Is the WSL Carbon Neutral, and Does Anyone Care?
Cop26 in Glasgow is over, and depending on your point of view it was:
Humanity's last best hope to avoid catastrophic climate change,
A total failure,
The complete abdication of states to corporate greenwashing,
An effort by Global Elites to ram through One World Government.
Choose your interpretation. About the one thing we can agree on is the primacy of the issue. You simply cannot escape it.
The surf world is not immune from these global convulsions. The spear point of a lifestyle that is hedonistic and will come under increasing scrutiny for its environmental cost is that of the international pro surfer. Pro surfers criss cross the world in fossil fuel-guzzling jets, drive rent a cars, gobble up innumerable boards made of petrochemicals, own multiple houses in different continents etc etc.
Don't get me wrong, I don't want to pass judgement on that. It is what it is.
But the Woz certainly has. They must have been aware that the day would finally come when the fossil fuel-guzzling lifestyle would come under the microscope and questions might be asked by those who are of a mind to believe that we are in a climate crisis and nothing but a radical reduction in the burning of fossil fuels will slow it down. Even if it's never been made explicit, the savage irony of pro surfing - a sport that's reliant on nature - playing a role, even if a minor part, in aiding and abetting it's destruction must have crept into the midnight thoughts of the Woz hierarchy.
Which explains why, in April 2019, with a tremendous media blitz, the Woz announced by the end of 2019 they would be carbon neutral. The presser is classic Woz/US hyperbole. They were going to set a “new standard for global professional sports”, the commitments were “designed to inspire, educate, and empower ocean lovers while addressing critical environmental issues,” and so on and so forth.
Heavy hitters like the Goat, Kelly Slater, weighed in. "I think it's a great stance and an important message to send to people around the world," said the eleven-time WSL Champion. "The ocean is vital to everyone, for food, for oxygen and especially to us surfers. I think everyone should make it their priority to care about this issue and make changes in their lives to help."
Kelly might have forgotten on that day, that under his name, the Woz intended to bulldoze wetlands in a coastal “blue heart” zone to build a wave pool and canal estate...
..but back to the main story.
How does a fossil fuel-heavy organisation become carbon neutral? If you haven't been paying close attention, the favoured tactic is called carbon offsetting. In colloquial terms, carbon offsetting is basically having your cake and eating it too. You keep pumping out the pollutants and pay someone else to plant trees or not cut down forests to try and balance the carbon emitted with these 'credits'.
In the modern parlance, carbon offsets are what you might call, problematic. To put it impolitely, it's a scheme ripe for rorting and performative greenwashing. Those aren't my assessments. If not done right, according to journalist Eric Niiler writing in Wired magazine: “the purchase of offsets can act as a marketing campaign that ends up providing cover for companies’ climate-harming practices”.
Meanwhile, Australia's Climate Council claims: “Offsetting greenhouse gas emissions with vegetation projects – for example, by planting trees – is no substitute for preventing the burning of coal, oil, and gas in the first place”.
That's one problem; the whole concept of carbon offsetting in the first place.
The other one is accounting. Things aren't true just because someone says they are, and nowhere is that more evident than in the murky world of carbon offsetting. So, how to tell after the Wozzle's breathless “ocean-saving” pressers whether anything actually happened? In short, it's somewhere between impossible and really fucking hard.
In a 2019 paper for the Harvard Business School Jack Smith determined that 79% of California's offset supply was “illegitimate.”
The revolving door of CEOs at the Woz is another barrier to gauging the strength of the commitments. The architect of the 2019 carbon neutral declaration, Sophie Goldschmidt, is no help here. Sophie has moved on to become CEO of US Ski and Snowboard. It's unclear whether Sophie has maintained her zeal for preventing climate change and ocean conservation in her new role, but there is zero mention of it in her public utterances.
As for the hard working PR team at the Woz, who might have been expected to let the world know during Cop26 about their carbon neutrality. Quiet as church mice. Not a word.
In fact, since the 2019 announcement was made, there has not been a single mention of it in any WSL communication that I can find.
In April this year, Woz hosted a round-table Zoom meeting entitled, 'To Protect and Surf', hosted by Ronnie Blakey and featuring a panel of experts including Dr Simon Bradshaw from the Climate Council, Belinda Baggs from Surfers for Climate, Ace Buchan, Billy Bain, and Dr Cat Dorey from the Australian Marine Conservation Society. The effect of climate change on the ocean was discussed at length. We were, Dr Bradshaw assured us, at the end-game for climate action.
Great, I thought, finally we will get a more fleshed out update on the WSL's carbon neutral pledge. There's no possible way this could not be discussed.
Nope. Not a word. Code red cognitive dissonance was the only thing I took out of that call. It was as if The Promise had been erased from history.
Following that Zoom call I made multiple overtures to the WSL, and to their certifying partner STOKE, asking about the status of the pledge. The response? They referred me back to the original April 2019 press release, assuring me they had already done it.
Is that a credible response?
It brought to mind Tom Wolfe's book Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers where Wolfe describes a certain level of bureaucrat sent out to pacify militant interest groups, while hustlers game the system. There's no doubt that carbon offsetting is a hugely gameable system and there are many hustlers within it.
While it's impossible to know whether the Woz's commitments will ever face proper scrutiny, what we do know is that there are very sound business reasons to make those commitments; to appear as a clean, green, organisation. Big money is flowing into the green space. Total assets under management in sustainable investment funds have doubled over the past four years to around USD $3.6Tn. That's trillion. 3.6 trillion dollars. More money than you and I can imagine.
Credible rumours have circulated in the last few years that the Woz is being fattened up and shopped around for sale. An anachronistic, fossil fuel-guzzling dinosaur of a business does not smell as sweet to private equity firms as one that wears the halo of a carbon neutral organisation.
In countries where the Woz requires not just a social licence to operate but taxpayer funds to underwrite its operating costs, like Australia, a clean and green image is even more valuable. Climate change is a clear sovereign risk for the WSL, particularly if the mood of the public or government turns against it and it is forced into a deeper accounting of its impacts.
Before Cop26 in Glasgow, there was Cop25 in Madrid. Yes, I'd forgotten too. Cop25 - which was held in December 2019 - was the 'blue' Cop, when oceans were supposedly put at the forefront of climate change concerns. The Woz had a representative there in Reece Pacheco, who runs the WSL Pure not for profit. When asked by a UN Climate Action representative what was the WSL's commitment to climate action, Pacheco did not mention the pledge to become carbon neutral.
Bizarrely, Pacheco focussed on education and outreach to the fans, pointing out where they could reduce their carbon footprint.
Bizarre because punch in some rough estimates into a carbon footprint calculator for, say, Kelly Slater, and you'll get an estimate that if everyone had a footprint the size of Slater we would need eighteen planet Earths to sustain us.
Clearly, the fans are not the issue here.
It highlights the devilishly thorny hypocrisy issue which is so pervasive in these arguments. Reduce your carbon footprint, says the WSL, while it's marquee athletes emit vast amounts of greenhouse gases in their day to day lives, living the dream.
Is this argument sustainable? Believable? Effective on any level?
At the global level, developing nations like India and China can likewise argue with developed nations: You grew your national economies and prosperity on the back of cheap fossil fuel energy, so why shouldn't we?
The hypocrisy argument is very hard to refute.
Now, if Kelly Slater did a version of the Fergal Smith manouevre, which was to stop flying altogether so as to minimise his C02 emissions, then we would be having a very different conversation. If Kelly released a presser tomorrow saying he's abandoning the Coolum wave pool development, and he's going to invest the money into Bornean rainforests to save Orangutans and only going to travel twice a year, then we would all have no alternative but to shuffle our feet, look at the ground and think about our own impacts.
I know that sounds ridiculous...for now, but according to a study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the global cost of carbon must rise from roughly $10 a tonne globally now to $60 a tonne immediately, and $75 a tonne by 2030 in order to hit the Paris Agreement targets (or 2 degrees and “preferably” 1.5). That may force a heavy price signal on carbon intensive activities like jet travel. It may change the entire economic viability of the World Tour.
To be fair to the WSL, attempts to regionalise the QS, do seem on the face of it to reduce the reliance on international travel. That reduction in air miles also looks to be cancelled out by the introduction of another tier to the tour in the Challenger Series.
To be honest, it's all a hell of a mess. The messaging is in direct contradiction to the actions, at least at the most basic level.
The bigger question rising over all of this is: Does anyone actually care?
// STEVE SHEARER
(Homepage illustration Grist / Amelia Bates)