COP26 Stresses the Need for Bold Action from Brands

The U.N. climate summit offered important insights on how brands should engage on environmental issues.


At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, we witnessed many fierce disagreements, but one thing was clear to all: The stakes have truly never been higher. Humans now change the Earth and its processes more than all other natural forces combined. And the challenge ahead is steep. According to the Global Carbon Project, global CO2 emissions are projected to increase by 5% this year, and an updated UN analysis finds that global carbon emissions are on track to rise by 13.7% by 2030.

As the U.N. summit began, the feeling on the ground was charged, with a palpable understanding of the need for urgent action among government and business leaders alike. With representatives of nearly 200 countries attending, it was clear that reaching consensus would be a daunting task. Over the course of the next week and after, we witnessed plenty of conflicts and logjams. But we also encountered many experts who stressed that there is reason for hope and optimism. We saw world leaders committed to working together to accelerate clean technologies, end deforestation, reduce methane emissions and price carbon—critical work that can help protect our futures.

WE Communications’ 2021 Brands in Motion report found that the expectation for brands to speak and act on societal issues like climate has risen sharply, but brands’ perceived impact has remained flat. At COP26, we wanted to find out more about the best ways for brands to engage on this vital issue. Here’s what we learned:


Innovation and green technology should lead the way

The week started with the message that bright ideas and talented people can come together to drive a new industrial revolution. At a panel discussion exploring how research and innovation is tackling climate change, a series of scientists and innovators supported by the UKRI investment discussed solutions to address complex climate challenges, including developments in hydrogen, net-zero technologies and food consumption.

Leaders are also seeking to turbocharge the uptake of clean tech. On Day 2 more than 40 world leaders committed to working together to accelerate clean technologies by imposing worldwide standards and policies. The initiative could create 20 million new jobs globally and add over $16 trillion to the economies of both emerging and advanced economies.

Adapting clean energy technology and sustainability practices are among the most productive ways that brands can show their commitment to building a better future. These initiatives must start at home with the organizations’ own operations and then extend outward to their entire supply chain.


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Young people want action, not praise

All week, the streets of Glasgow pulsated with protests. Young activists said world leaders are using false praise to pass the buck of solving global warming on to young people. “I think almost every activist has been called inspiring, and almost every activist has been told that they’re going to change the world,” said Vanessa Nakate, a climate activist from Uganda. Nakate said she was “sending back the responsibility to them,” adding, “I don’t really buy when leaders praise young people for activism.”

Activist Greta Thunberg accused governments of the Global North developed world of failing to take the necessary drastic action to curb carbon emissions. “This is no longer a climate conference. This is a Global North greenwash festival. A two-week celebration of business as usual and blah blah blah,” she said.

Many climate activists called COP26 a public-relations exercise, and accused the news media of reporting leaders’ promises but not calling them sufficiently to account. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore was tuned into these sentiments and warned COP26 delegates about dire consequences if countries did not adhere to promises to tackle climate change. Quoting Winston Churchill he said, “The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience, of delays, is coming to its close.”

Rather than praising young people for saving the world, brands need to show how they are taking bold action to reduce emissions, conserve water, reduce food waste and otherwise help create a healthier world for all.

In the most recent Brands in Motion report, The Bravery Mandate, 70% of Gen Z and millennial respondents said that they had a greater desire to hear brands speak out on societal issues and would be more likely to purchase from brands that do. Re-engineering for the future requires brands to build a purpose platform and being prepared to engage on provocative issues as they arise, and with longer term issues such as climate change.


Pledges are just one step

At COP26, many countries and corporations made pledges to cut emissions or reach net-zero by 2030, 2040 or 2050. Zac Goldsmith, U.K. Minister for the International Environment and Climate, noted that agreements and pledges are directional, and some in many ways are the first of their kind. This includes the 150+ leaders who have committed to halting and reversing deforestation and land degradation by 2030.

In addition, 95+ U.K. businesses like Co-op, Sainsbury’s and Burberry announced a joint commitment to deliver “nature positive” operations by the end of the decade. And the UN’s Fashion Charter on climate was updated and required signatories to cut emissions by 50% by 2030 and net-zero by 2050 emissions goals. It also required signatories to procure 100% renewable electricity and deliver coal-free supply chains by 2030. In total, 130 brands are taking part, including Primark, Zara, H&M Group, Nike, Adidas and Levi Strauss.

Many attendees noted that pledges are only the first, and easiest, steps. Financial Times Chief Political Correspondent Jim Pickard said it’s “hard not to feel at COP26 that all these initiatives could have, should have, happened at least 20 years ago.” And UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said optimistic assessments of progress and commitments to date were “an illusion.”

In the final days, during the drafting of the Glasgow Agreement, it was noted that many countries have made net-zero commitments for midcentury but have either no plan on how to get there, or plans that are too weak to meet the targets.

For brands, the message is clear: Pledges must be followed with detailed action plans and frequent updates on the company’s progress. Companies must demonstrate how they are meeting sustainability targets with clear metrics and quantifiable results.


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Private-sector funding is critical

The vital role of the private sector is becoming increasingly clear, as businesses have the resources and the technology to make radical emissions cuts a reality—something the public sector can’t do alone. To this end, leaders are seeking strategies that can enable private finance to partner public-sector funding to boost global investment in climate and nature-positive technology, innovation and infrastructure projects. “The money is there,” said NatWest chief executive Alison Rose at a panel we attended. However, she added government and policyholders need to create a “clear plan” to get it flowing. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, along with other government officials, urged the private sector to do more to drive the transition to cleaner economies. “The gap between what governments have and what the world needs is large, and the private sector needs to play a bigger role,” Yellen said.

Many organizations are committing significant funds, including:

  • Members of the Mark Carney-led Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero had up to $130 trillion of private capital committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.
  • The Global Energy Alliance, a group of philanthropic foundations and international development banks, announced a $10.5 billion fund to help emerging economies with growing energy needs make the switch from fossil fuels to renewable sources. The group aims to draw in more donors in the coming weeks. Currently, it has pulled in $1.5 billion from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ikea Foundation and the Bezos Earth Fund, along with $9 billion from international development banks such as the African Development Bank and the International Finance Corporation.
  • Race to Zero and Race to Resilience have united 33 major financial institutions with more than $8.7 trillion in assets to stop financing deforestation driven by agricultural commodities by 2025.

Bottom line: Brands need to back up their bold visions with capital. They need to partner with civic and government institutions to ensure that this funding is used wisely and efficiently and creates the strongest possible impact.


Adaptation efforts need to be stepped up

The UN Environment Programme has said the cost of projects to protect countries from the rise in floods, wildfires, typhoons and other extreme weather is between five and 10 times more than the money currently being spent. Its reported costs could hit $140 billion and $300 billion for developed countries by 2030. For developing nations, this rises to between $280 billion and $500 billion. “We need a step change in adaptation ambition for funding and implementation to significantly reduce damages and losses from climate change,” said UNEP executive director Inger Andersen.

To that end, the UNFCCC announced governments from the U.K., U.S., Canada and others have collectively committed $232 million to the Adaptation Fund. The U.K. government also announced a £274 million funding package for climate adaptation, conservation and low-carbon transitioning in the Asia-Pacific region and £1 million to support faster responses to natural disasters, in addition to the £50 million it pledged last week to help small island states develop resilient infrastructure.

It’s important that brands work to reduce emissions and otherwise slow the pace of climate change. But it’s equally important that they invest in solutions that will help the world adapt to the shifts that are inevitable or already happening. Adapting to the impact of climate change—rising sea levels, extreme weather events and other consequences—will require agility, creativity and courage. This is the time for bold action—to fear less and do more.


Failure is not an option

The 2015 Paris Agreement obliged countries to work to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, preferably closer to 1.5 degrees. But more recent science shows that the world needs to limit warming to 1.5 degrees to avoid catastrophic climate change. As delegates worked to hammer out a deal, a highly anticipated scorecard (Climate Action Tracker) revealed that the latest 2030 plans under the Paris Agreement framework still don’t go far enough, as they put the world on track for 2.4°C of warming. If governments at COP26 deliver on everything they’ve announced, including long-term pledges and net-zero goals, temperatures could conceivably be limited to 1.8°C.

Protecting the future will require vigilance, said UN Special Adviser and Assistant Secretary-General for Climate Change Selwin Hart. “We cannot be complacent. We cannot celebrate before we’ve done the job. We must recognize that this is a fight that we cannot afford to lose.”

Despite all the controversies and criticisms surrounding the event, John Kerry remained positive about COP26. “There is a greater sense of urgency at this COP; there is a greater sense of focus. I have never, in the first few days of any of the COPs I’ve been to, counted as many initiatives, and as much real money really being put on the table,” he said.

COP26 was a fascinating experience for the WE attendees. It has highlighted the true scale and complexity of the climate crisis. We know that each of us has a role to play in advancing the progress needed to safeguard our futures, and we have a responsibility to ensure that brands and businesses heed the warning signs. Their stakeholders, their businesses and future generations depend on it.

The research in The Bravery Mandate shows that expectations for brands to help create stability rose by 30% since 2019, and are second only to governments in the expectations placed upon them. Brands and brand leaders have a significant role to play in tackling the issues discussed at the Summit and, like governments, they can expect to be called out if they fall short. In business, customers, clients and consumers continue to vote with their wallets.

As UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa told us, “This is the year we can get it right … the year that we can achieve pivotal change in global climate policy and action. And we all have a part to play.”

November 17, 2021