Blog 8 min read 12 November 2021

COP26 Commentary

It’s been an intense and fast-moving week in Glasgow. Expectations have quickly moved beyond words and pledges, and the battle against greenwashing has become a central theme. Will the event be considered a success or a noble failure? That’s still hanging in the balance. As we reach the end of the first week, here are some strategic comms highlights from the event so far.

Language is a powerful tool – if actions are aligned

  • Boris Johnson’s bold approach to language is successfully building the perception that he’s a fully blown environmentalist. He opened the event with a speech that compared the Earth’s plight to that of James Bond strapped to a doomsday device, and chose emotive words as he announced the commitment to end deforestation by 2030, describing the move as an ‘end to humanity’s role as nature’s conqueror.’ 
  • The glory was however quickly mired with some own goals. Just hours after delivering the impactful speech, the PM took a private jet to a dinner date and was later pictured sitting unmasked next to 95-year-old David Attenborough.
  • Scrutiny of the travel preferences of the global elite will no doubt continue to increase in the wake of Oxfam’s report released yesterday. The study predicts that by 2030 emissions from the global 1% will be 30 times higher than what’s required to meet climate targets.

What now? As accusations of hypocrisy soar, leaders’ can expect their actions to be scrutinised more than ever before. To avoid reputational challenges that have the potential to derail positive progress, it’s important that rhetoric and actions are aligned.

Reputation is everything

  • Underwhelming targets from both India and Australia were considered by many to be an early blow to the event’s success, but the country’s respective leaders have come out of the storm in very different positions.
  • Narendra Modi used his spotlight to highlight the need in developing countries for $1trn of investment to make the transition. Australia’s PM Scott Morrison was already in the headlines thanks to a very public drama with President Macron, and media sentiment towards him continued to darken as details (or lack thereof) of Australia’s coal and net zero plans emerged. The PM’s attempts to highlight more ambitious 2030 targets fell on deaf ears.
  • The US, EU and UK announced a donation of $8.5 bn to help end South Africa’s reliance on coal. Earlier this year Dr Fatih Birol, chief of the IEA said quitting coal was the world’s most important step in the lead up to COP26, and ramped up the effort to mobilise investment for the energy transition in developing economies.

What now? Each of these stories underlines that reputation management is a long- term game that requires ‘infinite thinking’. How you handle seemingly unrelated issues and communicate potentially negative stories will have an impact on everything else you do.

The battle to end greenwashing

  • As the third day turned to finance, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the creation of the ‘first ever net zero aligned global financial centre’. From 2023, the government will require listed companies to outline how they’ll get to net zero by 2050.
  • The news was followed by the launch of the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB), aiming to help investors and regulators address greenwashing by creating baseline sustainability disclosure standards.

What now? Stakeholders’ expectations have changed significantly. Corporate reputation will depend on detailed plans, data and alignment with third parties. Kekst CNC’s recent public opinion research on Net Zero offers insights on how best to communicate plans.

Campaigns and content

  • In an industry first, 12 broadcasters and streamers have signed up to The Climate Content Pledge. Collectively, these channels account for more than 70% of the time UK audiences spend watching TV and film every year. Among the six pledges is one to commit more airtime to content that will inspire people to make greener choices.
  • Brands have taken the opportunity to enhance their green credentials. Unilever’s The Food Waste Effect installation highlighted the impacts of the 117kg of household waste produced by the average UK family each year. Plant-based meat brand Huera’s Elephant in the Room campaign saw a 140 foot projection of an elephant run around the streets of Glasgow.

What now? We can expect consumer activism to become mainstream in the coming months, as the content they digest becomes increasingly focused on changing behaviours. There is no such thing as business as usual, and communication strategies should be based on research that identifies the most effective way to talk to your audiences about your climate reality. 

Businesses in the spotlight

  • On the corporate side, Jeff Bezos committed Amazon to powering its operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025, and to achieving an all-electric fleet of delivery vehicles.
  • Unfortunately for SSE who have some excellent initiatives in the Green Zone at COP26, stories from the lead sponsor have been buried by headlines about a sit down staged by protesters outside the energy giant’s Glasgow offices.
  • The UK’s controversial Cambo oilfield development has become an unfortunate poster child for the UK’s apparent ‘hypocrisy’ as the host nation for COP26. Alok Sharma and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon both faced public questions about the North Sea oil field. Shell’s Ben van Beurden went on the offensive on BBC news, giving a master class in tackling an issue head on, saying, ‘it makes no sense to substitute UK resources for foreign imports to satisfy domestic demand’.
  • The credibility of Drax’s North Yorkshire biomass power plant came into question in the lead up to COP26, when it was ousted from the S&P Global Dow Jones index of the world’s cleanest energy The intersection of pledges on coal and deforestation this week led to a rather detailed piece in The Telegraph, highlighting claims that the company’s heavily subsidised biomass plant emits more carbon that the coal it used to burn.

What now? Climate transformation will impact everyone, and not everyone has all the answers. Now is the time for honest, transparent conversations that communicate both the challenges and opportunities of the journey ahead. Even if the journey is unclear, don’t let the great get in the way of the good.