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COP26: Where We Need to Go From Here

This is the final piece of our series about business and the SDGs in the context of the COP26 Conference. You can see the previous piece here.  

It was an intense week, and while still in Glasgow, it was very difficult to assess what was actually working or not. 

As ever, the brilliant Christiana Figueres, the former climate chief who led the Paris 2015 Accord, gave it the best headline for me: We made a firm step forward, AND now, we need a sprint. 

A Bus Is Hurtling Our Way

She also used an analogy of what we would do if we saw a child in the way of an approaching bus — we would not stand by, argue why the child was there, who was to blame for the bus, etc. We would do everything we possibly could to save the child.

Climate change is the bus, humanity is the child — and at least at this COP, despite the lack of urgent enough action, everyone finally agreed there’s a bus coming. 

The problem is, just as we reach that consensus, the bus has accelerated. And the impact climate change has on every one of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals cannot be overstated. Poverty, hunger, conflict, gender inequality — these are huge systemic problems, all made more severe by the ongoing climate crisis.

So, what are we doing to slow the bus down? With a little distance and perspective, it is more possible to tell the story of COP26 based on the numbers (there are a lot of numbers!). To take the main ones:

The wealth gap: The aim was to reach a figure of $100 billion from the developed world to support the developing world to make a just transition to a safer and zero-carbon world. There were pledges, but the developed world fell short of its target, and those on the frontline of climate change right now have been let down.

Methane: More than 100 countries have joined the U.S. and EU pledge to slash methane emissions by 2030. The pledge aims to reduce methane emissions by 30% compared with 2020 levels.

Cutting methane by 30% by 2030 could help the world avoid 0.3 degrees Celsius of warming by 2040. Every fraction of a degree counts when keeping temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius. So this was a very welcome addition to the story.

Clean technology: Over 40 world leaders have signed the Breakthrough Agenda, an international commitment to deliver clean and affordable technology everywhere by 2030. Modeled on the U.K.’s Net Zero Strategy, the Breakthrough Agenda will see governments and businesses collaborate to speed up clean technologies and make them more accessible and affordable.

The first five breakthroughs will be deployed to drive down the emissions of some of the most polluting industries such as power, road transport, steel, hydrogen and agriculture.

Deforestation: Leaders from more than 100 world countries, representing about 85% of the world’s forests, promised to stop deforestation by 2030. The pledge is backed by a commitment to provide 8.75 billion pounds ($11.6 billion) of public finance from 12 countries including the U.K. from 2021-2025.

Sustainable agriculture: Forty-five governments pledged urgent action and an investment of over 3 billion pounds to protect nature and switch to a more sustainable way of farming.

A deal on coal. The bigger economies have agreed to phase out their coal use by the 2030s. Smaller economies will be doing so in the 2040s.

Green investments: Four hundred and fifty financial organizations, which between them control $130 trillion, agreed to back “clean” technology, such as renewable energy, and direct finance away from fossil fuel-burning industries.

One of the most uplifting aspects of COP26 was the integration of the natural world and the indigenous people who know best how to steward it.

But the Numbers Are Only Half the Story

The consensus is that fossil fuel reduction will get us halfway to stopping the bus — the other half needs to come from a radical shift in (western) human consumption and behavior. Our culture is built upon a “take, make, waste” model (as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation called it) and we must completely rewire our way of life if we are to make it. 

There are shifts to be made — from “more” to “enough,” from “extractive” to “regenerative,” from “mine” to “ours,” and from “separate” to “together.” It is a reset of how we have been living and defining “quality” for almost an entire generation now, and we need to urgently reset this narrative.

We need to tell ourselves the story that a green world is a better world to live in — the most powerful story I heard at the conference came from a monk who had had a vision that in 2052, humanity had found a way to live a more beautiful life, in harmony with itself and the world around it. Except we don’t have until 2052.

We all need to play our part in discovering and telling that story, to ourselves, to anyone who will listen, and to our children, so that they do not get flattened by the bus. And we need to talk fast.

As 2021 Was to Climate, 2022 Needs to Be to Nature

Of course, the most important thing now is to make sure these commitments are acted upon. This is not just about accountability. More innovation, collaboration, breakthrough tech and investment are also needed to figure out how to achieve these commitments. 

I am a great fan of setting targets, even if the full pathway to achieving them is not yet obvious. One of the most interesting conversations I was part of was a debate about the relative risks of “greenwashing” versus “green-hushing” — I definitely favor a little ambition over caution, given the times we are in. Better to try and fail than not to try at all.

One of the most uplifting aspects of COP26 was the integration of the natural world and the indigenous people who know best how to steward it. This year the climate world needs to support the same momentum and ambition being created around the final part of the biodiversity COP, which is due to take place in China in April, so that we can set just as ambitious targets for the restoration of the life support system nature provides.

Business has a huge role to play here; it can create the same unstoppable pivot in the way we source, grow, package and market our products, as has just been made from fossil fuels to renewable.

The Great Unlock of Marketing

Within business, marketing also has a huge role to play, and I was pleased to see Stephan Loerke at COP26 representing the WFA and its recent Planet Pledge. Marketers, with their brands and access to billions of hearts and minds every day, are the most powerful tool we have to tell the story we need now, for climate and for nature. They are the last great “unlock” after technology and finance that can truly turn the world toward that more beautiful vision, and they can turn faster than almost any other key we have.

On the whole I am energized as we look back on COP26 and look ahead to more climate action in 2022. A net-zero and nature-positive world is still within our grasp. We must keep telling ourselves that story.

Gail Gallie

Co-Founder of Project Everyone @gailgallie

Gail Gallie was a marketing director at the BBC for 10 years, and spent 4 years as the CEO of London advertising agency Fallon. In 2015 she joined Richard Curtis to found Project Everyone, the campaign unit that launched the Global Goals on behalf of the United Nations. In 2019, Gail launched Project 17, a new venture focused on the investment sector.

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