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Why business must no longer say ‘No’ to Net Zero

by Nik Gowing

Filed under Climate Emergency

Businesses of all sizes should be in no doubt.

The commitments needed to reach Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 must not be leisurely. You and governments have a few months only to commit, not a comfortable couple of decades.

The UN has just issued what Secretary General Antonio Guterres called a new and urgent “red alert for our planet”.

Governments are “nowhere close to the limits needed to limit climate change” he warned.

They must “redouble efforts and submit stronger, more ambitious” climate action plans.

Catastrophe looms says John Kerry, US President Biden’s new climate Tsar.

“We are not even close to where we need to be,” Kerry bluntly warned the Munich Security Conference. “We have to be honest, humble and ambitious,” he added. There must be “no faking it”.

IN or OUT for Net Zero? Your choice

So as the British hosts for COP26 make clear in their compelling strap line: by November business must make an unambiguous commitment to being ‘IN’ for Net Zero commitments. If you don’t you will be assumed to be ‘OUT’.

You will then face the consequences with your stakeholders and shareholders. You should assume many will turn against you, dis-invest and refuse to buy whatever you produce.

The public anxieties and expectations are shifting that fast. So are the scientific realities. We have far less time than most assume.

I heard Bill Gates describe the outlook as “super dire” as he promoted his new book on preventing a climate catastrophe. He is right. But how many really get that, along with the urgent implications for them and how they must readjust their lives from now on?

No vaccine to stop climate change

The public has faith that a vaccine will soon control COVID-19, Gates said. But there will be no vaccine to control the Climate Emergency. “The super negative effects of climate get worse and worse each year,” he told the UK President of COP26 Alok Sharma in a free-wheeling broadcast conversation.

Wrestling with the horrors of COVID-19 and surviving has consumed global attention for the past year. But the climate emergency has not eased in any way. It has intensified. It is a parallel existential disaster in the making for us all. As Sir David Attenborough makes clear it is on a planetary scale that is far more threatening to human survival than the pandemic.

The ultimatum is that brutal.

Halting the planetary emergency must be achieved far faster than almost anyone assumes. The realities are daunting for reaching Net Zero at a speed fast enough to prevent the irreversible rise of planetary temperatures by 1.5 degrees within half a decade.

Yes! Just half a decade.

Climate realities: even worse than COVID-19

And worse still, unlike the COVID-19 emergency which has lasted just a year, tackling the Climate Emergency will take 20-30 years at least. For a weary public “there is a danger of cynicism if there is no obvious progress”, warned Gates.

There must be no doubt as to why committing to Net Zero then delivering it fast is so critical.

I have on my laptop the Carbon Clock which is clicking down relentlessly. It reminds me of the time left before the CO2 budget for halting planetary warming to 1.5 degrees is reached. After that there is nothing more we can do. We have less than seven years!

The requirement for business is stark. “By 2030 we have to be at half the global emissions we have now,” I heard the former head of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres tell the BBC.

Danger of complacency

There are reasons for some tentative optimism. But there is a huge danger that even using the word optimism will rapidly lead to complacency.

I can see and hear change at a rate which is not just very encouraging but quite remarkable. Figures from convening organisations like the World Economic Forum or Chapter Zero confirm that significant numbers of corporates are making big commitments. That means the minds of top executives and their boards are rapidly being recalibrated by new and potentially shocking realities.

Net Zero is Mission Possible for an increasing number. But there is still a much larger mountain of indifference, resistance and complacency to be moved, especially right across business, but also in governments.

It’s your challenge – not someone else’s

Far too many leaders view the issue as someone else’s problem and challenge, not theirs. It is the same for private individuals who must now confront big decisions about how their lives must change and they must re-adjust all they do and take for granted.

Many leaders are yet to be convinced, even with the new ultimatum for being ‘IN’ on Net Zero. Instead of accepting that Greening will not just Build Back Better, producing new work and job creation, they complain that they have other pressing priorities to guarantee the survival of their organisation.

Embracing the Climate Emergency is a lesser priority at anything between number four to number eight when it should be number one or two. This is frighteningly short sighted.

You ain’t seen anything yet

A few days ago, I spent nine hours in a three day webinar of 20 top experts debating whether we can “buy time”, and if so how. The signals from the Para Limes group were chilling. I summarise them as ‘you ain’t seen anything yet’.

Whether for cities, economics, or medicine the outlook is bleak. Our cities will soon be ‘in retreat’. New lethal pathogens are already with us but still dormant. Just as COVID-19 emerged with such devastating impact in a few weeks, our warming planet will activate many more.

The common thread from all this assembled expertise was that the evidence of what looms is there. But there is no real will from leaders and those in charge to listen, take note, then act to change their thinking and what they do in response.

Conformity seems to remain king. All the voices around the virtual e-table complained that they felt marginalised and ignored. Their science-based warnings were regarded as not ‘convenient’ by those with the power to make big decisions that lead to big existential changes.

Our seven years of work has labelled this the need to Think the Unthinkable. But as we acknowledge, more appropriately it should be to think the unpalatable. This is because the evidence and science for what looms is there. It does not have to be imagined.

Time to act: don’t hesitate

So top eyes and minds should now be focussed on firstly understanding and accepting it. Then they should scope for action not hide from it as happened with warnings about a pandemic in the months and years before 2020.

The imperative for business committing to Net Zero is clear.

“If we don’t get to Net Zero, the temperature rise will be so damaging that life will actually get worse for humans and most of the natural ecosystem,” I heard Bill Gates warn a few days ago. “So we must accelerate the pace and pipeline of innovation.”

Central to that must be innovation in business thinking. Not in 29 years, but 29 weeks.

In other words: Now!

We at Thinking the Unthinkable can help you embrace every stage of the urgent Net Zero journey that is needed. So please contact us to find out more

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