Almost before we know it, we’re preparing for COP27 in Egypt from 7 November 2022. So, what has been accomplished? Real achievements or hot air? Progress or procrastination?

Last year, there was a lot of fanfare around the United Nations Climate Change Conference/Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow.

The timing of COP26 was propitious in an ironic sense. The world was overwhelmed by the Covid-19 pandemic and it seemed that fundamental aspects of life had changed: white collar employees were working from home where possible, ‘essential workers’ (which included shop staff and binmen as well as health service employees) were praised for keeping the remaining wheels of industry turning. It seemed working and home life had changed, and previous evolving trends had been fast-forwarded. In late 2022, the pandemic continues but it is, broadly speaking, less critical even though it still impacts key markets such as China, where growth in GDP is at an historic low for recent decades as a result.

Since COP26, the world has been turned upside down once more. Russia’s war on Ukraine has dominated the news cycle from February: otherwise, the impact of climate change would have been the lead story, with wildfires and flooding across many countries. On the economic front, deglobalization has taken hold, further impacting worldwide trade, and a virtual financial cold war is emerging between the USA and China. On top of these events, European countries have been subjected to an energy war, with Russia cutting off supplies of cheap gas which had supported key economies such as Germany and Italy (France has been less impacted due to its 56 nuclear power stations).

Within this context, climate change, despite being the most existential threat to the planet (unless a full-on nuclear conflict breaks out) has no longer dominated the global discussion – even to the extent that the latest UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, was not planning to attend COP27 until the PM before last, Boris Johnson, looked like stealing the show.

This encapsulates the challenge. Polarized and self-interested priorities, together with the impact of war and global trade issues have pushed sustainability down the agenda. The sense of optimism from COP26 has dissipated: the commitment to SBTis (Science Based Targets initiative) of $130 billion in total assets for net-zero in 2050 is in danger of becoming a dream, not a realizable goal.

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The energy crisis and subsequent concern of a global recession and rising interest rates have pushed ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) to the back of corporate and governmental agendas, but the opposite effect could have occurred. For example, former UK PM Liz Truss pledged to lift the ban on fracking in England as one of her first acts in the role. The Ukraine conflict has been a stark reminder of the global dependence on fossil fuels, which left governments and companies choosing energy security over green goals. Gas supplies have been used as political weapon. This fact has highlighted the benefits of green energy and should have catalyzed a shifting of global dependence on fossil fuels to renewables. If it isn’t clear enough, COP27 will hopefully provide an arena truly to illustrate the importance of this shift.

COP27 – not all bad news

It is not all bad news, hopefully just a bit of a worry. The temptation to ‘greenwash’ is great in such disturbing times. Equally, the temptation to ‘futurewash’ (i.e make a promise for a later generation to deliver) is immense when day-to-day challenges occupy political thoughts, concerns, and ambitions. However, enterprises and consumers are broadly accepting and aware of the sustainability challenge – it’s hard not to be when your factory or home is on fire or under water.

Progressive thinking is addressing the issue and commitments are being made to improve sustainability performance and reduce climate impact. In terms of the technology solutions which underpin almost all opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electric vehicles (EVs), to improving agricultural productivity, for example using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), to replacing unnecessary travel with cloud-based productivity solutions like Unified Communications and Collaboration (UC&C), many service providers and enterprises of all sizes and consumers have committed to address these issues – and this is not just through altruism: it is backed by investors, customers, management, talent, and government (most of the time).

COP27 is a key staging point in addressing the global sustainability challenge. It is unlikely to attract the same hype as COP26, but that may be a good thing as the focus needs to shift towards proven delivery of targets, rather than merely aspired-for future ambitions.