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After two weeks of frenzied negotiations, world leaders and climate specialists are slowly making their out of Glasgow. COP26, the long-awaited climate summit, is over. 

We at Cognito were fortunate to have not one but two employees on site. They’ve generously agreed to provide analysis from the event, and what it means for communications strategy. 

Here we’ve combined both pieces, we are also available separately here and here. 

Impressive display, but what about action? 

Last Wednesday I grabbed one of the few remaining train seats north from London Euston for two nights in Glasgow. Once on the ground, I was struck by the physical imprint of the conference, which sprawls far beyond just the official convention centre. 

From the moment of arrival at Glasgow Central – it was clear that COP26 had taken over! Banner ads strewn throughout the concourse. A number of protestors and activists – all relatively calm, but standing or sitting in the streets with messages calling for faster action. You see a region bursting at the seams – I stayed at a pretty lodge 10 miles outside of the centre, and had to be ferried in each day by Gary, a friendly Glaswegian  who was drafted into service as a temporary driver due to taxi shortages.

And then there’s the two major areas of action for the conference. I spent most of my time in the Green Zone, the community engagement center. (Not being a politico or Greta Thunburg, the Blue Zone for delegates was off-limits, although we did manage to blag a pass for the Green Finance Summit hosted in the South Rotunda – a uniquely circular building halfway between the two locations on the River Clyde.)

Walking around, the sheer scale of what’s on offer is impressive. Millions of pounds of green arches, temporary installations and lightning are on display, not to mention the hefty fees organizations paid for placement in the hall. This was the source of much caterwauling before the event, and it’s clear that brands cared how and where they appeared at the conference. 

There was a surprising diversity in the types of companies represented – from oil and gas majors, FMCG conglomerates, supermarket groups, banks and technology companies. They were here and clearly had made a serious investment. This was more impressive and built out than the major financial conferences I’ve attended such as Sibos and Trade Tech.

The scale of commitment on signage and press release ratchets up the expectation for action. Firms need to be cognizant that they risk widening the ‘say-do gap’ with their investments. People, including the global press corps, are making note of what was said and who said it. They will be checking work in the months and years to come – ensuring there’s alignment between attitudes and action when it comes to addressing sustainability. It matters.

Hypocrisy is an easy headline. Look at the furore around delegates and politicians who took planes to Glasgow, including complaints around private jets. These optical nightmares distract from the larger message – but are also completely inbounds as journalists try to maintain their accountability. 

A related issue is whether the large presence of corporate brands overshadowed plans to include all stakeholders. COP President Alok Sharma said that “this should be the most inclusive COP ever,” but has this happened? There were 30,000 delegates this year, but walking around it was clear certain constituencies were overrepresented while others were barely here or totally absent. 

The communications industry has a critical role to play in the conversation before, during and after the summit. It’s really come to the fore how critically important this is during COP26. As communications professionals, we need to ask some difficult questions about the way we use language and develop ESG narratives for our clients.

Ultimately the conference will boil down to another area we are very familiar in when it comes to communications – metrics. What are they and have them been met? One goal clearly stands above the others – a commitment to keeping global warming above 1.5 degrees above industrial levels. Everything else, no matter how elaborate or elegantly designed, is ultimately a bit of a sideshow. 

I left Scotland – on another packed train – with an overriding sense of optimism and hope. There are a lot of incredibly smart people working hard to address this – the solutions are there. Our role of communicators will both be to show the way forward, and also ensure our clients and industry maintain their end of the bargain.

A tale of two zones, but one message

What does Richard Curtis, Tunnock’s Caramel Bars ( just up the Clyde on the outskirts of Glasgow) and the Financial Stability Board have in common? They can all be found at day three of COP26: labelled “Finance Day” due to the large focus of the plenaries focused “Mobilise Finance” – one of the four goals that underpins this global climate gathering. 

On the third day of the event, I headed down to the Green Zone, the public engagement space across the Clyde River from the Blue Zone where negotiations take place. 

What struck me in Glasgow is the wide cross section of attendees and speakers. The Green Zone is a mix of businesses looking to engage with attendees – ranging from solar innovation businesses, university research teams, conglomerates such as Unilever waxing lyrical about the food of tomorrow, energy giants such as Scottish Power and Microsoft – with the biggest corporate sponsors taking the top spots in the exhibition hall. On the fringes, you have spaces looking at glass production, robotics and ice cores taken from Antarctica, alongside examples of vertical farms from local schools in Glasgow. 

The Presidency programme is limited to those with a coveted Blue Zone pass but ultimately no different to the footage you can view through YouTube of main broadcast channels., What you get form being here is a sense of the conversation and collaboration in the air. 

Today’s sessions in the Blue Zone brought together an unrivalled mix of intergovernmental finance body representatives, central bankers, academics and politicians – in a morning session moderated by Gillian Tett. 

Emerging from the discussions were some exciting new developments in the standardization of sustainability reporting from the IFRS Foundation, which formed a new International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) to help unify and create consistency in the way that corporates disclose performance attached to sustainability and climate-related risks. Global consistency in sustainability reporting and how companies disclose progress is a critical aspect and once that will no doubt not go away. 

This triggered the burning question that all reporters want to know – when. When will such standards be adopted? The response from the IFRS Foundation chair Erkki Liikanen was over the next 2 or 3 years. That to me feels like a real measure of action media will be looking at – and isn’t that far away compared to other pledges being made.

The Green Zone program of speeches was different and more varied. Sessions on the line-up included how Northern Ireland can green its bus fleet; a Women in Finance Climate action group discussion put together by Aviva Investors; how we can better assess climate risks in insurance are examples of what attendees here listened too.  

The best session I attended was kicked off by Richard Curtis and chaired brilliantly by Moral Money’s Simon Mundy, along with speakers from B-Lab, One Million Women, Make My Money Matter and WWF. The focus was on how we as consumers can do more with our money, mainly through our pension and the bank we use, to ensure our own hard earned capital supports sustainable businesses and helps to establish the new normal in finance. 

What’s emerging from the sessions across both zones is a message of action, and action now. Commitments are one thing but action and, from my own perspective, communicating about that action, is going to be critical. 

Coming off the back of the conference I hope that we see more companies speaking loud and clear about the action they are taking and the progress they are making that takes us beyond commitments and onto a real roadmap of progress. The message from Mark Carney in the opening session was the money is here for the international community to leverage. What is now needed is a focus on how to distribute and apply this funding to power the transition. 

Kirsty Howe wrote the first part. She’s an associate director in London. Charlie Morrow, the founder of Cognito’s sustainability practice wrote the second.