Last month, 10 Cornell faculty traveled to Glasgow, Scotland to participate in the United Nations’ climate summit, COP26, where they met with policy-makers, business representatives, researchers and activists from around the world — all trying to finesse the finer details of the Paris Accord and refine global commitments to combating climate change.
While governments discussed the billions of dollars they were allocating to meet existing commitments, advocates called for even more urgent action — citing the trillions of dollars needed every year to keep global warming from surpassing 1.5 degrees Celsius. They put the heat on negotiators, trying to convince parties from all sectors to make up the gap.
Glen Dowell, the Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor of Management, noticed a clear shift in corporate conversations compared to COP23, which he also attended in 2017.
“In prior years, the discussion focused on whether there was a business case to take climate action,” he said. “Now, in many companies — even the large emitters — the conversations are around how to accomplish the goals, how to report and how to get to the scale we need.”
Investors are paying closer attention to firms’ carbon commitments, Dowell said, and after a standardized accountability system is in place, then they can put even more pressure on companies whose efforts are falling short.
In 2020, the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, took a public stance. CEO Larry Fink spoke publicly about how the risks from climate change presented a clear threat to business growth everywhere. As a holder of $9.5 trillion in assets, BlackRock said they intended to drive change from the top-down in the companies in which they invest. This move sparked larger conversations about what systemic actions need to happen, as well as how operating more sustainably is becoming less of a risk and more of an opportunity.
“What investors consider to be a reward is undergoing a change [too],” said Mark Milstein, faculty director of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise in the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management. “In the investment community, the money is going to come from the adoption and diffusion of decarbonization technologies, which are ultimately going to become the products and services that fuel growth in business and address climate change simultaneously.”
In Glasgow, Mike Hoffmann noted another key player: McDonald’s. “They are the largest restaurant chain in the world and operate in more than 100 countries,” he said.
Hoffmann is a professor emeritus of entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the lead author of “Our Changing Menu: Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need.”
He met McDonald’s chief global impact officer, who spoke about their commitment to changing the way that they source and serve meals to 65 million customers per day. With a shared interest in driving social and environmental change through food, Hoffmann said that this kind of individual organization shows enormous potential for partnership.
“We have to be reaching out to these major corporations because they’re the game-changers in climate change, along with government action,” he said. “But corporations move a lot faster than governments.”
Danielle Eiseman, visiting lecturer in the Department of Communication and co-author of “Our Changing Menu,” agreed with the need to work with organizations who have more agency to act on their own. “The most important groups to reach now for concrete action are those that can create the most significant and rapid change in terms of emissions reductions,” she said.
Energy and transportation are fields that will see a boost from the international community’s commitments to green technology, broad policy reform and additional investments in sustainability.
“Investors see future growth in non-fossil fuel-based energy and power sources,” Milstein said. “For the most part, international development and investment banks have moved money to solar, wind, geothermal, battery, and emerging low- to no-carbon technologies.”
However, that’s where Buz Barstow, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, noticed some significant hurdles that future COPs will have to confront.
“We’re going to have to rebuild the 100-year-old energy system that we already have. We’re going to have to replace that by 2050. And then we’re going to have to replace that four or five times over [by 2100] to account for the growing riches of the developing world,” he said. “I didn’t get a sense that policymakers had any conception of that.”
Such explosive innovation and widespread adoption will take decades, and much like the rise of the Internet, the clean energy revolution doesn’t come with a roadmap. But Barstow said that being at COP26, talking with different delegations and seeing the rise of the youth movement helped underscore the importance and urgency of doubling down on climate efforts across sectors.
“For most of our history, we’ve been a small perturbation on the biosphere. What we are becoming now is a force of nature,” he said. “And by the end of the century, we will be the force of nature on earth.”
Outside of energy, to drive long-lasting, global change, Eiseman said that broad communication strategies need to adopt people-centered models and humanize the challenges that so many communities are facing.
In Glasgow, billboards, buses and local businesses made it part of their mission to share messages about climate change. Yet, in parts of the world where those facts are less welcome and environmental activists experience high rates of persecution and violence, the formal policies developed at COP26 are essential in protecting vulnerable voices.
“The central aim [of the UN] is to ensure human rights are protected in the policy-making process, and that inequality, discrimination and unjust power is eliminated,” she said. “It is important to include that language and framework to help protect those that are threatened by speaking out.”
Funding to organize the Cornell COP26 delegation was provided by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. Dowell, Milstein, Hoffmann, Eiseman and Barstow are also faculty fellows at the center. Learn more about the delegation’s experience at COP26 in this recorded webinar
Jana Wiegand is a freelance writer for the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.