Australia breaches WHO treaty with carbon neutral certification of big tobacco company

19 October 2023

By Melissa Davey, The Guardian

Endorsement of British American Tobacco by Climate Active was revoked after complaint was made, FoI documents show

The government has been forced to revoke carbon neutral certification given to a big tobacco company after the endorsement was found to be in breach of a World Health Organization treaty to which Australia is a signatory.

Freedom of information documents show a complaint was made by the managing director of the Carbon Reduction Institute, Rob Cawthorne, to the health department in August 2022 about British American Tobacco (BAT) receiving the certification from Climate Active.

A government-backed carbon neutral certification scheme, Climate Active is managed by the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water. It offers certifications for organisations who can show they are making efforts to achieve carbon neutrality. Those organisations can then use the certification trademark.

In his complaint, Cawthorne wrote: “The certification itself could have the effect of saying smoking is not so bad because it causes no impact on our climate.”

Australia is a signatory to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control [FCTC], which means the government must protect its policies from interference from the tobacco industry and its interests.

Government’s Climate Active program should be probed for potential greenwashing, Allan Fels says
Read more

Among many clauses, the FCTC states that government consultation with the tobacco industry should be limited to measures needed for public officials or agencies to enact effective tobacco control; that action should be taken to de-normalise the tobacco industry’s “socially responsible” activities; and that partnerships with the tobacco industry should be rejected.

The documents show that after being alerted to the complaint, the health department’s director of tobacco control advised the Department of Industry that “promotion of the tobacco industry’s carbon-neutral operations could be perceived as a corporate social responsibility activity and government endorsement could be in contravention of the FCTC”.

The director noted “the ‘greenwashing’ tactic used by the tobacco industry globally”.

Greenwashing is described by the University of Bath’s Tobacco Tactics watchdog as harmful or controversial industries marketing themselves as environmentally friendly in a bid to divert public attention from their environmentally damaging practices.

A report on tobacco industry greenwashing co-authored by the World Health Organization found that “at every step of production, the tobacco industry has an impact on the environment”.

“It could be argued that the tobacco industry has attempted to greenwash its reputation and products through programs such as beach clean-ups, and funding environmental and disaster-relief organisations,” the report says.

“This practice is especially true in low- and middle-income countries that tobacco companies target to increase sales and profits. In recent years, as the tobacco industry has tried even harder to rehabilitate its image, the evidence suggests its greenwashing activities and promotion has increased.”

Becky Freeman, a professor of public health and tobacco-control expert, said the certification served “only to polish the tarnished reputation of an industry that annually kills more than 8 million people around the globe”.

“To then accredit this company as a champion of protecting the future health of our planet is laughable.”

Harmful industries should never be eligible for government-backed endorsements, Freeman said.

“If your business model relies on lifelong addiction and is responsible for millions of preventable early deaths, no amount of greenwashing can make up for that.”

Climate Active has itself been accused of greenwashing by former chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Prof Allan Fels, who told a Senate inquiry in July that the program was guilty of “misleading and deceptive conduct” through accepting the purchase of offsets as a “carbon neutral” activity, instead of requiring actual cuts in emissions.

There is no record of the BAT certification under the Climate Active website list of previously certified brands.

An environment department spokesperson said it was officially revoked on 9 December, and that Climate Active standards were updated to exclude tobacco-related organisations.

Hansard records show that in February, Greens senator Sarah Hanson Young asked environment department officials about the Climate Active scheme and if officials were “worried that some of the certifications are not legitimate”.

The department’s deputy secretary, Jo Evans, responded that “certainly issues have arisen over the last few years where we’ve questioned ourselves,” citing the example of certifying BAT.

“On reflection and on advice from the department of health we made a decision that that probably wasn’t an appropriate certification, so we rectified that one,” she said.

BAT was approached for comment.

This article was amended on 20 October 2023. An earlier version said the Climate Active scheme was managed by the Department of Industry, Science and Resources.


Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter for the latest news and updates on our work in the ASEAN region and beyond.