COP23: What does the Bonn climate summit mean for sustainability professionals?

As delegates from almost every nation arrive in Bonn to discuss the ways to prevent rising global temperatures from reaching catastrophic levels, edie takes a closer look at how developments at the UN climate summit could affect sustainability teams and their efforts to accelerate the shift towards low-carbon, resource-efficient business models.

Thousands of representatives from 195 countries are gathered in Bonn from November 6-17 to work on a “rule book” for implementation of the Paris Agreement. Essentially, the summit is expected to lay the groundwork for the rules and guidelines which will need to be established by each country before December 2018’s COP24 summit in Katowice, Poland. The summit is being chaired by Fiji, the first time that a small island nation will be at the helm of a major international climate conference.

Major talking points will centre around the need for international standards to measure carbon emissions and ensure that each nation’s efforts can be compared against each other. Bonn also provides a timely opportunity for countries to take stock, reaffirm commitments made in Paris two years ago and set new, more ambitious goals for curbing carbon emissions after 2020.

While most of the action over the next fortnight will be conducted by government officials, a large business community will be in attendance looking to reassert existing leadership on climate action. It is hoped that Bonn, like many preceding climate summits, will help to forge the collaboration between business and governments necessary to scale climate action across the world.

Sustainability professionals will be keeping a close eye on developments in Germany in the next two weeks, as they discover how actions made at a national and international level will affect their company’s own efforts to build resilience in the transition to a well below 2C world.

Storytelling opportunity

This year’s annual climate summit arrives amid a backdrop of depressing events and reports which highlight the strategic importance for businesses to act now on climate change. This year has seen a tsunami of weather events worsened by climate change, while only today, an announcement from the World Meteorological Organization revealed that 2017 is set to be one of the three hottest years on record.

The bad news doesn’t stop there. Figures show that levels of CO2 in the atmosphere increased at record speed last year, while a stark UN report has warned that there is an “unacceptable” gap between national pledges and the emissions reductions required to meet the Paris Agreement’s climate targets.

This should act as a clear warning sign that the business community, alongside governments and other non-state actors, need to speed up the shift to a low-carbon economy. There is in fact an opportunity to be gained here – sustainability practitioners can use the growing body of evidence to engage internal and external stakeholders in a storytelling process to sell the risks and opportunities of climate change.

Thankfully for sustainability professionals, evidence suggests there is a growing level of involvement from boardrooms regarding climate issues. According to a recent report from CDP, climate change is now a board-level topic for 98% of companies and 90% have financial incentives attached to corporate climate targets. 

Trump defiance

Bonn represents the first top-level climate meeting since President Trump announced proposals to pull the US out of the historic deal, and the sustainability community will be wary that positive discussions could be overshadowed by the unhelpful antics of the US administration. With the US unable to leave the Paris Agreement until 2020, a team of negotiators have been sent out this week, and reports suggest that this may be used as an opportunity to champion the fossil fuel industry.

The White House has already confirmed that US delegates will endorse coal, natural gas and nuclear energy as a solution to climate change at a presentation in Bonn. It is understood that the talk with focus on how US energy fossil fuels can help developing countries to transition to a low-carbon economy. And in a move which is sure to anger environmentalists, speakers from coal giants such as Peabody Energy are set to deliver a speech that highlights the role that the energy-intensive fossil fuel can play in curbing the impacts of rising temperatures.

But amid the political turbulence, the sustainability community can take heart from the fact that a large contingent of US governors, mayors and business leaders will be in Bonn to explain that the majority of US actors remain on board, in spite of federal opposition. The We Are Still In coalition of more than 900 companies has thrown its weight behind the Paris Agreement, with most of the US business community claiming to remain committed to boosting investment in clean energy.

Corporate commitments

COP22 saw a range of companies demonstrating their commitment to a low-carbon future with pledges to source 100% renewable energy, and we are expecting to see more of the same during Bonn. Just today, HSBC has pledged to provide $100bn in sustainable financing by 2025 – as part of a new batch of climate-related commitments. Bloomberg and California Governor Jerry Brown, meanwhile, will host an America’s Pledge event in Bonn to highlight aggressive action by US companies. The momentum will build upon the recent wave of pledges made by businesses to follow science-based emission reductions targets.

But there is still a long way to go. Emissions targets from large corporates are around one-third of the way to bringing the private sector on a trajectory to keep global warming below 2C, highlighting the need for more science-based targets. Researchers, meanwhile, have warned that only 30% of the world’s top 250 listed companies have set strong goals to curb global warming.

The Paris Agreement fired the gun in the race to a low-carbon economy, and with corporate winners and losers already emerging, sustainability professionals will need to ensure their companies look to seize the opportunity, or risk losing out. By setting ambitious targets at Bonn and beyond, businesses can help to build the Paris vision of a resilient, low-carbon economy and by showcasing results, they can send a compelling message to world leaders to step up their own efforts through enhanced 2020 nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

George Ogleby

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