As the 26th UN Climate Conference ends, the team here at Vizibl HQ have put together our reflections on what has passed, what was missed, and where businesses should go from here on our journey to operating sustainably.
The Conference of the Parties saw high profile absences from many of the world’s biggest carbon offenders, diluted coal commitments, and an extra time sprint to realise some sort of credible deal. Whilst many politicians were keen to herald the event as an unmitigated success, COP26 President Alok Sharma delivered a sincere, emotionally charged, and tearful wrap up at the close of the negotiations, declaring ‘I am deeply sorry’.
Despite his regrets over how the conference unfolded, Sharma subsequently went on to clarify: “We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive. But, its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.”
While the dust, debate, and turmoil from the conference begins to settle, widespread confusion remains regarding what COP26 means in practice.
After digesting a fortnight’s worth of talks that set climate and carbon centre stage, the team here at Vizibl HQ offer our reflections on what has passed, what was missed, and what now must be done.
COP26 made it very clear that the next five to ten years are critical if we are to hit ambitious targets across the globe. Here in the UK, the government has mandated that by 2023, businesses must set out public plans that detail how they intend to hit emissions goals.
Sadly, these commitments will not be mandatory or binding, drawing ire from climate activist groups and other nations alike. What’s more, very little mention was made at COP of the climate elephant in the room: scope 3 emissions, or the 80% of corporate carbon emissions that sit in our value chains. While these emissions have not typically been covered under reduction pledges, pressure is mounting from a variety of stakeholders to decarbonise our supply chains.
This challenge, coupled with the reality that almost a fifth of this decade has already passed us by, means we have absolutely no time to lose, to debate further, to wait for the data, to make excuses. It is time to act.
Prior to COP’s conclusion, we were already experiencing global supply chain volatility, the likes of which the world had seldom seen before. As widespread shortages of capacity and resource have been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, just-in-time manufacturing and JIT supply chains have had their fragility under pressure laid bare.
COP26 commitments will only ramp up this pressure as organisations compete for privileged access to scarce capacity, ‘greener’ materials, and sustainable logistics & supply chain solutions.
The key to winning out and maintaining competitive advantage will be ‘Customer of Choice’ status with key suppliers – a status which confers considerable advantage when it comes to mitigating risk and securing valuable opportunities. To access this privileged status, meaningful and deeply collaborative relationships with suppliers are now more mission critical than ever before.
Methane headlined early on during COP26, with the US and EU announcing a global pledge to slash the impact of this greenhouse gas emitted by 2030. The other major greenhouse gas, carbon, naturally took centre stage. Despite heavy focus on these GHGs, COP26 saw only scant mentions of broader environmental threats around oil, natural gas, water security, and biodiversity.
But even if COP26 had touched further on these environmental topics, they still only represent part of the overall picture when it comes to ‘sustainability’. Our colleagues in sustainability and sustainable procurement functions are tasked with not just ‘E’, but ‘S’ and ‘G’, too. Under the corporate sustainability agenda, social and governance issues must be balanced alongside the environment if we are to mitigate risks to our operations and to protect the planet and its people.
As one example, a topic which cropped up frequently at the conference showed a lack of balance across these three dimensions of sustainability. COP26 saw widespread support for an accelerated transition to zero emissions vehicles, mirroring mounting consumer demand for increasingly efficient electric cars. Yet portraying EVs as the sustainable silver bullet in transforming transport can obscure other sustainability concerns such as the dangerous working conditions, lack of a living wage, and child labour violations that frequently accompany lithium mining for battery technology.
When the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11th March 2020, little was known about the virus – how to treat it, its long term side effects for individuals, or the utter devastation it would wreak on fragile economies and global public health.
Yet within 24 hours of the coronavirus genome being made publicly available, a vaccine development team at Oxford University, led by Dame Sarah Gilbert and Dr Catherine Green, had designed a vaccine that would protect against its worst effects.
That vaccine has since gone through detailed, large-scale, clinical testing and trials, rigorous regulatory approvals, and complex manufacturing, and its production and deployment – in partnership with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca – is now saving millions of lives around the world, at cost.
The problem was enormous, and it needed to be solved as quickly as possible. Science, technology and innovation came to our rescue.
The problem we face with climate change is correspondingly vast and urgent; scientific evidence points to catastrophic global warming of around ~2 degrees, presenting an imminent threat to the very existence of our populations. Once again, we must look to collaborations in the field of science, technology, and innovation to save us.
“We are, after all, the greatest problem solvers to have ever existed on Earth. If working apart, we are a force powerful enough to destabilise our planet. Surely working together, we are powerful enough to save it.” — veteran British broadcaster and documentary filmmaker Sir David Attenborough.
Yet as we innovate and create new technologies, the practice of deliberately engineering consumer goods to break or become obsolete must in itself become obsolete.
Rampant materialism and consumerism, driven by linear economies, must be replaced with circular economies, meeting demand from consumers, shareholders, enterprises, and governments alike. No longer can we sustain the linear approach of take, make, use, dispose. We must, as a global population, demand a better, more sustainable future: one where we use and reuse, make and remake.
Whether COP26 will prove to be the turning point we all desperately need is yet to be seen. Yet one thing is for certain: this is the single most important decade for climate action, and change must happen now. Millions of lives will depend on it.
Join us at our virtual event ‘The Decade of our Lives’ on 1st December 2021 where you’ll hear from sustainability leaders, our panel of sustainable procurement experts, and one of the world's leading thinkers on circular supply chains, as we explore these reflections in much greater detail.
Sign up today. We will see you there.