COP27: The pivot to implementation and the private sector’s role

The C2ES team is headed to Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt, for the annual UN climate conference, along with tens of thousands of other attendees, including government officials, representatives of intergovernmental organizations, business leaders, civil society observers, and journalists.

Like its predecessors, COP27 (short for the 27th “Conference of the Parties,” under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC) might best be described, with apologies to Churchill, as a climate negotiation, wrapped inside a conference, inside a trade fair. But in truth, the negotiations themselves—once the heart of the conference—are waning in importance. Since the Paris Agreement was concluded in 2015, and especially after last year’s talks in Glasgow finalized the Paris “rulebook” providing guidance to Parties on issues like measuring and reporting progress toward meeting their targets, there are fewer details for governments to decide.

Instead, the talks in the inner rooms of the COP are being eclipsed by the meetings in the halls outside them. Those side events have an increasingly important focus: the “action agenda,” or the concrete steps countries and companies must take to meet the goals they have set.

At COP26 last year, the combination of the European Union’s leadership on policy and the renewed diplomatic vigor of the United States helped lead to more ambitious targets for 2030, as well as new mid-century goals to reach net-zero emissions—the point when greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere will be balanced by the carbon dioxide being removed and permanently stored. Modeling estimates suggest that meeting those net-zero targets (as well as the 2030 pledges) would yield better-than-even odds of limiting warming below 2 degrees Celsius, in line with the upper end of the Paris Agreement’s temperature goal.

The reality of policy, however, has not yet caught up with the rhetoric of ambition. Those same models project that policies currently on the books will likely lead to temperatures rising between 2 and 3 degrees. Temperatures are currently 1.1 degrees above preindustrial levels and continuing to rise. As a result, what is urgently needed now is a pivot to implementation—one that must occur at an exponentially faster speed and scale than we are seeing.

This new focus on concrete action opens a critical pathway for the private sector, along three dimensions:

  1. First, companies must take steps to meet their own net-zero targets, by cutting emissions in their own operations and supply chains. Under pressure from customers, investors, employees, and civil society, nearly 1500 companies have made net-zero pledges of their own. Members of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero—a coalition of more than 500 financial institutions across 45 countries– have pledged to decarbonize their portfolios and manage the phaseout of high-emitting assets in efforts to achieve net zero emissions.Even so, too many companies have announced their targets without a plan to back them up. Companies need to set interim targets (i.e., five-year goals) and invest heavily now to scale known solutions in the near term. A view of 2050 is too far into the distance. Those concrete plans and investments, in turn, can generate the market signals necessary to accelerate innovation and drive the deployment of clean energy technologies.
  2. Next, companies that truly want to lead on climate should invest in emissions reductions beyond their value chains. A prime example of such an effort is the LEAF Coalition launched last year, which comprises the governments of the United States, UK, and Norway, along with 20 companies, from Amazon to Unilever, who have collectively committed $1.5 billion for tropical forest protection, by buying carbon credits generated through verified reductions in emissions from deforestation. Similar efforts are being explored for other critical areas of climate finance, including accelerating the replacement of coal-fired electric power plants with clean energy in emerging economies. Vital to all these efforts will be initiatives underway to ensure the integrity of the burgeoning market for such voluntary credits, including the Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market, which is creating a threshold quality standard for carbon credits (and which C2ES is a part of) and its sibling initiative Voluntary Carbon Market Integrity initiative, which is establishing guidance how companies use credits.
  3. Finally, and crucially, companies must put their lobbying dollars where their public statements are, by actively pressing governments for the policies necessary to achieve net-zero. As an increasing number of companies realize, such advocacy is not just a matter of internal consistency. Well-designed policies and public-sector investment are necessary to support the development and deployment of technologies that will enable them to meet their own targets. More fundamentally, climate change itself is becoming increasingly central to economic policy around the world (and thus to companies’ core business interests), not simply in terms of environmental regulation but in areas as wide-ranging as corporate disclosure, public revenue and expenditures, industrial policy, and trade.

The COPs must adapt to this new context by creating channels for corporate engagement that support and accelerate this pivot to implementation. In practice, that means organizing the conferences around the action agenda: The side events should take center stage, while the negotiations become the side event. It means strengthening the new ways for the private sector to engage with countries on implementation, including the High-Level Champions created after the Paris conference to serve as liaisons with businesses and other non-Party stakeholders.

Most importantly, the UNFCCC must take advantage of the global stocktake (GST) established by Article 14 of the Paris Agreement: a periodic assessment of global progress in emissions reductions, adaptation, and climate finance that is to take place every five years, beginning next year in 2023. The agreement gives broad discretion as to the design of the GST, making it the perfect vessel for business involvement, and last year’s COP26 specifically encourages the engagement of non-Party stakeholders.

The GST creates an opportunity for a new mode of interaction at the COPs—not countries haggling among themselves over brackets and commas, negotiating over text, but governments coming together with the private sector to share information, knowledge, and experience: Which policies have succeeded and which have failed? Which investments are most effective at accelerating technology deployment, where public-private partnerships can make further progress?

The most important issue at stake COP27 is the continued pivot to implementation. The success of the Paris Agreement depends on it.