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Sustainability Talks

COP26 – Following Through on the Decade of Action

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Delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, COP26 (the 26th UN Conference of the Parties) remains the ceremonial cutting-of-the-ribbon for the “decade of action” on addressing the climate crisis and limiting warming to 1.5°C. This decade must be the time when we finally close the gap between commitment and action on climate and sustainability – promises made without plans and implementation will no longer suffice.

As we head into the conference – which will take place from October 31 to November 12 in Glasgow, Scotland – it is clear that we have reached a tipping point for the sustainability of our planet. A recent report from the Climate Action Tracker found that 70 countries have yet to submit updated Nationally Determined Contributions for 2030; further, many key nations’ commitments are the same or even less ambitious than those they put forth in the 2015 Paris Climate agreement, threatening our shared ability to meet the 1.5 degree ambition. Yes, that really dates all the way back to 2015.

On the industry side, there is an equally large action plan gap for achieving ESG goals. A recent JUST Capital analysis found that less than half (42.8%) of Russell 1000 companies have committed publicly to reducing their emissions, with a mere tenth of those companies having committed to Net Zero by 2050; further, only 6.7% of those commitments are in line with the 1.5 degree plan outlined in the Paris Agreement. On the plastic waste front, the Path to a Plastics Circular Economy whitepaper from Fortune, in partnership with Dow, estimates that less than one-quarter of C-suite executives have adjusted packaging formations to make them more recyclable, at the same time that 70% of executives say they have been treating recycling as a higher priority since the beginning of the pandemic.

We are already almost two years into the decade of action. To my fellow business leaders: the time to take decisive climate action is now.

Breaking through the Barriers to Action

As someone who has devoted my life to championing sustainability and working toward waste reduction, I know first-hand how complex and risky the kind of large-scale transitions that are necessary for climate action can seem for companies. In my most recent article for Waste360, I offered three pathways for business leaders to take to turn their commitments into far reaching and tangible progress toward a circular, zero-waste future. These pathways – Overcome Value Chain Challenges through Partnerships; Invest in Science and Innovation; and Deliver Recycling Education – offer clear and operational courses of action for companies to move away from lofty commitments to implementing scalable action. 

For many organizations, the assumed risks of rebuilding supply and value chains is often what holds them back from embarking on these pathways or other roads toward action. But for those who want to ensure long-term success, this hesitation must be put aside. At Dow, we recently took a bold step in announcing plans to build the world's first net-zero carbon emissions ethylene plant in Alberta, Canada, driving forward much-needed progress in emissions-reducing technology. Decreasing absolute carbon emissions and increasing circularity is not only the right thing to do for the planet and humanity, but is now essential to meeting consumer and stakeholder expectations, as well as increasing resiliency in the face of future strains on business and production.

This is made abundantly clear by the fact that global ESG assets are on track to exceed $53 trillion by 2025, representing more than a third of the $140.5 trillion in projected total assets under management, and that future circular supply chains are estimated to value up to $120 billion per year. I spoke recently to a close colleague of mine, Nelson Switzer, who is personally leading in this economic shift toward more sustainable and even regenerative systems. Nelson has worked and excelled in the sustainability sector for more than twenty years, and has recently set out to redefine and invigorate the decarbonization market with the growth equity fund Climate Innovation Capital (CIC).

Nelson and CIC focus on investing in companies and enterprises with the highest carbon reduction potential and maximum return on investment delivered in the shortest period of time. Put another way, Nelson says he and his partners are hunting gigacorns, gigatonne reducing unicorns, to help decarbonize the economy before the climate clock stops ticking.  This work and focus also underscores how unsustainable the gap in effective action on climate change is not only for the health of the planet and communities, but for the health of businesses, too.

Companies Leading the Pack on Action

It is still unclear how COP26 will play out and whether the gaps between commitments and true action on emissions and circularity will be addressed. That being said, there are companies around the world tackling these issues head on, and many of these initiatives are the ones Nelson and CIC are partnering with. In talking with him, I was struck with hope and excitement as he shared a sampling of game-changing enterprises engaged in decarbonization, including water-soluble plastics, new forms of electrical conductors, and expansions of carbon capture technology in and across all kinds of industrial processes.

I have experienced first-hand the power of the kind of cross-value chain collaboration CIC is involved in during my time at Dow, where we have built powerful relationships with innovators and municipalities all over the world to increase their impact on circular systems and the plastic waste crisis. This includes our recently expanded partnership with Fuenix Ecogy Group to scale circular plastics production using advanced recycling. Through the construction of a second plant in Weert, the Netherlands, we’ll have the capacity to process 20,000 tons of plastic waste into pyrolysis oil feedstock to produce new circular plastics. This marks a key step forward in meeting market demand for 100% recyclable solutions and advances our shared mission to help customers achieve their sustainability goals.

The companies and innovators like Fuenix and CIC are forging ahead to help build the sustainable future we need. As governments and businesses look to turn climate goals into action, the work of these forward-looking organizations can offer a blueprint for the investments, scientific expertise and collaboration needed to drive tangible progress.

Remembering Why We Act

When it comes to the larger fight against the climate crisis, we will only succeed by working together. While COP26 represents a time to showcase commitments and long-term vision, the real work will take place on the ground in the lab, the office, the factory and the boardroom. Nelson and I connected about the need for governments and industry leaders to take the time to remember why this work is so important and to get moving.

When you boil it down to what it's really about – to protect and restore our shared environment, to shape a more equitable planet, and support a fair and prosperous economy for all – the path is clear. To continue discussing the need for sustainability is to avoid actually doing sustainability. We are racing against the clock; the time for driving change through bold, proactive investment is now. Or, as Nelson put it to me, “The time for small moves is over.  It’s big moves only time.” 

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