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Our Insights 1 Dec 2011

Don’t Count on a Good COP

By Geoff Lye

This is the first in a series of posts about and from COP 17. Others in the series can be found here: two, three, four, five, six, and seven.

Durban will briefly be in the climate spotlight just months before the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit. Few of us at Rio in 1992 would have believed that so little progress would be made in the intervening years. At the time, I had four children of school age. Frankly, the UN process has served neither them, nor my four grandchildren, well since. Climate procrastination has put future generations (with over two billion ‘climate innocents’ to be born by 2050) at severe risk of increasingly dangerous climate disruptions. We have seen how national and international governments and institutions responded to the 2008 financial crisis in just two crucial days, but also how, in two crucial decades, they have achieved very little on the much deeper climate crisis. Nature neither defers decisions nor haggles; nor, as widely observed after the financial crisis, does nature do bailouts.

2012 is also the 25th anniversary of the Brundtland Commission’s report on Sustainable Development. On the issue of climate change, the report says: “The key question is: How much certainty should governments require before agreeing to take action? If they wait until significant climate change is demonstrated, it may be too late for any countermeasures to be effective against the inertia by then stored in this massive global system. The very long time lags involved in negotiating international agreement on complex issues involving all nations have led some experts to conclude that it is already late.” In its call to action: “Nations urgently need to formulate and agree upon management policies for all environmentally reactive chemicals released into the atmosphere by human activities, particularly those that can influence the radiation balance on earth.”

25 years on, SustainAbility recently interviewed the report’s chair, Gro Harlem Brundtland. Looking back, she sees as ‘sensational’ the progress made in securing agreement to the Climate Convention at the Rio Earth Summit, but recognises that national pressures on governments continue to impede real progress by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. She calls on all parts of society and especially business to help drive and lobby for positive change by policymakers.

So just how is the Climate Convention progressing? At COP 13 in Bali, I observed at close quarters how the conference worked through the night after the official closing time to get final agreement to the Bali Action Plan. The mood in the room at that point was euphoric: by COP 15 in Copenhagen we would surely have a new binding treaty aligned to holding global warming below the critical 2°C. As I flew home from COP 13, I wrote a blog which suggested ‘Bali will be judged a real milestone in the history of climate solutions’ but also ‘expect COP 15 to be another rollercoaster’. In the event, COP 15 was indeed a rollercoaster, spectacularly careering off track in its final days – another deep disappointment, a shameful failure by world leaders to meet their responsibilities to current and future generations.

It is hard to conclude, therefore, that global policymakers will show the necessary leadership on climate – now or in coming years – to avoid catastrophic weather pattern disruptions. The latest extreme weather events report from the IPCC leaves little room for doubt that we are on an irreversible track for weather pattern shifts which will overwhelm our adaptive capacity. All rational responses and principles of precautionary action have been betrayed by narrow self-interest and refusal to see that the greater global good should prevail.

While we must hope – and all push for – substantive progress in Durban, one thing is certain: the very best we might anticipate from COP 17 will be inadequate to meet the 2° challenge. The most likely longer term outcome of this multilateral process will be the adoption of the lowest common climate denominators; a welcome but inadequate response.

So who will be the key players in climate leadership if not governments and policymakers?

After the failure of COP 15 in Copenhagen, SustainAbility called for unilateral action by a range of players from countries to cities, from corporations to communities. In advance of COP 16, we called specifically for business leaders to acknowledge and to leverage their unique ability to lessen the carbon intensity of their entire value chains. The moral imperative for businesses to act increases, we argued, in proportion to the deepening policy vacuum. Beyond that, there are also powerful business imperatives to act now: these include avoiding market and supply chain disruptions; protecting physical assets; and anticipating the inevitable increases in carbon emission and energy costs.

Fortunately, the most progressive companies have already demonstrated what is possible. A current leader in corporate sustainability ambition is Unilever with its Sustainable Living Plan. Their commitment is to de-couple the environmental impacts of their products from revenue growth. Climate is a key focus: by 2020 Unilever ‘aims to halve the greenhouse gas impact of our products across the lifecycle – from the sourcing of raw materials, through to consumer use and disposal’. Walmart too, is doing its part to lead other companies to a low-carbon future using its purchasing power to drive emissions reductions through its supply chain. Cisco is working on multiple fronts, through both its Carbon to Collaboration initiative and its partnership with the Connected Urban Development (CUD) group, which aims to minimise the impact of urban infrastructure. These companies have set the standard by which all others must now assess their ambitions.

Increasingly, however, both civil society and businesses are recognising that the best of individual NGO or corporate actions on climate and other environmental and social issues are proving inadequate in the face of dysfunctional systemic and market challenges. Future leadership must therefore make a shift from organisational to systems change. Business attitudes to collaborative as opposed to competitive advantage and to open as opposed to closed solutions sourcing and innovation will need a fundamental re-alignment of business models around positive social and environmental outcomes.

Nike, Puma and adidas recently announced that they will work with Greenpeace to drive policy making and business value chains to achieve an outcome of zero toxic discharges. We at SustainAbility have been working with Nike, the broader apparel industry and Greenpeace to frame this new order with encouraging results. The essential components will be making the elimination of harmful environmental impacts a pre-competitive issue; sharing learning and solutions on a transparent and open-source basis; and recruiting the whole value chain to clear time-defined outcomes. The next goal could – and should – be systems collaboration around ‘Zero GHGs’. The implications are profound: not easy, but essential for fundamental as opposed to more incremental change.

In similar spirit, Unilever has shown real leadership in this space, with CEO Paul Polman calling for business model change at the launch of their Sustainable Living Plan: “We will all have to work together – Pepsi will have to work with Coke, the US will have to work with China and Greenpeace will have to work with WWF”.

So as Durban gets under way, we at SustainAbility are calling for a coalition of the brave: companies willing – in the face of regulatory and market uncertainty – to make bold commitments and take bold actions; to work collaboratively through value chains and with competitors; and to co-create and mobilise innovative solutions with civil society. If we can pull all of these levers simultaneously and at scale, continuing failure by policymakers may then be judged by history as a sign of political incompetence but not sufficient a hurdle to stop the rest of society resolving the climate crisis. This will be in spite of, rather than driven by, those politicians tasked two decades ago to deliver global policies which should by now be being implemented rather than debated.

Rio is one of Durban’s twinned cities. Let’s hope for better and more fundamental outcomes in South Africa than from that summit in Brazil. But don’t count on it.

This article was originally published on Outreach, one of the four officially recognised publications at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations.

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