COP27: a failure of systems thinking

Why the negativity about the latest climate crisis conference? The delegates allowed systemic problems to distract them from the big systems changes we urgently need.

In the days since the end of the 27th Conference of the Parties — a meeting of the signatories to the United Nations climate pledges — the general mood emerged as one of disappointment. And this time, the criticism isn’t coming from the normal campaigning bodies, but from all sides.

The Economist, not exactly a hotbed of anti-capitalist eco-warriors, is scathing about the progress made:

“We rose to the occasion,” crowed Egypt’s foreign minister after cop27, the global climate summit that ended on November 20th. Hardly. The delegates failed to make a clear commitment to phase out the use of fossil fuels. The best they could produce was a vague agreement that rich countries should pay poor ones for climate-related “loss and damage”.

Given the central role that emissions from fossil fuels play in the climate crisis, this is clearly extremely disappointing. But why did they fail?

The Fossil Fuel problem

Well, clearly those countries whose economies are most dependent on fossil fuel production are often the most resistant to too stringent controls. They either need time to adapt their economic base to a post-carbon economy, or they’ll face a significant drop in wealth and status. And very few populations will sign up for that willingly. But, this year at least, there was more to it than that.

According to Nature:

… calls to phase out fossil fuels were blocked by oil-producing states, and some delegates struggled to find reasons to be cheerful about the glacial pace of decarbonisation. Many blamed the energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for the lack of progress on fossil fuels.

Ah, yes. The energy crisis. The world’s complex systems laid bare again. War with Ukraine leads to tensions with Russia globally, which leads to restricted natural gas flow from the country, which leads to a global energy crisis. And, all of a sudden, many economies found themselves caught short on the power front.

Missing the climate opportunity

That gave the fossil fuel economies unusual leverage. As some academics from University College, London put it in The Conversation:

The invasion meant that oil and gas-producing nations became more influential at COP27, undermining the negotiations. World leaders preoccupied with spiralling energy prices and the escalating cost of living were reluctant to act boldly on fossil fuels.

Progress on countering a long-term threat was put on hold to deal with a short-term threat. Human nature? Perhaps. But these political manoeuvrings disguise the fact that the energy crisis itself is a result of short-term thinking. It’s been clear for decades that we need to shift our energy base towards renewables. Those countries — and companies — that have done so, have found themselves much less exposed to the current crisis.

Food for climate thought

But the energy system wasn’t the only one causing trouble at this COP. The rather shaky food supply chains were also an issue. As Tim Benton wrote for Chatham House:

Notably disappointing was that, although food systems were much in debate unlike in previous COPs, there was still significant political resistance to fully adopting a systems approach. Globally, food systems emit about one-third of all greenhouse gasses, while poor diets – in rich and poor countries alike – are arguably the single biggest factor in ill-health and early death.

Again, there’s a double benefit here, that’s being ritually sacrificed on the altar of short-termism. We could be building more reliable global food systems, which reduce the climate impact of our need to eat, while we also reduce global hunger and ill-health.

But no.

What does this mean for us?

So, what can we take away from this in our personal lives — and in our corporate decision-making? Perhaps the most obvious lesson is that, if you need to make a transition, the earlier you get started on it the better. More than a few companies will be casting an envious eye on Apple right now. Why? Its early move to base its entire supply chain on renewable energy has left it less exposed to problems in the energy market than many.

The climate crisis, as we’ve noted before, is a truly global crisis of interlocking systems. We can’t rely on governments by themselves to solve this issue for us. Changing systems requires root-and-branch reform, and many corporates are working right at the root level.

One of the striking things in many of the stories we told in Next Level CMO was that those companies most aligned with sustainability saw their efforts as more than a contribution to the global good. They saw it as a compelling marketing differentiator in an era when so many businesses are either greenwashing, or are still dragging their feet. But they also saw it as a vital investment in the future resilience of their business, as climate change approaches.

Perhaps, by COP28, we’ll have been able to teach our politicians some of the same lessons.