• When it comes to talking about the climate, many are overwhelmed, leading to apathy, paralysis and inaction.
  • Traditional sustainability messaging, argue communications experts, simply doesn’t work.
  • How we talk about the climate needs to change, to highlight innovation, hope and practical solutions.
  • With this reframing, people can be energized and have a stronger understanding of how we'll make progress.

The newspaper and website headlines were suitably, justifiably alarming: the scientists of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had declared “Code Red” for humanity’s efforts to contain the worst effects of climate change. It was just the latest in a long series of wake-up calls that seem to be changing minds. According to a global survey of 1.2 million people, run by the United Nations Development Programme, two thirds of people now see climate change as a global emergency. A survey among citizens of G20 nations – the world’s wealthiest – reports that three quarters worry that humanity is pushing the planet towards a dangerous tipping point.

And yet, there is a strange reluctance to act. In the United States, politicians in the communities most at risk are least likely to tweet about it. And when it comes to real action, polls find little willingness to make lifestyle changes that would lower people’s carbon footprints. And just as the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown our world off course for its ambition to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, it has pushed climate change way off people’s lists of top concerns – whether that’s in the United States, the UK or across the European Union.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

'Code Red' for Climate Communications

Here's the problem (and it’s global): most people struggle to understand the media’s climate change reporting; and nearly a third say they simply don’t know what changes they personally should make. Neither the news of rampant wildfires and severe floods, nor the dire warnings of what our world will look like if we don’t keep global warming below an increase of 1.5°C seem to have an impact. Traditional sustainability messaging, argue communications experts, simply doesn’t work.

That’s why I believe it’s time for a big Sustainability Reset.

When we declare Code Red, we should do so not only to redouble governmental and corporate efforts to tackle climate change, but also when it comes to talking about climate change. We have to change the way we explain to both business leaders and the broader public what they themselves can do when it comes to climate action.

When we communicate, we have to focus on giving people hope and confidence; help them recognize that it is not too late to turn things around; and make them realize that every climate action matters – whether it’s large or small.

A climate action 'win-win-win'

For us in the technology industry, for us ‘sustainability professionals’, the 'win-win-win' of investing in sustainability is obvious. We know that we can still achieve a triple win:

  • Accelerated growth that powers the economic recovery of our post-Covid world;
  • A sharp cut in greenhouse gas emissions to net zero, which also reduces overall pollution,
  • Getting back on track to achieve the target of containing global warming at around 1.5°C.

The pandemic has already shown us that rapid transformation is possible. Just look at the speed with which our world adopted digital technologies and new ways of working. Two years ago, this would have seemed impossible.

But many people suffer from what I would call climate action resistance. There still are a few who do not believe that climate change is human-made. Others simply feel powerless when they are presented with apocalyptic scenarios of how the future might play out. And many simply switch off as soon as they hear bland promises of ‘acting sustainably’ or ‘reducing carbon footprints’, because they can’t relate to those concepts.

As a result, people become overwhelmed – and either become fatalistic or try to ignore the problem outright. And that’s why we have to change how we talk about climate change and climate action.

Let’s make hope tangible

We have to focus on inspiring people. Most importantly, when we speak about climate action, we have to be tangible. Demonstrate to business leaders that their climate challenges are solvable – now. Explain how it all adds up as we invite everyone to join us in this global Race to Zero.

After all, tackling climate change requires the active participation and support of everybody in our world. It’s true for all citizens – households are directly responsible for between 10 and 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions (and indirectly – through consumption – for up to 70%), and it’s especially true for all manufacturing industries, which are both key contributors to emissions and the main consumers of our world’s resources.

So when we meet at events like the WEF’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit, we can’t stop at discussing new technologies for climate action. We have to rethink our climate communications and discuss how we can prove to the world that rapid sustainability investments will deliver significant and tangible returns – regardless of whether a business is focused on manufacturing, transportation, utilities, construction or any industry beyond.

We also have to be honest and transparent. We have to highlight the technology gaps and show where engineers still have to push technology boundaries to deliver change at the scale needed for our world to survive and thrive.

"As we look ahead at the challenges, we can see the opportunities ahead."

—Theo Swedjemark, Chief Communications and Sustainability Officer, ABB Ltd.

But as we look ahead at the challenges, we can see the opportunities ahead. Many of the technologies we will need to tackle the worst impacts of climate change have not been developed yet. The prospect of carbon neutral factories is inspiring as is the idea that we could leveraged circularity to tackle the 45% of emissions renewables and energy efficiency can’t address.

We can see this change taking shape in some sectors, albeit gradually. Road transport, which accounts for nearly 18% of global CO2 emissions, is seeing new technologies that are giving us enormous efficiency gains, like the EU’s new eco-design rules for electric motors. By 2030 they will save 110 terawatt hours of electricity a year. That’s the equivalent of the total energy consumption of the Netherlands.

The challenge is not just to make it happen, but also to persuade everyone to participate in this effort.

Yes, the race to zero will be a tight one. But winning this race is not just a question of innovation and policy change. We need a sustainability reset regarding how we talk about climate action. Only then can we turn the promise of the sustainability win-win-win into the reality for our post-pandemic future.