WFA CEO Stephan Loerke reflects on his time at COP26 and identifies the five key areas that brands will have to address in combating climate change in the coming years.
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The world has been fixed on Glasgow for the last two weeks. COP26 has been repeatedly described by the most authoritative climate scientists as “the last chance” to get our planet back on track to contain the rise in temperatures to 1.5 degrees.
While there’s been a lot of negative coverage about the final deal, for me there were a number of more encouraging aspects of attending my first COP summit. It was an improbable gathering of climate scientists, NGOs, climate activists, business leaders, politicians and tech entrepreneurs from literally all around the world; all sharing a common commitment to curb global warming and offer a future for the generations to come.
There were lots of unexpected conversations, incredible energy and passion, unlikely encounters and a lot of food for thought.
Five things stand out from my three days in Glasgow:
We’re already playing in extra-time
There is a sense of urgency that is growing and that is shared by all stakeholders – including the CEOs of major blue-chip companies.
To keep the possibility of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, annual global emissions will have to be cut by 29 gigatons of equivalent carbon dioxide. Country commitments made ahead of COP26 and the additional announcements made while I was in Glasgow represent 12-14 gigatons, if those promises are delivered on. It’s progress but much more will be needed in the years to come.
The lack of leadership by global leaders
The press attention is largely focused on the geopolitical dimension of the climate negotiations – the US-China rivalry and the absence of the Russian and Brazilian presidents.
However, those headlines don’t do justice to the considerable action that took place outside of the Blue Zone, where government officials negotiate. Veteran climate summiteers all said that they’d never seen business, and more generally non-state-actors – cities and regions, for example – engage on such a scale.
Former Danone CEO, Emmanuel Faber, described three initiatives as potentially “game-changing”: The pledge to end deforestation by 2030, signed by 100 countries representing 85% of the world’s forests; the commitment by banks and asset managers representing US$ 130 trillion (40% of the world’s total assets) to meet the Paris Agreement objectives; and the announcement by global accounting body IFRS that it would create and operationalize by 2023 global standards for companies to report on Environmental, Social and Governance criteria.
Progress will require consumer behaviour change
It is estimated that 80% of the cuts in CO2 emissions achieved so far were delivered thanks to technology. In the next nine years, 50% of the targeted cuts will have to be achieved through consumer behaviour change. That’s where marketing comes into play. That’s where our industry’s unique capabilities – creativity, innovation and communication – will have a huge role to play in nudging people towards more sustainable consumption behaviours.
The next generation isn’t going to wait much longer
Greta Thunberg and the climate activists that came in large numbers to Glasgow are expressing the growing exasperation and the frustrations of an entire generation. They’re protesting loudly but they are also getting engaged and getting stuff done. I’ve been blown off my socks by the drive, the ingenuity and the determination of the Gen Z activists I’ve met. Some are already in positions of power, including the incredibly impressive Jerome Foster, a 19-year-old climate justice activist and the youngest White House adviser in history.
NGOs and activists are looking to brands for leadership
For those of us who’ve been involved in debates around responsible food marketing and alcohol marketing, it feels almost unreal to hear activists calling on brands to lead and drive change. The Planet Pledge, which WFA launched in April this year and commits CMOs to leverage marketing to drive behaviour change was unanimously welcomed at COP26. HRH the Prince of Wales, who I had the honour to brief in a closed-door meeting, expressed his strong support for our initiative.
I returned from Glasgow with the conviction that the climate emergency is the mother of all battles for our society. And that brand marketers will have a big role to play. The time to act is now. That’s what we’re going to do by turbo-charging the WFA Planet Pledge.