Sarah Goodenough, Communications Manager for the UN Climate Champions, shares her reflections on COP26 and the activist role marketers must play to lead the way in the Race to Zero.
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COP26 was the first of its kind. It was the first “action COP”, where the real economy showed up in full force, demonstrating its willingness and ability to deliver the rapid implementation of emissions reductions needed to deliver the promise of the Paris Agreement, ratified only six years ago.
Businesses of all shapes and sizes gathered together in Glasgow to tell their story, mixing in the corridors with youth activists and negotiators, and showcasing their climate journey to visiting dignitaries in pavilions and plenary halls - but many left feeling exhausted and a little confused, and I don’t blame them. COPs can feel like a circus at the best of times, but Glasgow was altogether something different, a tale of two very different and conflicting halves.
On the one hand, it is undeniable that we are doing more on climate than we’ve ever done before. Net zero targets have proliferated at an unprecedented rate, and businesses are clamouring to burnish their climate credentials with innovative solutions and ambitious decarbonisation targets. On the other hand, emissions are predicted to rise by 16% by 2050 when we know they must halve in the same time if we are to have a hope in preventing catastrophic climate change and the consequences that come with it.
We have all heard the commitments. The currency of building trust — the only currency that matters now — is immediate action that will be reflected in bending the emissions curve and increasing resilience. Governments must come back this year with Paris-aligned near-term targets, as well as delivering on their net zero commitments and 2030 emissions reductions targets, and businesses need to walk the talk or risk facing the wrath of increasingly cynical, climate-concerned consumers.
Climate change, and sustainability more generally, is the era that we live in rather than a CSR fad that will wax and wane; thriving in this era will require a fundamental rethinking of our business models and purpose as opposed to tinkering around the edges.
With that in mind, marketers and advertisers are uniquely positioned to smooth the transition to a zero-carbon economy, for their clients and for their governments. As architects of desire - influencing lifestyles, attitudes, and behaviours in society - marketers can help brands develop their climate narrative, underpinned of course by rigorous and immediate action, and sell the net-zero world, smoothing the transition to a net-zero economy and helping governments to deliver on their net zero goals.
Many of the brands that attended COP26 did not seem to have grasped the significance of the challenge ahead of them. No longer a siloed issue for their sustainability departments, climate change and its concomitant impacts will become a significant risk across all parts of the business. Businesses that fall behind in this transition will risk losing talent, clients, and investment, and have to adapt to an increasingly regulated environment (the launch of the new International Sustainability Standards Board at COP26, for example, will no doubt be the new bane of greenwashing perpetrators).
Yet where there is risk, there is also considerable opportunity. For those marketers who are quietly concerned that their businesses’ climate efforts are sorely lacking, the Planet Pledge provides a unique opportunity for marketers to advance meaningful progress within their own organisations. As Nigel Topping, UN High-Level Climate Champion, said, “Marketing has incredible power in creating tangible and exciting visions of ourselves and our future, and in explaining the benefits of this critical transition to a zero carbon world. Given how important climate change is to their business and to our planet, Chief Marketing Officers should quickly become the new climate activists and lead the way in the Race to Zero.”
Ultimately, all companies will have to reckon with their emissions, be they from their buildings and operations or the products they market and sell, and Chief Marketing Officers will have to be as comfortable with concepts such as advertised emissions as their Chief Sustainability Officers. Businesses that can effectively and evocatively tell their climate story, backed by clear evidence of meaningful progress, will reap the rewards in the years to come as consumers are increasingly swayed by climate change and government regulations increase in speed and scope. The question is no longer if marketers and advertisers have a role to play in advancing climate action, but how and when they choose to use it.