COP26: The only headline that matters

We asked London Business Forum regular John Knell and co-creator of The 80 Minute MBA to give us the lowdown on COP26...

A climate march with 1.5C banner

So, COP26 is over. Here’s why you should be more optimistic than you are probably feeling right now.

The global ‘Decarbonisation Party’ taking place in Glasgow has been a mixed affair. It feels like we’ve all got a hangover despite the champagne staying on ice. Just more ‘Blah, Blah, Blah’ according to climate activist extraordinaire Greta Thunberg.

There have been diverting insights of course, not least the likelihood of us seeing many more cows wearing masks and taking garlic pills to diminish their methane emissions at ‘both ends.’  

No such practical cures have yet been found for the hot air coming out of the mouths of some politicians at COP26, as they try to sell ‘mild progress’ as dramatic transformation.  Rather like watching someone try to put a fire out in their house with small tumblers of water, whilst simultaneously explaining the irrationality of using a water hose.

There are lots of excellent summaries and commentaries you can read about what has, and what hasn’t, been achieved at COP26:

Carbon Tracker's COP26 Concluding Statement

Financial Times.

However, the only real headline that matters is that too many nations are reluctant to break their deep addiction to fossil fuels, with China and India staging a late intervention to fatally weaken the language on coal and fossil fuels. As a result, the rate of carbon abatement produced by the agreement will not be enough to stop some of us frying or drowning very soon, particularly our friends in the Global South. 

Think of that for a moment.

That as a leader of a major country, you could look into the eyes of another national state leader, whose country will soon be under water if we don’t keep to the 1.5 C Paris climate target (which COP26 doesn’t), and say, I love my coal industry far too much to save your people.

Global solidarity – you’re having a laugh.

Politicians frequently only do the right thing when they have exhausted every other possible alternative, particularly when the actions required bring no short-term political gain.   Looking for silver linings? When it comes to climate change they are fast exhausting all the alternatives, and the heat, literal and metaphorical is being turned up under them.

For these reasons this is definitely a moment for optimism of the will against pessimism of the intellect, as I think there is a danger that a bigger turning point is being missed in the immediate balance sheet analysis of the COP26 outcomes.

"The biggest issue confronting all of us, as citizens and companies."

When we and London Business Forum launched the 80 Minute MBA in 2008 (yes we’ve been talking about these issues on the course for 13 years), we put sustainability and the need for carbon abatement at the heart of the course, saying it was the biggest leadership issue confronting all of us, as citizens and companies. 

The types of reforming conversations taking place at COP26, including the visceral honesty of countries and campaigners on the inadequacy of the collective response, would have been unimaginable in 2008, even though the science was already conclusive 13 years ago on the need for society to change course. COP26 has irrevocably changed the public optics on net zero living. 

Optimism must flow from the fact that ‘business as usual’, or ‘politics as usual’, is no longer possible when it comes to the issue of climate change. The collective trauma of climate change is having a huge impact on young people, and they have truly found their voice ensuring we will now live amidst a noisy, constant campaign on these issues.  

COP of course takes place annually. But public pressure and consumer action can take place every day. Investment decisions take place every day. And elections arrive with great regularity. Investors, customers and voters need to act decisively in the interests of the planet.  The money is already moving away from carbon heavy industries.

So we shouldn’t look to our politicians to deliver breakthrough progress, but rather to ourselves.  

Inform yourself. Take immediate action as a consumer, voter, community member, employee, pension holder, investor, or business owner.   

If more of us start dancing a different tune, COP26 will come to be seen as a mere dress rehearsal for the comprehensive set of steps that every country will very soon be forced to dance and embrace.   

John Knell is the co-creator of The 80 Minute MBA. He is one of the UK's leading thinkers on the changing face of work and organisations.

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