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Reflections on COP26 – the role of business schools?

After two weeks of negotiations, 40,000 participants and representations from 197 nations, what have we learned from COP26? And what can business schools do to help with the challenges ahead?

24 November 2021

Exeter Expertise asked Exeter faculty and students who attended COP26 to reflect on the conference and their hopes for the future.

How do you think COP26 went?

Professor Gail Whiteman, Professor of Sustainability

I think it’s fair to say that the results from the conference were pretty mixed. There were some strong pledges on the table, and it was good to see some big US names coming back into the discussions – Obama and Pelosi to name but two. But there were disappointments, such as India coming in at NetZero by 2070, despite hopes they would match China in 2060.

It was encouraging to see the finance and business community attending with lots of strong commitments, but I am still worried that there won’t be enough action. The national pledges are not sufficient to keep the world within the safe target of +1.5C. That could be catastrophic. Companies need more ambitious governmental targets and incentives to fast track the low carbon economy.

Professor Steffen Boehm, Professor in Organisation and Sustainability

It was great to see so many people from around the world coming to Glasgow; so many well-meaning minds meeting to move climate negotiations forward.

I know COPs are important, but I’m uncertain that their current format is really delivering the step change in climate action we need. 26 times leaders have met, but the emissions curves keep going in the wrong direction.

Sophie Jackson, 2nd year BSc Business student

I feel an abundance of things: I’m exhausted yet inspired, though my main takeaway is the need for urgency.

It was truly inspiring to see such a large quantity of people marching in solidarity for climate action. Individuals from across the globe are all united as one. Activism has no borders, nor does climate change.

But it would be erroneous not to speak of my disappointment at the conclusions of the conference. There was an absence of action and an abundance of corporate greenwashing.

Luke Henderson, Year 4 Business Economics student

COP26 demonstrated that power is not derived from the inborn values in human nature but rides on the aversion to loss in monetary value. Unfortunately, this has created a tsunami of companies riding the greenwashing wave. Therefore, we have no idea where to direct our attention when it comes to real climate action.

The glimmer of light is that the conversation surrounding COP26 has meant we are looking closer at global leaders to reflect the true values of our society. We must still push for accountability and climate justice.

The national pledges are not sufficient to keep the world within the safe target of +1.5C. That could be catastrophic. Companies need more ambitious governmental targets and incentives to fast track the low carbon economy.

What should business schools like Exeter be doing in the fight against climate change?

Professor Whiteman:

Business schools have a valuable role to play because businesses themselves are going to be the drivers of change as we move to a low carbon economy. A business school has to take the lead by taking the most critical natural science data and translating it for the boardroom. We need to ask ourselves: how do we make that knowledge on climate-relevant to business leaders and business managers? And how do we train our young students to be able to contribute as soon as possible?

Professor Boehm:

Universities have huge responsibilities. Like councils and hospitals, they are key regional players, large employers, and large procurers. They must lead in the decarbonisation challenge.

But universities are educators first and foremost. We need to commit to all students leaving the university with good climate change literacy in place.

In our research, too, we need to take climate change seriously. Many top academic journals in management and business studies have ignored climate change for too long. This needs to change.

We also have a role in working directly with businesses. For instance, our Tevi project is supporting Cornish SMEs to make their business models more circular and improve their carbon footprint.

Sophie Jackson:

I believe tackling the climate crisis requires educational empowerment and collective action.

We need to make sustainability-related discussion and engagement more accessible. I have been discussing the potential for a cross-campus sustainability forum, bringing together students and academics with a background or work concerning sustainability.

I’d like to see more awareness of academic research. The climate crisis demands interdisciplinary collaboration and contributions.

Luke Henderson:

We need to build more bridges between research, government, and organisations. This complex problem needs a holistic, multi-disciplinary approach to ensure that we meet the target actions at speed.

However, leaders need clearer, more accurate information. Technologies such as Carbon Tracker, which tracks carbon emissions, will allow us to hold those in power accountable.

The University of Exeter and the Business School have become major players in the fight against climate change. They are doing ground-breaking research into their respective fields. but without their application in organisations and policy-level decision-making, they won’t have the same impact– and that is where students as future leaders have a huge part to play.

Universities have huge responsibilities. Like councils and hospitals, they are key regional players, large employers, and large procurers. They must lead in the decarbonisation challenge.

How optimistic are you about the fight to tackle climate change?

Professor Whiteman:

That’s a tough one. Those of us that work in doom and gloom have to work hard to keep the optimism going. That said, it’s not useful to be pessimistic. I will take the words of Christiana Figueres, who says she’s a stubborn climate optimist – and I guess I try to be one too.

Professor Boehm:

I constantly find myself between despair and hope. Despair, because we’ve been here many times before. We’ve been talking about climate change at the highest possible political level for nearly 30 years now. But we are still talking, and the emissions curves are not flattening at all. We need action now.

But I am also hopeful. Many people see a new urgency in tackling climate change: grassroots movements, particularly the youth movement, our students, and important advocates like David Attenborough. There are also many small businesses creating completely new business models to tackle climate change.

Sophie Jackson:

It is easy to feel disheartened by the outcomes of the negotiations. But it is good to know that despite minimal action taken by our leaders, people continue to work, share findings and their messages.

A recurring notion throughout all the negotiations was the need for collaboration and accountability. Our future relies on co-operation, communication, and action.

Luke Henderson:

The disconnect between the voices from outside the COP26 complex and those around the negotiating table is stark. It is not helped by the biggest delegation within the Blue Zone being from fossil fuel companies. Without making these countries accountable, we will never phase out coal and fossil fuels.

However, there is hope. The fact that political leaders and organisations are prioritising this is a step in the right direction. Governments do have the power to affect change. Voters must see beyond the short-termism policies and act on longer-term factors.

A recurring notion throughout all the negotiations was the need for collaboration and accountability. Our future relies on co-operation, communication, and action.

What should individuals be doing?

Professor Whiteman:

It’s clear that we should all be reducing our carbon footprint. If we are asking governments around the world to halve emissions by 2030, we all need to look at our own and ask: how are we going to do the same thing? 

Professor Boehm:

There’s a lot we can and must all do to reduce our carbon footprints. Eat less meat, fly less, grow your own vegetables, etc. But over the last 20 years, the onus has been mostly on individuals to make the right consumer choices. However, this hasn’t provided us with the step-change we need in our decarbonisation efforts.

There’s only so much that individuals can do. We need governments and policymakers to move the goalposts of choices in the right directions so that we only have sustainable choices as consumers.

Sophie Jackson:

I very much still feel this urgency and look forward to getting involved with further projects concerning sustainability and working with more individuals who share my values.

Luke Henderson:

The younger generation is facing a dilemma, join the system that is writing our own tragic novel, or fight and alter the values that underpin how we have ended up in this position.

Spending a year in Copenhagen taught me the power of shared ownership and community-based action. This philosophy has led to the first net-zero island of Samsœ.

Unfortunately, this incredible feat of human collaboration is drowned out by corporations filling our feeds and heads with fake news and greenwashing to sell more of their products. COP26 has taught me that there is no one silver bullet, but a holistic, multi-disciplinary approach to understanding and solving our society’s greatest puzzle.

There’s only so much that individuals can do. We need governments and policymakers to move the goalposts of choices in the right directions so that we only have sustainable choices as consumers.

 


Authors

Professor Steffen BoehmProfessor Steffen Boehm is Professor in Organisation and Sustainability at the University of Exeter Business School.

 

 

Professor Gail Whiteman is Professor of Sustainability at the University of Exeter Business School.

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