The Glasgow Climate Pact is sure to illicit polarizing responses from all corners of the climate movement and across the public and private sectors. No one got everything they wanted, but most everyone got something they wanted, with most agreeing it was just enough to “keep 1.5 alive.” Whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic coming out of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, two things are undeniably clear: First, the conversation has evolved. A lot. The last gasps of climate denial are gone, replaced by conversations focused on the best, most urgent solutions and accelerating an already clear direction of travel towards decarbonization. Second, one of the few areas of broad consensus was that COP26 lacked the ambition required to tackle runaway climate change, and the calls for meaningful, measurable action will intensify. As a result, businesses must be ready for climate action 2.0, the next phase of stakeholder engagement complete with heightened climate awareness and the subsequent pressures from all corners to deliver on concrete, systemic and lasting climate action.
COP26 was the most consequential moment in the climate movement since the passing of the Paris Agreement in 2015. Glasgow would be the stage for which many crucial details, broadly agreed to in Paris, would be negotiated and, hopefully, finalized to add much needed specificity and urgency to combat climate change.
The conference got off to sluggish start on the heels of an ineffective G20 summit. Optimism waned further as a result of the UK’s expectation-lowering message to the world and prompting an early, ominous feeling as the conference kicked off. But once it did, for those of us in attendance, we saw a new and exceptional level of effort, awareness and urgency. That urgency bore fruit almost immediately, as a number of pledges over the first few days changed the tune, including commendable efforts to phase out coal, end deforestation, provide sufficient private finance and cut methane emissions. But as the days went on, and ministers, staffers, journalists and NGOs poured through the fine print of these agreements, it became clear that many of these pledges, and the pledges to come, fell short of what was needed.
By the end of the two-week conference, the Glasgow Climate Pact was finalized with a healthy dose of reluctant compromise. This agreement was symbolic of the current state of climate action — well-meaning and hopeful, but insufficient and far too slow to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
So, what now? First, it’s important to note that there are many bright spots coming out of Glasgow. We saw a new level of international consensus that climate change is an existential threat to humanity. We also observed a greater understanding and acceptance of the need for global cooperation and urgent action. Crucially, the conversation is now centered on how we will collaborate to take urgent action, not if. Ultimately, COP26 will serve as an important milestone in the march towards progress.
So, what’s next? The work will intensify. If those who have their hands on the levers of power thought the pressure was high over the last few years, they haven’t seen anything like what’s to come. Coming out of COP26, “blah, blah blah” will echo through boardrooms and breakrooms, the target of 1.5C will influence the agenda in Capitols as well as the allocation of Capital. Governments, business and civil society will continue to feel the pressure to accelerate their ambitions and their actions. And stakeholders around the world will hold their feet to the fire; there is now a laser focus on dissecting the merits of sustainability pledges and the roadmaps to achieving them. The road ahead points to greater accountability.
The path forward is challenging, but with a clear picture of the trends that emerged at COP26, together we can navigate the path ahead:
- Governments are under fire: A stark take away from COP is the intensifying pressure on governments, who have simply not done enough to thwart runaway climate change. Recent Edelman Trust data tells us 46 percent of respondents expect Government to lead on climate action, 17 points higher than business (29 percent). We are already locked into a future of climate disasters increasing in frequency and severity. Every fraction of a degree of global temperature rise matters, as it does, the temperature will continue to rise on those standing in the way of progress.
- Business is in the blast radius: As pressure intensifies on government leaders to develop sufficient policies, the climate movement will not only expect business to continue raising the stakes in their own shops, but to also apply pressure on governments and to accelerate progress. That means more scrutiny on corporate climate lobbying efforts, greater expectations for active engagement with trade associations and pressure for clearer stances on key sustainability; in addition to adhering to new and more stringent climate plans put forth with greater frequency.
- Show don’t tell: Perhaps no lesson was more clearly seared into our collective minds during COP26 than climate action pledges are no longer sufficient. Moving forward, the focus will be on the pathway and actionable execution of decarbonization strategies. Offsetting emissions? Be prepared to explain why it’s the only option possible. Announcing a net zero target? Be prepared to communicate the specifics of how you’ll get there — clearly, transparently, and consistently over time. One way sustainability leaders are doing this is by submitting science-based targets in line with 1.5 C ambitions.
- The need for speed: It is essential to remember that urgency is required. Taking into account the new pledges and NDCs announced at COP26, we’re still on track for disastrous heating of more than 2.4C. The cries of failure after COP came not because the markets aren’t already shifting, but rather due to the lack of urgency. Net Zero by 2050 pledges have and will continue to give way to 2040 and 2030 commitments. Pledges, pathways and plans need to demonstrate immediate action to avoid the worst effects of climate change and companies should work to align their strategies with the speed of change required.
- Showing Up in Sharm El-Sheikh: One of the successes of the Glasgow Climate Pact is that the text “requests parties to revisit and strengthen the 2030 targets… to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal by the end of 2022,” a tightening from the five-year windows agreed to in the Paris Agreement acknowledging how far we still must go. Countries will be expected to increase their commitments, as they set more ambitious goals, and as climate tech and tools improve, regulators, investors and civil society will expect business to abide by and integrate these policies into their operations. The time is now to start or accelerate action in order to show credibility in Egypt at COP27 as a sustainability leader advancing climate action.
COP26 brought numerous pledges, pacts and promises over the two-week conference, many of which we would have been elated to hear six years ago. Knowing what we do now, most of these commitments fall far short of what is necessary to avert global climate disaster. Moving forward, it is clear that more is expected of business, and based on that expectation, business truly has an opportunity to lead on climate action. To do this, business will be expected to deliver on clear commitments, set ambitious yet achievable roadmaps, and engage and enable action within and beyond their own walls, building trust to lead and meet the moment.
Alex Heath is a Managing Director and Joby Gaudet is Vice President, Social Impact & Sustainability.