COP26: A case of greenwashing or a catalyst for action?

Will COP26 be lauded as an historic event that turned the tide on climate change? Or will it be criticized as nothing more than an exercise in greenwashing by governments and big businesses? This might sound like a radical dichotomy, but it effectively encapsulates the public sentiment towards what has been the world’s biggest global summit on the environment.

Leaders and public figures have delivered impressive pledges to show their commitment towards a sustainable and ecological future. Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos pledged $2 billion to help restore nature and food systems – he took the stage after celebrating Bill Gates’ birthday on a 107 meter-yacht that is purportedly responsible for over 700 tons of carbon emissions a year.

Those involved in COP26 were probably not anticipating the volume of negative criticism they have received. Mark Carney, the UN’s special envoy on finance declaration of a $130 trillion of private capital waiting to be deployed to support the move to net zero has certainly grabbed headlines, though there are questions over the validity of this figure.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s announcement that financial firms must have net zero aligned transition plans by 2023 was also met with immediate questions. When must the transition occur? And how exactly will the government ensure plans are kept in place?

Media outlets are sceptical – in the last few days, the press have looked beyond the political rhetoric and challenged the credibility of the pledges made.

The point is that the wider public not willing to let COP26 fall not to become the new Copenhagen Summit (a 2009 global climate event which only delivered a political statement).

Action is clearly warranted to not only tackle environmental concerns but show that there is still value in having international summits that can bring countries and organisations together under one flag to address a common goal.

The financial services industry will be a top target moving forward. The public want to see clear action to ensure targets are met. The UK’s FCA has also made it clear that greenwashing, which it defines as marketing an organisation’s activities as producing positive environmental outcomes when this is not the case, is a top priority. Attempts to greenwash will be met with immediate criticisms as will any pledges which are not ultimately acted upon.

The approach companies take will also have a visible impact on their day-to-day operations. A recent report found that three-quarters of institutional investors are now more likely to divest from companies with poor ESG track records. Financial firms need to maintain momentum from COP26 and actively show their commitment to climate change action through a combination of policy and actions.

The overall success of COP26 will be ensuring that companies and governments maintain a transparent dialogue with the wider public. Communication is key. Climate change is a universal concern that affects all aspects of society – as shown by the interest surrounding COP26, the time for action is now.

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