COP26 legacy: A story of denial, delay, despair, complacency or action?

By Sarah Birrell Ivory / The climate crisis is one of the greatest crises we will face as a collective humanity of earthlings. November’s COP26 UN climate conference held in Glasgow was labelled by some as our “last best hope” to effect real and radical change to protect our own and future generations. In this context, many commentators post-COP have examined the question of whether the conference was a success or failure.

I think the question is flawed.

The UN COP process is the only process we have that brings together most of the world’s leaders to hold them to account for their country’s climate performance and ambitions. It is the only process we have that brings together thousands of civil society and community groups to advocate for the particular aspect of the climate crisis which they are attempting to address. It is the only process we have that focuses attention on the entrepreneurial and industrial innovations which are targeting climate solutions. And, perhaps most importantly, it is the only process we have which brings the attention of virtually the entire world’s media to two weeks of international political negotiations. I challenge members of the lay public to name even one other international treaty like the Paris Agreement or to follow subsequent international multilateral meetings aimed at hashing out the ‘rulebook’ for the treaty, as was occurring in Glasgow.

Allocating a binary ‘success’ or ‘failure’ to such an undertaking assumes the aim of the conference was a simple one – like passing your driver’s test, or finishing War and Peace.  

What COP26 achieved was demonstrating a commitment to a process – and one which had been disrupted significantly by Covid and badly needed a shot in the arm (if you’ll excuse the ill-judged pun) to get back on track.

The Glasgow Climate Pact is just such a shot in the arm. Moreover, there are many things in it to be celebrated. Not the least of which is the agreement that nations will return next year with more stringent targets – defusing disappointment in the fact that current targets don’t get us onto the 1.5º trajectory. Parallel announcements around methane and deforestation throughout the conference were also promising.

What are the key lessons for PRME?

The first is a reminder that ‘management education’ does not just happen in business schools and – even if it did – it does not just produce ‘business’ people. Such education is also essential to train leaders in civil society, policy, community and others, who were running the conference, and present, vocal and influential throughout. We need to continue to push against the ‘business-as-usual’ or ‘business-for-profit-alone’ narrative which can and does underpin business school education as explored in Martin Parker’s recent PRME blog ‘Why are business schools killing our planet’, which I recommend to you. The work of many business schools in introducing and integrating climate change and many other sustainability issues is welcome. But when these topics are covered only briefly (if at all) in the core programme, and left for in-depth study in electives, they are missing the very students who need it the most: those who don’t yet see that virtually every business, financial, resource, or staff issue will involve some aspect of sustainability, and many will involve climate specifically. For example, with the physical and transition impacts on global financial markets we are increasingly hearing the mantra that ‘all finance is climate finance’.

The second is a reflection on the role of business in societal-level change. Business can choose to be an obstacle, agnostic, a passenger, or a driver of the low-carbon transition (among other transitions). We saw a number of the latter willing to put their heads above the parapet at COP26 voluntarily committing their businesses to support such societal transition. Fortunately, fewer businesses are obstacles to transition – at least vocally. But they still exist and we are increasingly relying on their supply chain partners, investors, customers to force change which they aren’t willing to enact themselves. The more interesting categories in my view are those in the middle – agnostic or passengers.

A phrase has been whispered from the start of 2021, reaching a crescendo at COP26: “delayers are the new deniers”. When we face a challenge that is time critical, those delaying action end up having the same effect as those denying we should take any action at all. More concerning is that because the delayers seem reasonable their influence may be even more pervasive than the deniers. We need every business to use whatever power, influence, assets, or processes they have at their disposal to be an active part of the solution. Again, that brings us back to the necessity to equip business and management graduates with the tools, drive, and confidence to act – and act quickly.

So, COP26: success or failure? The answer was determined before COP26 started. It was neither and it was both – and it was always going to be. It depends largely on an individual’s pre-COP attitude. Pessimists and cynics were always going to see it as a failure because it wasn’t going to do enough. I don’t particularly blame them for their attitude, or their conclusion. The world is in a precarious position and one could easily make the argument that pessimism is justified. Optimists, on the other hand, were always going to see it as a success (well – unless the conference broke down entirely), because it kept 197 countries with vastly different challenges, political views, internal politics, power, and resources committed to an ongoing process of negotiation, discussion, and agreement. It is the only process we have that is able to walk the tightrope of such a complex diplomatic pressures, with such life-or-death consequences.

But there is an even more important reason that we need to push back against the ‘success or failure’ question. If we decide it was a failure, it is too easy to lose hope of any form of future solution. In that way, despair may also be as harmful as denial. If we decide it was a success, we dismiss the massive challenges that are still to be overcome and the constant pressure we need to apply to these. In that way, complacency may also be as harmful as denial.

So what is the alternative to denial, delay, despair or complacency?

I choose action. Using my role, my influence, and my expertise in the most effective way possible to address the challenges we continue to face. And with that I sign off this blog to return to developing climate Executive Education for leading UK financial institutions, writing the curriculum for a core MBA sustainability course, and contributing curriculum to three other new courses in climate in our business school.

What tasks are you acting on now to contribute to addressing the climate crisis?

Dr Sarah Birrell Ivory is the Director of the Centre for Business, Climate Change and Sustainability (B-CCaS) at the University of Edinburgh Business School.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s