Momentum, commitment, scale: Experts break down what it will take to hit climate goals

With just weeks to go until COP26 takes place in the Scottish city of Glasgow, discussions about sustainability, the environment and net-zero goals are at the forefront of many people’s minds.

The stakes are high for the climate change summit, which will be hosted by the U.K. In a speech at the U.N. General Assembly last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson described COP26 as “the turning point for humanity.”

“We must limit the rise in temperatures — whose appalling effects were visible even this summer — to 1.5 degrees,” Johnson said. “We must come together in a collective coming of age,” he added. “We must show we have the maturity and wisdom to act.”

Breaking things down, a broad range of topics will be addressed at COP26.

This image shows onshore wind turbines in the Netherlands.
Daniel Bosma | Moment | Getty Images

Discussions about adaptation to climate change and the mobilization of finance to achieve climate-related goals will take place, while a document outlining the summit’s aims says countries have been “asked to come forward with ambitious 2030 emissions reductions targets … that align with reaching net zero by the middle of the century.”

The ambitions of COP26 are lofty and getting all parties to agree on a common set of goals that will have a positive outcome for the planet represents a huge challenge.

Collaboration will be key in Glasgow, and the importance of working together was touched upon in some detail during a recent debate moderated by CNBC’s Steve Sedgwick.

“Right now, I think the climate crisis is one thing that really unites us around a common issue and a common issue that we must bring together,” Sanda Ojiambo, CEO and executive director of the United Nations Global Compact, said.

Consisting of over 14,000 businesses, the U.N. Global Compact describes itself as the planet’s “largest corporate sustainability initiative.” A voluntary scheme, it’s centered around 10 principles focused on human rights, labor, anti-corruption and the environment.

In addition, the Global Compact says it supports firms in taking “strategic actions to advance broader societal goals, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, with an emphasis on collaboration and innovation.”

For her part, Ojiambo articulated how fostering a sense of unity was so important when it came to tackling the tough challenges related to the climate.

She said: “What excites me most … above and beyond the membership of the Global Compact, is the clarity of the fact that to address the climate crisis you do need partnership between government, between the private sector, civil society. And it really does have to be a multi-stakeholder, multilateral response.”

It was put to Ojiambo that getting companies to come to an accord on such a wide range of issues must be a difficult task.

“We don’t really ask for alignment across a whole host of issues,” she said. “What we do say at the Global Compact is embrace the 10 principles as being fundamental for responsible business.”

“But in terms of the Sustainable Development Goals, it’s really a question of materiality,” she said, going on to stress the importance of having a laser focus on specific challenges.

“If you’re sitting in an extractive industry, what is more material to you is certainly very different from if you’re in the banking industry, or in the hospitality industry,” she said.

“So it then becomes a matter of materiality, and where you need to prioritize and have the most impact.”

“But if I go to the fundamentals … we believe that embracing the principles that we have on human rights, labor, the environment and anti-corruption just make for better business.” 

Businesses taking action is one thing but, as noted above, a variety of stakeholders will need to work together when it comes to ensuring efforts to tackle climate change are effective and long-term.

For Adair Turner, who is chairman of the Energy Transitions Commission, a shift does seem to be taking place.

“The good news is that, really, over the last two years, there has been a positive ambition loop … a self-reinforcing cycle between what governments are saying and what the private sector is saying,” he said.

“You’ve had private sector companies increasingly realizing that with the technologies available, they can commit to get to net zero emissions by mid-century,” he added.

“That [is] giving governments confidence that they can set that target and that [is] making it non-negotiable for businesses to then come in line with that target.”

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