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Cop26: why advertising needs to pay attention – and act

Companies need to make it much easier for consumers to impact climate change / Mika Baumeister via Unsplash

Cop26, the 26th United Nations climate change conference, is around the corner. Insiders expect it to have the biggest reverberations of any conference since the Paris Agreement. Peter Bardell, co-founder of activism agency Revolt, looks into what it will mean for advertisers.

This month will see what is arguably the most important ever international gathering of leaders to tackle climate change. Cop26 will be the biggest summit the UK has ever hosted and will focus on the transformation needed by governments and business to make net-zero a credible near-term goal.

With near-daily reminders across the media and social platforms that we are facing a climate emergency, and a public more aware and sympathetic to activist movements – and putting pressure on governments and corporates – the issues discussed at Cop26 have great significance for advertisers and the advertising industry.

All companies within the marketing space need to be actively involved. Not just to ensure that they are doing and saying the right things within the communication space, but fundamentally as businesses that they are taking the right steps to be compliant and sustainable.

What to expect at Cop26

Cop26 will bring governments, businesses and organizations together to focus on five key areas: adaptation & resiliency, nature (climate change & biodiversity loss), energy transition, clean road transport and finance.

The summit is the best and biggest opportunity we have of making net-zero a credible near-term goal for both countries and businesses. It’s also about mobilizing the capital needed to meet these objectives and about building the necessary sectoral transformation to make this happen.

Ultimately, expect to see things being ratcheted up. They need to be. It’s been over five years since the 2015 Paris Agreement and action needs to happen – we are likely to see the ‘ratchet mechanism’ come into place, whereby targets become more stringent every five years.

And expect to see some pushback. For those critical of the speed of action by governments and businesses, net-zero is seen as another pledge to distract from the ones that have failed before it. While net-zero clearly focuses on innovation – which is at the heart of any solution – some critics view it as a delaying tactic, with the key players looking for ways not to act now.

Why Cop26 could be different

Over the years, the responsibility for taking action on the climate emergency and reducing CO2 emissions has been passed between three groups: the public, businesses and governments. And with a 24% chance of missing the Paris Agreement climate target in the next five years, we are starting to see a real shift of responsibility and growing pressure to act across these three groups.

Increasingly informed and empowered, the public are making their voices heard around the world. According to the United Nations Development Programme in 2020, 64% of people around the world said that climate change is an emergency – and that was during the pandemic. More people than ever are willing to take personal action and have great expectations of what businesses need to do: not only in reducing their own CO2 emissions, but also helping customers to do so and putting pressure on governments and other businesses in the supply chain to act.

Businesses are increasingly feeling the pressure to act. Larger companies are inevitably feeling it the most, with three key stakeholder groups stepping up the pressure: customers; governments and regulators; and investors and shareholders. Climate is now the number one topic of interest for ESG investors, according to the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment in 2020.

And, as will be clear for all to see at Cop26, governments are under considerable pressure to introduce climate policies, to continually improve their net-zero commitments and to cooperate fully on climate change.

What the advertising industry should look out for

Cop26 is not just a one-off main event, focused on what world leaders have to say. This year, there have been a series of key events that have given governments, businesses and activists opportunities to state/reaffirm intentions and to raise concerns. These include the Biden Climate Summit, G7 and UNGA. And at Cop26 there will be a lot of on-the-ground and online activities outside of the main stage that will be important for the ad industry.

Expect to hear announcements and commitments from big business – principal partners at Cop26 include Sainsbury’s, Reckitt, Microsoft, NatWest Group, Sky, Hitachi, GSK and Unilever. There are also parallel events being organized alongside the main Cop26, including the Sustainable Innovation Forum and the World Climate Summit, and panels and activities including companies such as BMW, Maersk and Pepsico.

What the advertising industry should do after Cop26

Cop26 will bring climate change to the fore across all media. But for businesses in marketing and advertising, paying attention and being aware is not enough. It’s time for action.

At Revolt, we believe there are four key phases for action. Firstly, companies need to reveal what they are doing. This is about taking board responsibility, acknowledging financial risk and accounting for impact – it’s critical to be honest in communications and to set a standard of transparency.

The next phase is all about how to respond. Pledge to a net-zero or science-based target. Establish a decarbonization strategy – start with carbon neutrality across scopes 1 and 2 and work on reducing scope 3 emissions. And conduct a scenario analysis to identify the obstacles or changes you may face.

The third phase is focused on reshaping. How do you need to change your business in order to respond? What systems changes need to be made – across your business process and supply chains – and what policy changes need to be introduced?

Finally comes the reporting phase. Follow The Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure’s recommendations, inform climate disclosure charity CDP of your carbon emissions and work with suppliers to improve their transparency.

Climate change is a global emergency. The issues that will be discussed at Cop26 could not be more pressing. The key focus for advertising is the urgency of the situation. Advertisers and communications companies amplify messages, so collectively we need to amplify the case for urgency. But we must be careful not to stray into panic, blaming and finger-pointing. We need both consumers and businesses to have a gritty optimism – simply screaming that the world is on fire won’t work. We need to talk about how we can work together to put it out. Companies need to make it much easier for consumers to impact climate change.

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