Richard Howitt, who moderated three sessions at last month’s Delivering Net-Zero virtual week by Reuters Events, sums up his takeaways and introduces some of the must-see sessions

The UN’s launch of the Race to Zero is a call to action for companies to make ambitious net-zero greenhouse gas emissions pledges, ahead of the COP26 climate change talks. Some 900 companies have pledged climate action, according to We Mean Business, the coalition of major business organisations working on sustainability.

The net-zero pledge for companies  is currently signed by many fewer in number, but the signs are that it is mobilising real change where it is adopted.

Importantly, if business is prepared to commit in this way, it will put maximum pressure on governments: only one in three countries worldwide has committed to the net-zero challenge.

Reuters Event's Delivering Net-Zero virtual week earlier this month heard from two people at the heart of this effort, charged with coordinating climate commitments from business and governments in the build up to next year's COP26: Nigel Topping, the former CEO of We Mean Business, who is now the UK's High-Level Climate Action Champion, and Gonzalo Muñoz, his counterpart from the Chilean government.  

You can watch their session, expertly moderated by veteran Reuters Events journalist Oliver Balch, below:

I was proud to also be a moderator during the event, taking stock of progress and planning how to build momentum towards the necessary changes, with an emphasis on making a real difference.

In the "Embedding risk and resilience into your net zero strategy" session, Caroline Ashley, global director of system change programmes at Forum for the Future, said companies should develop strategies for different scenarios for achieving climate change goals, where the key determinants could be technology, new protectionism, the development of individual carbon budgets or a redefinition towards healthier economic growth.

She was joined on the panel by Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), who said trade unions as much as companies want business to be resilient, to be able to weather the increasing shocks within the system.

Both speakers described how business is confronting connected challenges.

The ITUC has mounted its 'Çlimate and Employment Proof our Work' (CEPOW) campaign this year, a challenge to both climate- and employment-proof work.

Ashley suggested that business must negotiate a number of concurrent transitions: in artificial intelligence, climate mitigation and adaptation and – now – from Covid.

She suggested that business could borrow from the world of international development in developing notions of resilience. She described Oxfam’s ‘three-step’ approach: increasing absorptive capacity to shocks, building capacity to adapt to change and finally promoting transformative change, in which vulnerability is removed altogether.

The session heard that person-to-person engagement rather than centrally driven, technology solutions, had been essential in curtailing the Ebola epidemic, something that has yet to be achieved with Covid-19.

It is ironic that although net-zero is about placing an increasing focus on calculation of carbon emissions to meet science-based targets, the human dimension remains absolutely essential to delivering it.

Asked what the next crisis will be, both speakers predicted it is most likely to be one of social disintegration.

I also moderated a panel on embedding net-zero across an organisation’s business culture, featuring a company relatively new to net-zero targets, the Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company (HBC), alongside one of the early movers, Henkel AG of Germany.

Attracting new companies to move rather than rely only on existing well-known environmental champions, is key to making progress.

Coca-Cola HBC’s group sustainability director Michael Dickstein explained how building sustainability into every stage of the governance cycle was essential to developing a net-zero culture within the company.

He observed that “vision” was a buzzword that can leave companies accused of greenwashing for failing to turn their ambitions into practical and verifiable action.

However, Henkel's Thomas Müller-Kirschbaum, senior vice president innovation & sustainability for the German chemical and consumer goods company, recalled how introducing a low-carbon vision had been an essential step to winning internal support for its subsequent sustainability strategy.

He said companies were very used to setting targets, based on technological ambitions, which were yet to be realised. On climate change, the biggest challenge of all, they should absolutely be prepared to do so, he said.  Aspiration is not an alternative to science-based targets, but essential to achieving them.

The fear amongst many of the 3,000 people who joined us worldwide must have been that the short-term challenge to business for recovery from the Covid crisis might impede or even reverse progress towards a net-zero future.

However, The Climate Group’s chief executive Helen Clarkson kicked off day two in a panel "Allocating investments for both a business recovery and net-sero transition" by pointing to new survey evidence suggesting that sustainability strategies of 97% companies were unchanged by the pandemic.

Indeed, she said that no fewer than 30 major companies had joined The Climate Group since the Covid-19 pandemic had begun to spread.

She was joined on that panel by Mahindra Group’s CSO, Anirban Ghosh. The pair were adamant that the idea that companies have to trade-off between environmental and financial goals is unfounded.

Ghosh described projects in which Mahindra has made $1m-2m in cost savings.

Mahindra is a member of the Climate Group’s EP100 initiative, dedicated to increasing energy productivity. He stressed that renewable energy where possible is important, but less energy use is always beneficial.

He cited Milton Friedman – someone not always quoted favourably in these circles – for saying that “only a crisis produces real change”.

The other speaker on the panel was NatWest Group’s director for project and infrastructure financing, Gauri Kasbekar-Shah.

When I ended the session by asking what is the next big thing, the answers were: battery technology, heating and cooling in buildings, flexible solar film and expanding materials capable of being recycled to achieve true circularity.

Good investment tips. And, at the end of a momentous week, four ways to win the race to zero.

Richard Howitt is strategic advisor in corporate responsibility and sustainability, senior associate at Frank Bold LLP and former chief executive officer at the International Integrated Reporting Council.
Twitter: @richardhowitt LinkedIn:

Net-Zero Virtual Week was organised by Reuters Events Sustainable Business and videos of the sessions can be viewed until 21 August on its website.

© Thomson Reuters

Race to zero  COP26  Nigel Topping  We Mean Business  Caroline Ashley  Forum for the Future  Sharan Burrow  ITUC  Coca-Cola HBC  Henkel AG  Helen Clarkson  The Climate Group  Mahindra  NatWest  climate change  energy transition  Covid-19 

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