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COP26. Reasons for optimism.

Ian Mitchell, Founder of SOI, looks back at COP26.

It was remarkable to witness COP26 under the gaze of a world desperate for its leaders to unite and tackle climate change. It will stay with me forever. It brought understanding, despair, sadness, but also a realisation that change is afoot. Hope is in the air.

The more cynical of us will mutter ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ The most common word used by every politician and dignitary was ‘try’. Try is a half-hearted commitment. Either do or don’t.

This left me wondering why, with all the Governments, dignitaries, INGOs, philanthropists, change makers, activists, businesses, investors, and lobbyers, all putting their collective heads together, we can’t create more certainty?

Are we all ultimately like King Canute, deluded humans believing we can stop the horror of the climatic tide coming in? On reflection I have tried to make some sense of this from my observations and apply a practical approach as to how we can move forwards.

One. The role of Governments.

First of all, let’s not be too down on COP26. For systemic change, we need governments to step up and play ball. Whilst there were a lot of posturing, stirring speeches, and deals signed, Governments must now rapidly back up their commitments with actions: regulation, taxation and subsidies combined with genuine commitment to creating a sustainable future in which people, planet and businesses can thrive. This will require their vision to be backed up by an innovative and well executed strategy. 

The good news is that there are already footprints of success. Governments have led us through many turbulent times. Societal values, beliefs and behaviours are constantly evolving. Change happens all the time, and so does our relationship with the environment. Most importantly, significant learnings and developments have already been made around sustainability, sustainable cities, farming, and societies. Governments have proven they have the ability to adapt. 

Two. INGOs must play their part.

Whilst governments do all the talking, it will require the commitment of their electorate to produce positive results. We are all responsible for safeguarding a future in which we can flourish. This is the moment when we must all look ourselves in the mirror and step up. It will not be an easy journey, but deep down we know we must all actively commit. 

Governments cannot do this alone; they must be supported and collaborate with INGO and NGOs. I have great admiration for the incredible work of INGOs. From what I’ve witnessed at COP26 there is an opportunity for them to play a more effective role. These organisations need to collaborate better with one another, align and lead in a co-ordinated manner. INGO’s are trusted, but sadly they are not known for their ability to deliver on outcomes. Donors of all levels need to take a stance, become more demanding of INGOs accountability to drive outcomes to these larger issues. If COP26 said one thing clearly it is this - manmade environmental impact has been building over the last 200 years, and we are all now paying the price. The INGOs need to apply pressure effectively now. 

Three. Businesses can be a force for good.

This leads to my third observation at COP26. Nearly everyone, especially the press, was looking at the big institutions for the answers. They are only part of the solution. Businesses of all sizes, their employees, supply chain and critically their customers need to get involved too. But to do this we need to break some myths. Becoming a sustainable business is good business. It is not about compromise, substandard products, poor fiscal performance. There are numerous examples of businesses with sustainability at their core becoming brands of endearment and completely outperforming the traditional business models.

The visionary leaders, the entrepreneurs, the pioneers have already started this journey. They must be supported by governments, NGOs, but also by employees who agree with their vision and their goals.

The advisor and consulting community also need to make a conscious decision to stop elevating businesses that are actively bad for people and the planet. They need to start genuinely adding value to businesses seeking a sustainable future. Sustainability can become mainstream. Sustainability equals success.

This was the area that created the most concern, the most uncertainty. Too few businesses are putting sustainability at their core. If leaders globally committed to building sustainable businesses and consumers supported them, we won’t need government or INGO intervention.

Businesses, their senior management teams and their investors need to be presented with a proven framework and mode of operation that is better than the one they have now. They need to see a low risk, pragmatic sustainable organization, one that delivers strong investor returns, relevant and innovative products, engages and unites their employees, suppliers and customers around a single organizing idea. That is the business of the future.

This is achievable. To transition and embed sustainability at the core of your businesses is not as hard, expensive, or risky as one may think. The solution for businesses is already in the room and very accessible.

Four. The need for action.

My final major observation from COP26 was talk of targets that were many decades away. It is a convenient way to have the kudos of making the commitment, but not being in the hot seat once the deadline approaches. Kicking the can down the road is a well-known human shortcoming. So how do we create urgency and hold governments, INGOs, and businesses accountable now, as well as supporting them?

To achieve this you need to focus on the alignment and maturity of an organisation’s behaviours. If they have the desire to put sustainability at the core of their organisation, and if the correct behaviours are aligned from top to bottom, then the results will follow. Again, the good news is that this has already been mapped out for businesses and organisations alike. The leaders of all organisations need to step up and embrace change. 

My final thought about COP26 is a positive one. We can collectively create certainty. We have proof this works. To achieve this, we all need to make the commitment, create the scale, and accelerate progress. It’s what the people and our planet deserve.

Ian Mitchell is a Founder of SOI.

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