Why confronting failure is critical to climate progress, for our countries and corporations

Over the next week, we will hear fervent speeches and declarations about the need for urgent action on climate change. We will hear commitments renewed, restated, and—with hope —expanded upon. And what we are likely to hear above all else is that the time for words is past; now is the time for action. Accountability. Accountability. Accountability. That will be the mantra of COP26, the most important climate summit in history.

And yet, so far, our global leaders have given us slim cause for confidence in their commitments. The disconcerting update from the United Nations shows that—based on nations’ existing climate plans —we could see an increase of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 by as much as 16 per cent, compared to 2019. That is so far in the wrong direction that one might be inclined to ask whether countries are taking this seriously at all? Is giving any heed to what leaders say when they take the stage in Glasgow any more than complicit participation in a collective, global greenwashing exercise?

I don’t blame anyone for falling down that spiral of thinking, but I’m going to ask you not to. Not because the delta between words and actions isn’t real and terrifying, but rather because it is not surprising, even inevitable, given where we are on our global climate journey; and only closable because we have created the public space and forum to lay that delta bare.

It is hard for most of us to imagine the responsibility or complexity of tackling climate change on a national, much less international, level. However, in many ways, the struggle between commitment and progress that we see on display at COP, is playing out within our own businesses.

Corporations, like countries, are under increasing pressure to commit to targets aligned with a 1.5-degree world. Broadly speaking, that means achieving a state of “net zero” emissions over the next 30 years. But, and here’s the rub, the path from where we are today to net zero is anything but clear and straight-forward for anyone. It depends, for example, on technologies we haven’t yet proven; a functioning, effective global carbon market—the rules for which are still being debated; standardized, mandatory climate-risk disclosure—which is still lacking; and, undergirding it all, the political will and public support required to massively shift our economies.

Corporate leadership can easily become paralyzed when caught between the rising calls for climate action and the hard reality of an unclear, imperfect roadmap to achieve targets. The fear of being accused of greenwashing keeps many a CEO and board chair awake at night. Worse, it keeps them from planting their climate stick in the sand.

To a certain extent, that fear is justified. A new white paper by S&P Global ratings on the risks of climate litigation points to greenwashing claims as a “growing litigious area.” This is exemplified by ongoing investigations by German and US regulators into DWS, an asset management firm accused by an inside whistle-blower of exaggerating its ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) claims in its marketing and communications materials. (Fun fact: DWS’s share price fell 13% following the news of an impending SEC investigation).

We have discussed the risks of greenwashing in previous blogs (see here and here). And we could certainly write more on the relatively unchartered terrain of ESG communications, parsing the difference between ambitious language, powerful storytelling, and purposeful manipulation. But, for our purposes here, let’s agree on this:

  • When you exaggerate, falsify, or invent ESG information to raise your profile in the eyes of investors and customers, that is greenwashing.
  • When you make an erroneous claim of climate leadership, backed by little in the way of fact or data, that is greenwashing.
  • When you set and communicate an ambitious climate target but have not yet developed a fully baked plan to meet it, that is not necessarily greenwashing. Not if you are honest and transparent about it.

From both a reputational and responsibility perspective, it is far better for corporations—and for countries — to communicate clear, measurable, and ambitious climate targets and to speak openly about progress and challenges than it is to stay silent. In today’s environment, remaining opaque or vague about climate commitments protects no one from criticism. Hard targets force us to set the arc of our arrows and they also force us to confront our short falls constructively. They force us to innovate solutions. Though it may seem paradoxical, doing this in the open reinforces the seriousness of our commitments and helps inoculate us from greenwashing risk.

If nothing else, what we can take away from this COP is that our collective failures are the necessary content of our climate discussions. We need to lean into them, because while words without actions will not serve us, neither will cynicism.

The commitments made in the unforgiving light of this global climate moment have the potential to trigger the national policies, corporate actions, and public engagement that success depends upon, if we all take them seriously. As corporate leaders, the targets we commit to publicly also have the power to trigger creativity, innovation, and new ways of creating value—if we hold ourselves to them. We cannot allow fear of failure to hold us back from setting a course and starting on it. The path ahead may be neither certain nor clear, but moving forward is the only practical and ethical choice.

About the Author

Jessie Sitnick

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