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While many hoped this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) would catalyze global momentum towards addressing the increasingly dire predictions of our warming climate, the outcome was once again flawed yet consequential for our world and our organizations — with clear implications for corporate communicators.
COP27 negotiations failed to spur countries to build upon and improve action plans to reduce emissions or agree to start a phase-out of legacy fossil fuels, but international leaders did forge an agreement to provide “loss and damage” funding for vulnerable countries hit hard by climate disasters. While specific funding and beneficiary schemes will need to be finalized, this historic first comes as devastating flooding impacted more than 33 million in Pakistan and climate change-fueled drought in East Africa threatens millions with starvation.
Given the stark climate realities that our world faces, every sector has a clear mandate to reduce emissions as fast as possible, aligning or exceeding national targets, roadmaps and timelines. Many businesses have answered the call and implemented net-zero greenhouse gas emissions goals, but the lack of a clear international verification system for net-zero pledges has created a context where goals vary widely in terms of scope, ambition and measurement.
This accountability void has left companies open to greenwashing criticisms, even as they accelerate their sustainability plans in the face of new stakeholder expectations for environmental leadership by brands.
At COP27, the United Nations High‑Level Expert Group on the Net Zero Emissions Commitments of Non‑State Entities released Integrity Matters: Net Zero Commitments By Businesses, Financial Institutions, Cities And Regions — a new report that analyzes net zero pledges and commitments from non‑state actors including corporations, financial institutions and local and regional governments. To combat this rise of greenwashing, the report sets out ten practical recommendations to bring integrity, transparency and accountability to net zero by establishing clear standards and criteria.
“While there are many great examples of companies working to transform how they do business, in reality, too many of these climate pledges represent little more than empty slogans and hype. We need these commitments to translate into real action.” Catherine McKenna, Chair, UN Secretary-General’s High-level Expert Group on Net-Zero Commitments
The report makes clear amid the increasing global scrutiny and growing regulatory pressures that communications has a clear role and responsibility in shaping how businesses approach and share how they are addressing climate change.
Here are a few considerations for communications professionals to keep in mind when approaching climate topics:
Align climate policies and actions across the organization
When making a net-zero commitment, all facets of the business and actions must be aligned to this vision. With the proliferation of climate commitments, more third-parties are analyzing lobbying disclosures, travel practices, shareholder presentations and more to understand if a company is truly embracing and living by its climate ambition or just touting a slogan. Communicators can play a critical role in facilitating internal conversations and cross-functional working groups that represent all organizational functions — including internal communications, public affairs, investor relations and more — to ensure alignment or identify areas of the business that need to be addressed.
Share a long-term vision with short-term accountability
The climate crisis will not be solved overnight. Only through continued commitment and cooperation will the international community be able to make meaningful progress to design, implement and scale viable climate solutions. Many businesses have touted bold environmental commitments with a horizon of 2040 and beyond, but with no clear actionable plan as to how these goals will be accomplished. While visionary campaigns and platforms can signal a brand’s intent and ambition to address environmental impacts, today’s consumers, employees and investors want to understand and see evidence of how companies are taking concrete steps today to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Calibrate climate communications to focus on these tangible examples and the results or lessons learned to demonstrate how your business is committed to acting on climate change now and over the long-term.
Embrace transparency and promote understanding of your organization’s environmental footprint
A company’s sustainability journey will generate stories to communicate around successes, failures and lessons learned. If your organization is committed to a net-zero ambition, your communications strategy must be built around an ethos of transparency. The latest report from the UN high-level expert group implores non-state actors to look beyond carbon offset schemes and prioritize urgent and deep reduction of emissions across their value chains. Instead of focusing on offsets or painting an optimistic picture, build your climate communications around your true environmental footprint that accounts for the real impact of your operations and supply chain.
Mike specializes in providing communication counsel to clients and teams around CSR, ESG considerations, sustainability, and brand purpose communications.