By Reed Shapiro
COP is Just Another Conference, and it’s Time to Take it Off the Pedestal
I’ve now been to some very large conventions, as well as more intimate, “high-level” conferences. At each, I found both great and uninspiring experiences. In best-cases, very high-power people get into the weeds with the lower-level attendees, roll their sleeves up, and leave the stump speech at home to actually use the conference time to help work towards a shared goal. In many more worst-cases, one finds cold, transactional environments, where power players are the only ones with a mic, into which they spit recycled, grey spins from last week, or last year. It really can be two completely different worlds.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when attending the 25th Conference of Parties in Madrid, Spain (COP 25). Major world leaders would be making rulings on the future fate of billions of people, while at the same time, individuals, businesses, NGOs, activists and more were waiting in the wings, playing their parts, trying to go above and beyond.
As we now know, the stars did not align to create the great global nexus of inspiring action and outcomes the world needed COP 25 to be. The Parties made no agreement made by the close of COP. The typical exclusionary power dynamics exhibited by the Parties and the UN itself, reared their ugly heads ensuring nothing but the same old narrative came out of the week. Good things did happen, and I will highlight them. However, as much as this post is about “my experience at COP,” it is as much a critique on the global circuit of conferences as we know it. Even at the “best COP” some people have ever attended, at this biggest, most important global stage, a lot of lip service distracted us from achieving the substantive goal we set out for in the first place—a final decision on the 6th article of the Paris Agreement.
There are many hundreds and thousands of people who have given their all to see progress on global climate legislation—and so I acknowledge my next statements’ unfairness to those people—but after 25 years of gridlock on the issue, it is clear that the world’s governments alone are incapable of transitioning the world into a habitable future. Non-State, and Sub-State actors are the world’s only hope to not only meet current national emissions reduction pledges, but to go beyond currently established goals, which we all know are inadequate as they stand today.
Why Disavow? Policy Makers May Write Legislation, but Businesses Carry it Out
I was invited to both speak individually on the state of voluntary carbon markets in the United States, as well as to attend one of the high-level negotiation sessions to represent Carbon Credit Capital as one of the 533 Certified Benefit Corporations who have committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2030, and which were being honored by the UN. Neither session had anything to do with how final policy gets determined, however, both sessions laid the foundations of how existing desired policy outcomes (such as a re-vamp on the rules and regulations in the voluntary carbon markets that will catalyze the action and investment necessary to keep the world below 2C) will be achieved by business action.
Business Action and Input Fills the Policy Gap on the Sidelines
In the first session, I was invited by Life Enerji, a Turkish carbon offset project developer, to give a recount of how potential changes to the structure of the voluntary carbon markets would affect the way business is done in the US. The content of the presentation focused on the fact that no matter how a deal on the Paris Accords might have changed the rules of the road, one constant remained: businesses in the US are flocking to take voluntary action on reducing emissions. This trend has been steadily gaining momentum for 18-24 months. We are seeing a scenario where businesses fully recognize that their local and national regulators are not in a position to take near-term action on climate—businesses are taking these matters into their own hands. Even if there was a ruling made on how voluntary markets would transform, the willingness to both play and pay is likely not going anywhere, but rather just getting ramped up. While it is unique, the state of affairs United States clearly shows that businesses and NGOs are stepping in where the federal government will not. Even in the EU or other locations where emissions regulations are well established, yes the governments set the rules, but companies are the ones in the trenches every day, actually designing the infrastructure, the budgets, hiring the teams, implementing solutions and seeing results. Ironically, while I was technically part of Turkey’s Party, each player giving discussions at this session, each insight, or actionable roadmap came from business, not legislative or political bodies.
Business Action and Input Fills the Policy Gap on the Main Stage
Later that day, I met up with a group of over 40 Certified B Corporations to attend one of the actual legislative sessions given by the UN. CCC was being represented as part of an announcement from the B Corp community that over 530 of us have committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2030. CCC was one of the first 1,100 B Corps globally, and intends to help the 530+ businesses making this commitment meet their goals. Before delegates, and recognized actors like the B Corps were even admitted into the hall, there was a lengthy protest by indigenous and youth climate activists chanting to let some of their representatives attend the session. In typical fashion, they were removed by security, and the suits promptly moved in to fill the seats at the main stage. This is yet again a perfect example of why these conferences do not accomplish what they purport to be working towards. A majority of the crowd was chanting with the protestors, and there was standing room enough inside the event space to accommodate at least a handful of people who will be the subject of the pending legislation, able to give no inputs of their own.
Once the 4 hour session started, there were two hour-long UN-led panels, a recognition of a number of organizations committed to carbon neutrality by 2050, the B Corp recognition video for all 500+ companies committed to carbon neutrality by 2030, a final UN-led panel, and some time for each of the Parties to make their policy contributions (the official reason for the entire conference). There was much talking on these panels, but little to say, other than that Santander Bank (one of the headline sponsors) was committing a few hundred billion dollars to climate action over the next 10 years (a sum like this is really required annually over the next 10 years to close the climate finance gaps that exist today), and that the need for government action is critical.
On the first panel the Executive Chairman of Santander, Ana Botin, spoke about their commitment, and a woman who didn’t seem to be a delegate, but more so an advocate. There was a lot of discussion about what the bank is doing to help, such as no longer financing new coal-fired powerplants, and a lot of quipping that it was not enough. None of it offered anything the Parties could use to come closer to a deal. The second panel was an interview with an astronaut on the ISS. Cool, but yet again, nothing other than a lighthearted plea by an astronaut to the world’s governments to do a deal. Then came the videos, then the last panel, which was similarly as fluffy as the first two. Finally, for no more than half an hour, a handful of countries, including India and France, gave statements about their sentiments on the urgency of the situation, or of the unfairness certain terms sought by Parties. Then it was over—with no votes, no real attempts, no real discussion between the parties to work out the kinks of the issues each raised (which were each in their own right reasonable issues).
The only positives I took away from this “high-level” session was that one bank has committed a nice sum of money to “green” financing, and that some 700+ businesses around the world have committed to being carbon neutral by 2050, and that 500+ of those have made a more ambitious pledge to be carbon neutral by 2030. Business, business, business. Yes there are some countries who have made similarly ambitious climate pledges—Costa Rica comes to mind—but they are the minority.
A Stark Truth and a Silver Lining
That anyone should expect the governments of the world to pull us through the climate crisis is, at this point, a fools hope. The number of times these bodies have gotten together with different rosters of politicians and come away with nothing to show for it (other than the foundation of the Paris Accords 5 years ago, which I will say is at least good we got that far) is too many. All the while, however, NGOs, businesses, and people have been looking at what’s required, and doing it themselves. We do still have a chance to hit these 2C and 1.5C targets, and the reason we do is because of these non-Party actors who are stepping in when governments hit this frustrating gridlock.
The good news is that while it may not be our governmental leaders paving the way, there are leaders paving the way. They are B Corps, and other mission-driven organizations using business as a force for good, or regeneration, or justice—you name it. Look now to these organizations, to us, to others you see around you rolling up their sleeves and doing what needs to be done in earnest. Join our workforces, buy our products, partner with us, for when you cannot vote out a lame-duck politician, there are still ways to vote on climate with your dollars and actions.
As the tag-line for COP 25 says, it’s “Time for Action.”