there are twists on the greenwashing theme in the world of reforestation and afforestation. PunchUp in Thailand uses an engaging multimedia approach to answer whether the country’s community forest carbon offset programs are truly achieving their claimed environmental impact. Mekong Eye and Pulitzer RIN team up to investigate whether Vietnam’s woody biomass (in the form of pellets) is a renewable energy source as claimed or is in fact causing ecological damage. IndiaSpend tackles India’s ambitious target to enhance its total forest cover while reporting on whether this has come at the cost of local livelihoods and forest rights.

It's a Wash presents participating newsrooms the opportunity to cover a complex issue from different angles and geographies, without concern about competition. EJN fully expects this report, and the collaborative effort that went into its formation, to expand coverage on an often-murky side of climate change mitigation throughout the region and indeed the world.

We will be sharing new stories by participating outlets between now and the end of November 2023, so please check this site routinely for groundbreaking collaborative reporting. It is most definitely not a wash.

For an accompanying scene setter piece, please click here. For a microcourse devoted to reporting on carbon offsets, click here (similarly, you might also find this glossary helpful). Finally, play this video game developed exclusively for the special project!


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Project partners

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Project Editor and Coordinator Editorial Assistance Design

Sam Schramski

Amrita Gupta

Amy Sim


Rosmy Sophia

Oksana Drachkovska

Hannah Bernstein

Michael Salzwedel

We at Internews participate in the voluntary carbon market to help offset international travel. We are aware of the flaws in the market -- as demonstrated in the reporting above -- and are concerned about their potential impact on efforts to reduce the organization's carbon footprint. We are committed to working with our partners and other stakeholders to improve the integrity and transparency of the voluntary carbon market.  

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