COP26 ended with a coal-fired fizzle, but tech leaders are feeling “eternally optimistic”

hand-holding-seedling cop26

The COP26 conference of global leaders ended with a sputter, not a bang, as politicians agreed to a watered-down commitment to ‘phase down’, rather than ‘phase out’ use of coal and other fossil fuels.

It wasn’t long before Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced jobs will remain in the industry “for decades to come”.

While tech leaders working in the climate change sector have reacted with disappointment, they’re not necessarily surprised.

Nick Heuzenroeder, founder and chief of carbon neutral ethical managed fund Haven Wealth Partners, likened the outcome to “a Yes Prime Minister episode, only real and nowhere near as entertaining”.

“Global warming is not a problem that will be fixed with the tools that caused it,” he tells SmartCompany.

Ilea Buffier, director of Evalua8 Sustainability, a tech company that helps businesses reduce their carbon footprint, says she didn’t have huge expectations from the conference.

However she remains “eternally optimistic”, pointing out some considerable wins that came from the event.

For example, the international financial standards board set up an international sustainability standards board, which will bring in financial-style accounting standards to carbon accounting.

That will bring greater accountability and stronger benchmarks, meaning businesses can no longer get away with ‘greenwashing’, or claiming to be more environmentally sound than they actually are.

It also means larger businesses will have to report on the credentials of their SME suppliers, putting pressure on small businesses to clean up their own act, and meaning those already doing their bit will be more likely to secure contracts.

“That’s really going to filter down and affect everybody, including small businesses,” Buffier says.

But perhaps more importantly, COP26 brought the conversation about climate change to the front pages of the papers and to the forefront of everyone’s minds.

“When world leaders come together to discuss an issue, everyone is compelled to listen,” Cicada Innovations chief executive Sally-Ann Williams tells SmartCompany.

It got individuals and business owners thinking about what their role is in tackling climate change, she adds. That is momentum we can build upon to continue to influence politicians and large carbon-emitting companies.

“We just need governments to follow suit,” Heuzenroeder says.

The role of startups and SMEs

In many ways, for the tech companies and SMEs that have been working on tackling climate change, much of what happened at COP26 doesn’t change a thing.

Heuzenroeder says it’s not the government that will move the needle here, but small businesses and the consumers that use their purchasing power to back those doing the right thing.

On a practical level, SMEs are more adaptable to change than larger organisations, and it’s much easier for them to conduct a CO2 audit or offset their carbon footprint.

“Reaching net-zero is a relatively simple process for them to undertake.”

As Buffier points out, businesses also have their own consumer power. They can take climate impact into account when choosing their own suppliers, big or small, opting for green energy providers for example.

Williams notes that many businesses have been doing their bit in one way or another since way before this conference, and they will continue to.

SMEs are collectively the biggest employers in Australia. They may not have the individual power of larger corporations, but together they have some clout.

The tech and business communities are super-conscious of their role and their influence in shaping the future, “despite the government’s ambivalence,” Williams says.

Equally, neither business owners nor individuals need the permission of a bunch of pollies in Glasgow to act, she adds.

“The question is will we choose to do so? We don’t need permission, just conviction.”

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