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U.S. regulators strike back against greenwashing: 3 stories you may have missed

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Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. The S.E.C. moves closer to enacting a sweeping climate disclosure rule

U.S. regulators are preparing to strike back against greenwashing.

The story: Since the 1930s, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has required public companies to publish basic financial information, so that investors can make informed decisions. This year, the federal agency plans to expand those requirements to include key climate data, Matthew Goldstein and Peter Eavis report for the Washington Post. When the new rule is finalized, publicly traded companies will be compelled to disclose their annual greenhouse gas emissions, their exposure to events like sea-level rise and wildfires, as well as their plans to reduce exposure to those risks. While environmental groups have lauded the proposal, opponents have signaled that the final version will be challenged in federal court.

The big picture: The SEC estimates that around one-third of the annual reports it reviewed in 2020 voluntarily included climate-related disclosures. However, because there is no uniform federal mandate, companies can pick-and-choose what data to report, allowing them to highlight the good and omit unflattering information. 

“Publicly traded companies can no longer cherry-pick climate reporting, and investors will have a much better sense of their exposure to material climate risks,” said Senator Jack Reed, a top Democrat from Rhode Island. “There’s an old saying in business: What gets measured gets managed.”

Though one-quarter of public companies in the United States have committed to net-zero emissions, recent investigations have found that the numbers rarely add up. To cut down on “greenwashing,” the new SEC rule would also require that companies match any net-zero claims with a detailed, mathematically sound plan to achieve those goals. 

Read more here.

Negotiations to protect international waters are at a stalemate.  

The story: More than 60 percent of the world’s oceans lie beyond the jurisdiction of any nation in an area commonly known as the “high seas” — yet only 1 percent of that vast and largely unexplored expanse is protected. Earlier this month, long-awaited negotiations to establish the first-ever legal process for protecting the high seas stalled, Marine Laouchez and Marlowe Hood report for United Nations member states failed to reach an agreement on what some scientists consider the most significant ocean protection treaty in four decades. The U.N. must now set a date for a new round of negotiations, likely in August. 

The big picture: “The high seas are not only ecologically vital, they are also essential to the livelihoods of communities around the world,” Tamara Thomas, Conservation International’s director of ocean policy, told Conservation News. “This year, countries have the opportunity to increase their conservation ambitions — striking a balance between using our oceans sustainably and safeguarding them. That means establishing a treaty to conserve the high seas — and providing equitable and accessible financing for countries to manage any new protected areas.”

Leaders collectively representing more than 1,000 conservation organizations — including Conservation International — have called on governments to establish an international high seas treaty in 2022. This would support the global goal to conserve 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030.  

“This treaty cannot come a moment too soon,” Thomas added. “After nearly 20 years of discussions at the United Nations, we finally have a chance to conserve highly-valued high seas ecosystems, which can ensure the vitality of the ocean for generations to come.” 

Read more here.

Stock up on antihistamines — pollen is having a moment.

The story: Pollen is vital for plant reproduction, but the yellow dust also triggers allergies in 30 percent of Americans. Allergy season will only grow longer and stronger on a warming planet, Yingxiao Zhang and Allison Steiner write in The Atlantic. 

The two atmospheric scientists studied how a dozen different North American grasses and trees will respond to global warming, and they warn that we could see a two-fold increase in total pollen this century. The cause: higher temperatures will extend the length of the growing season, while rising carbon dioxide levels will turbocharge photosynthesis, elevating pollen production in the process.

Zhang and Steiner expect the spring pollen season to span an additional two months. Compared to 1990, the North American pollen season is already 20 days longer, and pollen concentrations are up 21 percent.

The big picture: Planetary warming will have wide-reaching effects on terrestrial flora. Crops will wither in arid zones near the equator; pollen-generating trees and grasses will enjoy longer growing seasons in mid-latitudes; and agricultural frontiers will expand toward the poles. Shifting agricultural frontiers present new opportunities for rural economies — but also, plenty of global hazards.

“As current lands become less suitable, there’s going to be pressure to develop new [farming] frontiers, and that’s going to come with a host of major environmental consequences, like unprecedented amounts of carbon released into the atmosphere,” says Lee Hannah, senior climate change scientist at Conservation International. “We also risk pollution and the loss of incredible biodiversity in these places.”

Read more here.

Matthew Ribel is the senior writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: A forest in Thailand  peangdao)