COP28: Our last hope is a critical mass showing sustainability works for all ( by Josh Matthews )

28 Nov 2023


COP28: Our last hope is a critical mass showing sustainability works for all


COP28 will make it clear that the majority of politics, consumer behaviour, and business cannot move at the speed and systems level sustainability needs.


Collaboration to address the climate and sustainability emergency isn’t new. I mean, we’re on COP28. And COPs are a drop in the boiling ocean compared to the vast number of forums, coalitions, and partnerships in existence. But collaboration has failed so far. It’s fragmented and often lacks clear goals that align with and connect the whole global context. That now begs the question: Just what is the critical mass needed to pull politics, consumer behaviour, and business into alignment with the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Creating “positive tipping points”, is perhaps a more succinct summary. We have to clarify what that critical mass is. And how we convene it.


My clinging optimism is that the boldest business, political, and activist leaders are increasingly clear that they hold the last levers—and should find each other. I’ve found that people in senior sustainability leadership roles are often the right ones. They’re aware of their positions and influence at the centre of organizations and systems and want to change them. But the question above concerning a critical mass—what and how—stumps most.


Building a critical mass cannot happen through another forum or talking shop. We need to get the most progressive, ambitious, and influential people and groups working together in public and behind the scenes. People and groups that exist at the centre of every organization, industry, government, and system. And push the boundaries of their ambition.


Our current systems must be simultaneously leveraged and changed to meaningfully realize sustainability. Frustratingly, too many politicians of all parties and the most powerful organizations use systemic failure and its barriers to excuse them from moving first. Despite the economic and moral cases for sustainability becoming clearer, most governments and industries cannot be confident in moving first before deep alignment and regulation guides them. Rather they sit back and wait. The reality is that regulation and a tipping point of public pressure will come. But no one knows when. Better we make the case for being ahead versus frantically reacting to catch up. And in doing so avoid the need for something far more disastrous than anything we’ve seen yet to make that change happen.


Perhaps there’s no good answer to the question of defining and convening a critical mass. Or perhaps the critical mass is whatever shows politics, people, and industry that the Sustainable Development Goals work on all environmental, social, and economic factors. An undeniable consensus that sustainability works. Removing sustainability from polarised political debate. So that it works for everyone, everywhere.


That’s my hope for COP28 in Dubai. But below are some more top-of-mind specifics, each of which links to the need to build a critical mass and show the benefits of sustainability to all.


COP28 will revolve around the oil and gas industry. Good.


I desperately hope we see more transparency on the enormous gap between the current state of play and the oil and gas industry's power to address every single sustainability goal. COP28 will be presided over by the president of ADNOC, the UAE’s flagship petrochemicals and energy firm. And there has unsurprisingly been plenty of controversy about that appointment. Possibly, an equally prominent, non-fossil-fuel co-President would have been wise… but that’s a separate discussion.


For the oil and gas industry, transparency is its last hope of regaining the trust it has haemorrhaged for 50+ years: I wrote this exact call to action in February this year. Here are some key thoughts from that piece on the eve of COP28.


Oil and gas has played an epic role in causing the climate and broader sustainability emergency. Equally epic and despairing have been the attempts to greenwash and cover up that role. A lack of transparency and humility constrains the ambition and sincerity of collaboration with policymakers, academics, businesses, experts, and activists of all kinds. The industry is currently in no place to play the vital role in the systemic change sustainability demands.


But instead of seeing only backlash, oil and gas leaders should see the potential of transparency. An ecosystem of partners is ready and waiting to coalesce around one major oil and gas firm that discloses its imperfect transition plan and admit it needs help. That transparency is perhaps the last chance to trigger an energy transition matching the SDG requirements—not to mention legally binding national emissions targets. A senior industry leader making a brave call to outline an imperfect and incomplete roadmap.


Few people or organizations globally trust the oil and gas industry. It doesn’t help that the industry’s track record includes actively campaigning against its discovery that emissions and climate change were connected as far back as the 1970s. But perhaps, just maybe, humbly disclosing the gap between their current best plans and the global sustainability context will give weight first to the (limited) good currently being done through investment and innovation and second to the (vast) potential good of working “all-in” with a trusting ecosystem to transition. Transparency will let those who want to help do so with more confidence that there is a genuine industry desire to change.


More on why this is primarily a call to bp, Shell, and TotalEnergies is included in the full piece. But perhaps at COP28, ADNOC will play the role that we need it to.


Horror and hope: Communicating the sustainability emergency


The pressure to make sustainability positive and optimistic is vital but dangerous. And COP28 will hopefully keep making clear that we must capture the dire current circumstances and the hopeful vision of what sustainability goals like the SDGs will mean for people across the planet.


Naturally there’s a tendency and desire to focus on the practical and achievable with the technology, processes, and systems we have. But that is, sadly, denialism at this point. At least, it’s denialism to not discuss the practical and achievable under the umbrella of the global context. Not acknowledging the scale and speed of the change we need. But that doesn’t mean we don’t simultaneously work to change our systems by realising sustainability’s potential win-win-win across the environment, for people, and in economics.


Incrementalism is sacrificing millions of people to the climate crisis. To quote Paul Polman from Net Positive, “We must move from doing less harm to doing good”.


We must do that good at a speed and systems-level never seen before. We need sprint and marathon speeds simultaneously.


Our systems caused the climate and sustainability emergency. Now they must solve it. And fundamentally change in the process.


We need wholescale systems change. But we have so little time that we need to work with the systems we have. So we come back to the need for a critical mass—one that moves now and makes sustainability work comprehensively. Providing the templates and roadmaps for others to follow and realise the same outcomes. Outcomes that meet the goals of citizens, governments, and businesses. Ensuring that those goals—whether genuine or motivated by power, money, or career success—work for people.


by Josh Matthews 

COP28 stands By Serine Ben Brahim