Details, not just promises: What corporate ambition should look like at COP26

Posted on November, 10 2021

To ensure credibility, companies need to not only step up their climate ambition but to deliver on their promises, writes WWF’s Seán Mallon.
The Paris Agreement was a landmark moment in climate action. It was the first time almost 200 countries agreed on what we need to achieve in order to limit the impacts of catastrophic climate change. In essence, it set the ambition.  

COP26 is a moment for member nations to set out a more detailed roadmap of how we achieve the Paris Agreement goals and keep 1.5°C on the table. We’ve already seen some new announcements and progress made by governments at COP26. We have seen a huge amount of engagement from the public and coverage across news sites.  

And we have also seen a lot of announcement and talk coming from the private sector.  

In the lead-up to COP26, there was a steady stream of corporate pledges - and some of them have been truly impressive. Many brands have been engaging publicly at COP26: it is exciting to see companies from so many different sectors talking about emissions reductions. My highlights include: 
  • Mastercard, Amazon, HP, Salesforce, and more than 200 other companies have announced net-zero targets of 2040. 
  • Huge companies Tesla and Qualcomm joined over 1,000 other companies taking part in the Business Ambition for 1.5°C campaign, which means they have committed to set science-based targets in line with 1.5°C. 
  • 33 large financial institutions, including brands like Aviva, and have all pledged to use their portfolios to tackle deforestation.
  • Clean innovation and tech have been the focus of multiple big announcements and panel discussions, with eye watering amounts of money being discussed.  
There is a lot to feel hopeful for. We are starting to see the movement and momentum we have needed to see for a long time.

However, there is one thing missing in many corporate pledges: detail.

These announcements are all still promises. 

Beyond promises 

Unfortunately, promises are not good enough anymore. We cannot afford to wait years for companies to unveil the action plans that will fulfil their promises. Instead, what we need to see in detail is what is included in their emissions reduction plans and how they plan to deliver those cuts.  

The language of reductions by governments are indirectly referencing businesses. It is they who would need to make huge reductions if we are to achieve our climate targets. So, this week, as we get new announcements and new targets, it is important to know that the responsibility of reaching those targets often sits squarely on the back of businesses.  

It is not my intention to be a pessimist, but a huge number of empty promises that have permeated this space in the past. And I am not the only one who is concerned: the UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres announced his ambition to create a watchdog group to crack down on corporate net-zero pledges, stating that there is “a deficit of credibility and a surplus in confusion” around reduction targets. 

So, what are we looking for? What is the difference between a leading company and climate blah blah blah? 

Credible corporate action  

The first step is an ambitious strategy. Net-zero is no longer a good enough announcement. It immediately raises the question “How big is the net?” How much will companies be offsetting and how much emissions will they actually be reducing?  

Setting science-based targets in line with 1.5°C for their own operations and their supply chains is the real measure of a strong climate target. This is the only way to truly trust an announcement from a corporation on climate change. The Science Based Targets initiative has become the de facto leader of verifying corporate climate pledges and ensuring they are in line with what we need. 

Once the target is set, it is important to create and release transition plans. We need to see where the cuts are taking place so we can adequately track whether we are on course over the next decade to reach a 1.5°C future. It is key that transition plans take into account the livelihoods of those most affected by the proposed changes. 

Communications play a key role too; we need total transparency on how businesses are achieving everything they set out to do. We need to reduce the confusion and increase the credibility of corporate climate pledges.  

There are no global laws to enforce this kind of target - they are all agreements based on good faith. It is through a process of continuous negotiation and challenge that we will achieve what is needed avoid dangerous global heating.  

Hope has been a word used quite a lot in speeches at COP26 this year. Sir David Attenborough urged leaders to be motivated by hope and not fear. This is a rare occasion where I will disagree with Mr Attenborough. I don’t want to people to have hope. Hope implies an amount of trust in the unknown, it is the expectation that something will happen.  

So, I don’t want hope, I want certainty. I want to know all the details.  
We need our corporations to step up. We need them to act in good faith to deliver on the changes we need, to be corporate leaders in action and not just in the title. I ask our corporate leaders instead to be realists, to look at the situation and understand what we need - a tangible and easily tracked plan for success. We can no longer afford to have big announcements that mean nothing.  
Seán Mallon is the Programme Manager of the WWF Climate Business Network 
Businesses must play their part in efforts to tackle the climate crisis