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Walking the Talk
70% of Sustainability Experts Doubt Our Ability to Pull Together on Climate Action

In a new report, experts surveyed say all sectors must play a role in achieving Paris Agreement goals. But, they also believe that public pressure is essential for an adequate response to humanity’s “Code Red” — that a lack of public understanding and action pose their own threat.

Findings from a new report by GlobeScan and the SustainAbility Institute by ERM, Responding to Humanity’s Code Red, show that sustainability experts remain pessimistic about our ability to avert major damage from climate change and about the prospect of meeting the goals set forth in the Paris Agreement.

While the public and private sector are both crucially important to progress, survey respondents say we need more public understanding and engagement to ensure effective implementation of the Paris Agreement climate goals.

The GlobeScan / SustainAbility Institute by ERM surveys have tracked global expert opinions on the evolution of the sustainability agenda since 1994. The third edition of this special report — focusing on expert perceptions of society’s response to the climate crisis since the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015 — includes the contributions of more than 500 sustainability professionals from over 70 countries.

70 percent of experts either believe it is unlikely that we will avert major damage from climate change or believe that major damage has already occurred. Only one in ten think that major damage can be avoided.

Experts say multiple institutional actors have important roles to play for making progress on the goals of the Paris Agreement, rating foremost the importance of national governments, the private sector, investors/analysts, and local governments. However, experts also believe that public pressure is essential to respond to humanity’s “Code Red,” suggesting a lack of public understanding and action as well as cultural barriers posing a significant threat to the effective implementation of the Paris Agreement goals.

Experts say agreement on the implementation of nature-based solutions, agreement on countries’ five-year emission-reduction plans, and reaching agreement on carbon market mechanisms are the most important possible outcomes from COP26 — coming up in a few weeks in Glasgow.

Unilever, Patagonia, Tesla, IKEA and Google were again named by sustainability professionals as the top corporate climate leaders in the survey. Respondents believe that setting targets is the top attribute of companies perceived to be climate leaders, followed by scale of approach (ex: in 2020, Google became the first company to eliminate its entire ‘carbon legacy’) and executives speaking out in favor of climate action.

Respondents also believe that increasing renewable energy use is the most effective means for companies to act on climate change, followed by pursuing science-based targets, the adoption of circular business models, and advocating for climate policies.

“This multi-stakeholder panel of experts from around the world provide important insights as we prepare for COP26,” says GlobeScan CEO Chris Coulter. “First, progress in addressing the climate crisis is nowhere near enough and governments must lead with even greater ambition in Glasgow. Second, a framework for nature-based solutions is of the upmost priority. And third, companies must decarbonize at an even a greater pace than recent net-zero commitments of the past few years.”

The majority of the experts surveyed (59 percent) said that companies must be carbon neutral by 2030 or earlier — much faster than many companies’ commitments to do it by 2050. When asked what would make net-zero commitments more effective, the top two approaches selected by experts were the need for a universally accepted methodology for setting net-zero targets (which the Science Based Targets initiative began developing in 2020) and requirements for short-term targets that will indicate progress on the way to the longer-term goals.

SustainAbility Institute by ERM Director Mark Lee, who presented these findings on Monday at SB’21 San Diego, said: “Like the IPCC's Sixth Assessment Report released in August, the views of our expert survey respondents underscore the gravity of the climate crisis and the urgency of action. They beseech governments to lead on policy and suggest the private sector is best positioned to demonstrate how quickly it is possible to decarbonize.”