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As COP27 comes to an end, it’s what we do next that really matters

While some of the outcomes from the conference were encouraging, business needs to find a way to embed tackling the climate crisis in everything it does
Heavy Flood, Pakistan 2022
The recent floods in Pakistan were a talking point at this year’s COP27

We’ve still got a huge problem to solve. Climate change isn’t going away, and reports show there is a 50/50 chance that global temperature increases will break the 1.5°C threshold by 2030. I am an optimist, but you can’t help but feel that time is running out if we don’t act, especially when you see that carbon emissions went up last year. 

However, with every challenge comes an opportunity. It’s incumbent on us to start figuring out where those opportunities lie and what we can do to push forward. It sounds cliché, but Covid taught us that we can come together and solve massive problems as a global community. That’s the scale of the challenge and the reaction that we need. 

There are always strong speeches at COP, but one of the stark changes has been that it’s now moving away from theory. You’re seeing people, such as Pakistan’s prime minister, talking about flooding and its impact on 33 million people. Those floods have taken away 11,000 kilometres of roads and railways, 4 million acres of crops have been devastated. Previously the line was that ‘this is what might happen’. Now we’re living in it. We’re living in climate change. 

António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said “we’re on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator”. That paints a pretty bleak picture. Those speeches need to prompt action. 

Testing our collaborative mindset

When it came to loss and damage funds, it was encouraging to see developed countries taking the share, although the draft text of this watered down the narrative, so we’ll see where it ends up. This will certainly test the collaborative mindset of world leaders. How are we able to commit to that level of support amid austerity at home

I also found it encouraging to talk about the greenwashing agenda. We saw the ISO release its net-zero guidelines. I think that’s really needed because it will help every industry create meaningful targets. It has been a bit like the wild west for net-zero targets and organisations aren’t quite sure what to do. 

We need that common language and process, and that target to hold each other to account, but also to identify best practice. The organisations that are doing things really well need to be held up as bastions for change so that others can replicate them. 

We also need to change the narrative and move away from words like ‘targets’. Target is a soft word: my target could be to go to the gym tonight, but if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world. Instead, consider a word like ‘limit’. If I break the speed limit, there’s a consequence. Limits are hard lines. We need to change how we talk about what’s necessary because language matters and if we don’t limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C, the consequence is catastrophic.

Events like COP set the consensus on where we want to go. It’s much harder to say: ‘This is exactly what we have to do, here’s our line in the sand, we will not go past it’. To deliver on COP’s pledges, we need collaboration. Public, private, industry, consumer, all working together to demand change, but also living it and moving it forward. 

We don’t want to sleepwalk into climate disaster. We need to make sure that we’ve got our eyes open and that is what COP does, it opens our eyes and shows us the way to go. But it doesn’t solve the problems. It’s what happens after COP that is really important.

Maintaining the momentum of COP27

Sustainability in response to embedded decarbonisation isn’t something that is just looked at for two weeks, it’s something we’ve got to live every single day. COP serves as a lovely window and gives us the space to talk around a topic, but we need to take that momentum and maintain it. 

The problem we have is that the scale of change is massive. I work in an organisation that delivers the built environment. We still have to build buildings and infrastructure, but we need to find a way to build more sustainably. We’ve built roads and bridges the same way for hundreds of years. We’re going to have to find different ways to do it, different materials that perhaps don’t exist at the moment. 

Trying to embed that cultural change is the biggest challenge I have, changing deep-rooted mindsets and practices. It’s hard because we know those practices work - but they have contributed to climate change. So, we need to figure out how we can work together, the built environment working with the natural one in harmony to deliver something that’s better.

Simon Richards is sustainability director at construction and civil engineering firm, Sir Robert McAlpine

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