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  1. Opinion
November 23, 2023

Empty promises or genuine action?

As the world takes stock of progress towards the Paris Agreement goals, concerns remain about the gap between promises made and actions taken.

By Angela Hultberg

Photo by rafapress via Shutterstock
  • This year’s COP28 climate summit in Dubai will be a crucial test of whether countries are willing to take real action to address the climate crisis.
  • The global stocktake, a process for reviewing progress towards the Paris Agreement goals, will be a central focus.
  • Many companies are still acting as though there is time to decide on organisational details and whether pledges and negotiations make financial sense.

We are now approaching eight years since the Paris Agreement was first signed at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) in 2015, and we’ve since seen governments, businesses and organisations come together a further seven times to look at our progress and discuss how we can achieve these targets. Ahead of COP28 in Dubai, I ask myself the same question I do every year: will we see real progress this time?

This year, the global climate stocktake will be a main focal point. The global stocktake is a process for countries and stakeholders to see where we are collectively making progress towards meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, and to see where we are not. Spoiler: we are not on track.

At the same time, we do know change will be exponential, and hopefully, we will leapfrog as solutions are being deployed and scaled.

Look at the sales of electric vehicles, for example. Doubling from 1% to 2% might not be a game-changer for any decarbonising solution. But keep it up and soon you will be doubling from 16% to 32%, and then 64%. That is what exponential change means, and it means there is still reason to be optimistic.

There is reason to be optimistic, but also a lot of experiences that tell us not to have high expectations. Will it be a game-changing moment in time or endless discussions that do not lead to real impact?

Promises, promises

Every year at COP, we hear several pledges, negotiations, and commitments from states and companies. What we don’t always hear is the follow-up – have they actually delivered on their promises?

As one example: the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (Gfanz) formed at COP26 to accelerate the decarbonisation of the economy, a very exciting initiative that could have a real impact on the pace of the transition. It has since faced criticism for a lack of climate action by its leading members. Not only was there not a robust plan in place to fulfil Gfanz’s pledges, but requirements were also lacking for members to cease harmful actions to the planet contributing to climate change, such as deforestation.

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Separately, at COP15, climate finance funding of $100bn per year by 2020 was agreed, to be delivered by developed countries with high greenhouse gas emissions. However, this goal was also not achieved. The target was missed, leaving developing nations suffering from the effects of climate change that they are not responsible for. Last year, COP27 closed with a breakthrough agreement to provide a loss and damage fund, however, countries remain divergent on fundamental issues to operationalise this fund and issues around location, governance arrangements of the fund, sources of funding and eligibility issues, are still being discussed. Finance is a key theme for COP28, so it will be interesting to see if, and how, this target is addressed.

Added to the above are all net-zero commitments from governments and businesses alike, and the uncertainty about progress being made. COP28 must be different. Less commitments, more action.

The elephant in the room

Ahead of the climate summit, 130 businesses, including industry giants such as IKEA, Unilever, Astra Zeneca and Nestle have signed an open letter urging world leaders to agree on a timeline to phase out fossil fuels. We will no doubt see a host of similar open letters to urge world leaders to do more, and perhaps for the signatories to distance themselves from potential criticism for engaging in a conference that is under scrutiny for its close ties to the oil industry.

The oil lobby attended in large numbers at COP27, and the same is to be expected this year. No doubt this is making some companies uneasy, as it fuels the fires for those calling the conference out for greenwashing. The prospect of such backlash leaves many fearful ahead of these events – and the line between holding companies responsible for greenwashing, and imposing green hushing, is getting blurry.

We do want transparency after all, and COP can serve as a major opportunity for sharing knowledge and best practices, to the benefit of all. Will we see greenwashing – yes? Does that mean we should have everyone stop talking about their sustainability efforts – no.

And it’s not only about carbon. Businesses are increasingly pressed to look at the wider impact of their model on society, with an increased focus on social topics, the role of indigenous communities, nature-based solutions and biodiversity.

A better way to think of this is through the concept of regenerative business, perceiving the business as part of an ecosystem of not just consumers, but the natural world and the societies in which it operates. Through this lens, the urgency of real action at COP28 becomes even more pronounced. With inclusion a key theme for this year’s conference, I truly hope the voice of indigenous people, who do so much of the work to protect our planet, with so little support, is strong enough for everyone, including the negotiating parties, to hear.

A worried optimist

In an ideal scenario, this year’s global stocktake will not only serve as a stark reminder that we must collectively do more but also spur everyone into action mode.

Most companies are still acting as though we have the time to decide on organisational details and whether these pledges and negotiations make financial sense; however, Mother Nature’s timeline is far less forgiving. And as we know, tackling the effects of climate change, such as repairing the damage to infrastructure from heat waves, floods, fires, and tornadoes, is costly.

Additionally, solving the social issues that natural disasters present, such as refugee crises, will come at an uncountable cost. After all, how do we measure the value of life?

It sounds a bit bleak for sure, and I do worry that we will leave COP once again feeling exhausted and disappointed at the outcomes. However, I remain optimistic.

There are leaders stepping up. Solutions are being scaled. Voices calling for change are getting louder. And as bridges are being wrapped in tin foil during heatwaves in Europe, and Texans are experiencing snowstorms they are not prepared for, even governments might be swayed to do more, faster. At the end of the day, we simply do not have a choice.

I will go to COP28 hopeful that we will see real leaders taking real action – and a bit worried it might not be enough. As always.

[Read more: Cop27 takeaway: Harmonise ESG disclosure]

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