COP26: We’ll make it - but too late for so many

November 08, 2021 | Josh MatthewsPhil Fersht

HFS Sustainability Practice Leader Josh Matthews on stage at COP26 with executives from BMW and Accenture (Click to Enlarge)

 Anyone familiar with our analyst team knows how passionately analyst Josh Matthews has beaten the sustainability drum since he joined us three years ago (when no one cared about sustainability).  So we sent him along to the COP26 world climate change global political summit, not only to wake up Joe Biden,  but also to share some unfiltered and uncomfortable truths among all the corporate fluff... so over to Josh for his takeaways...

I left Glasgow and COP26 to the surreal experience of Fridays for Futures demonstrators, pioneers of the school climate strikes we’ve become familiar with, claiming the streets. All generations were represented. It drove home the magnitude of the most pivotal UN climate summit. Having been immersed in business and policymaking circles for a week, I found myself explaining reserved but real optimism (combined with cautious relief and pleasant surprise) to two local activists from Keeping Our Cool, a team aiming to support constructive conversations around COP.

The G20 which preceded COP26 (and honestly the last 6 months or so of sustainability-based research) gave me little optimism on the policymaking front. And for those of you who know my political background, you’ll know I don’t immediately jump to support the current UK government. But (for now) it’s optimism.

We have reason for optimism on two fronts

1. Tangibility emerges. First, the world’s largest and most influential businesses are becoming more serious (and more believably so) about moving from goal setting and ambitious rhetoric to planning their transitions and creating tangible roadmaps;

2. Big businesses will (likely) have to disclose their efforts. Secondly, the UK’s announcement that in 2023, most big businesses must disclose transition plans (it remains to be seen how rigorous or enforced this will be) will hopefully mean all organizations align themselves to sustainability goals - decarbonization to net-zero and beyond, alongside all 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals - and that this standard becomes a worldwide norm.

However, tempering that optimism are two severe problems

1. The most progressive organizations are those who’ve grasped basic concepts. The first problem is that we’re attributing gold standards of sustainability to organizations (and governments) that have grasped simple road-mapping concepts: set a goal, understand your starting point, and plan your journey. We need to quickly reach a point where detailed transition roadmaps are the norm, rather than the top 20% (a generous number). To push us in this direction, organizations like the CDP, a respected environmental disclosure and ratings charity, are moving the bar upwards in their assessments of an organization’s sustainability - and focusing on transition plans, not only commitments, even if those commitments are validated by the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi), a leading voice on net-zero target setting.

Perhaps the biggest advantage we have across sustainability is that we have goals. We have the endpoints of the roadmaps we need to move along. And while we need to reach these goals as soon as we can—and these roadmaps must include rapid action in the next 5-10 years, not just targets set for 2050—this is a massive difference compared to the last decade or more chasing a horribly vague concept of digital transformation. We need to measure and understand our starting points to make these roadmaps. And we need to work together throughout organizations, and ecosystems to both figure out our starting points, and to make these roadmaps happen. I’ll be publishing a more detailed take on what COP26 means for business leaders soon, following the conclusions to the summit.

2. Humanity can be amazing in a crisis—but sadly never fast enough to save everyone. The second problem isn’t one we can fix — we can only limit. I wrote this piece filled with optimism at Glasgow Central station that there’s enough innovation and determination out there between businesses, policymakers, and people to decarbonize and meet net-zero by 2050. If we do so and fall on the right side of the 50:50 chance that gives us to limit global warming to 1.5-degrees, we can avert the very worst scenarios of climate change. But this optimism then came with a bitter aftertaste. Even if we meet these targets, and make massive strides on all 17 UN Goals, so many across the world are currently experiencing what the opposite of sustainability looks like. As time goes by means we become too late to save another person, another ecosystem, or avert another of the damning effects of climate change. What that doesn’t mean, is that that the efforts we all need to make rapidly, each in our own individual and organizational ways, aren’t worth it. We ran out of time to compromise and delay decades ago. I hope and I am optimistic that this really can be the “decade to deliver,” as so many put it—I can’t afford not to be.

Bottom-line: We ran out of time to compromise and delay decades ago 

I hope and I am optimistic that this really can be the “decade to deliver,” as so many put it.  We can’t afford not to be.

Posted in: Governance Practices and ToolsSustainability

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