COP26: "A Tale of Two Cities"

By Paris Jordan

It’s been a month now since the conclusion of what could have been one of the most impactful events of the 21st century occurred.

The event hosted some of the most powerful and influential individuals from across the world. It also was resident to some of the most passionate climate change activists this generation can offer. Yet, did this collection of power and passion make for tangible change?

I’ve had the event described to me as a ‘Tale of Two Cities’: Those inside the rooms and those protesting outside. Those who patted themselves on the back for taking some form of action vs. those who  think that action doesn’t even scratch the surface. Those who are going to be less impacted by the effects of climate change vs. those who will have to live through them. This divergence of opinion seems consistent across the many avenues of conversation I’ve had in the weeks post-COP26.

In the first few days succeeding the event, it was with great scepticism that I, along with many peers, listened to a political presenter who was privy to, and a part of, some of the conversations at COP26. Many of those listening had been championing sustainability, impact, and responsible business/investment for many years. The table listened with intent, but it did not take long for discontent to rise; it was at the point that the speaker mentioned what an excellent event it was to meet influential individuals.

We wanted change, yet it appeared that political correspondents wanted networking opportunities.

That’s not to say all of COP26 was chest-thumping and career-driven self-interest. There seemed to be sincere optimism and excitement to witness the genuine involvement and commitment from businesses in a way that previous COPs had not delivered on. Finance, in particular, appeared to be a stand-out champion in terms of acknowledging the role of investment in solving some of the pressing issues. This appeared to be felt by those in the room and many of those across the road, at the ‘finance’ COP. The industry involvement seemed to be a shining beacon of hope, especially when in our existing capitalistic structures, money does indeed ‘talk’.

With that said, in my post COP26 discussions, I was still exposed to those within the finance world who couldn’t grasp the importance of adapting our approaches to save the planet. It occasionally surprises me, but there are still a number of individuals who still haven’t fully understood the depth of the issue nor acknowledge the consequences of not taking climate change seriously. Additionally, there are arguments that appear valid, but really hinder the progress of positive change. In one particular instance, I was challenged that COP26 was purely an event for the West to dictate terms to emerging markets; and that these terms can be considered criminal for disallowing developing markets to develop in the same manner that we benefitted from. We were criminal for disallowing countries to move their populations out of poverty.

Now, while there is certainly some validity in this statement, particularly if restrictions and rules are imposed without solutions, the spirit of these commitments is certainly not aimed at ensuring developing nations are left behind or implemented to mute non-Western hegemonies. I would argue that if an appreciation of the millions of Indians that die yearly from pollution had been acknowledged, climate change could truly be seen as the threat it is… alongside, and linked to, poverty.

Further, it is worth noting that I acknowledge there are many challenges in ensuring that developing nations are not further disadvantaged by efforts to tackle climate change. However, I posit that adaption can potentially be very beneficial to developing nations. There are a multitude of solutions to climate change that developing markets can lead the charge on, using new investment.

This could simultaneously improve living standards, lifting many individuals out of poverty while safeguarding the environment.

This leads me on to the sentiments of those who are deeply passionate about solving climate change, are hugely concerned about the lack of action in previous years, and recognise the tsunami of problems associated with lack of action. I have seen videos, read thought pieces, and spoken with those individuals who are petrified by the information they have; they have witnessed first-hand the damage humankind has inflicted on the planet or, at a minimum, are starkly aware of the implications of doing nothing.

These people remain angry. They believe that not enough has been done. That the targets aren’t ambitious enough, and now politicians have gone home thinking it was a job well done and onto the next.

While I empathise with these individuals (and likely could be considered one myself), I am trying to retain hope. Like many others, I am cautiously optimistic about the potential solutions, I am hopeful that these commitments will be met and I am delighted that ‘net zero’, at the very least, is very much on the radar of most nations around the world.

The biggest highlights, for me, were the positivity surrounding IFRS and the sustainable global standards working group, the potential for continued international collaboration, particularly around carbon market alignment, and that the UK’s net zero targets have been ratified into law. (Although, should we miss them, I wonder how we can take our government to court...)

It goes without saying there absolutely were drawbacks to the event, including those already highlighted. A very underappreciated drawback, in my view, was the overwhelming focus on the E of ESG, the lack of diversity, and the complete and utter disregard for intersectionality. The event was overwhelmingly white, male, and mostly represented by those who are incredibly unlikely to be truly affected by climate change – predominantly due to age, nationality and/or wealth status. I have said much about the importance of diversity in solving problems, especially when those problems directly affect you, so I shan’t go into it now.

But I will reiterate the importance of S and G, as they are integral when solving E.

To sum up, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ seemed incredibly apt when I first heard it used, and it has become even more appropriate after collating the views of many individuals. It seems that there still remains a disappointingly wide divide. Perhaps this dissention is merely a human trait…the trouble with this is that ultimately the Earth will be indiscriminate about who you are or what side you are on when it becomes uninhabitable to us all. Thankfully, although there are many challenges to reaching net zero, after seeing the fast-paced evolution of all things ESG in the past two years alone, I’m reassured that there are an equal amount of people ready to solve these challenges through thoughtful capital (re)allocation and impactful investment selection. We may have a lot of work to do, but we certainly have already begun.