Shifting our way of life and economy away from a dependence on fossil fuels and towards a sustainable path that will enable us to achieve net zero by 2050 is currently the most important challenge we face. We’re all aware of that, but sometimes we need a communications masterclass to make us appreciate the true nature of the problem.
Luckily, Sir David Attenborough has provided a shining example with his latest one-off special, A Life on our Planet, which makes for uncomfortable viewing. Available to stream on Netflix, it has a distinct feel of the final encore to his lifetime of works – indeed, he calls this programme his “witness statement” to the world.
It’s a statement that notes the rapid, sickening exploitation and destruction of our planet during his life, and feels almost like an obituary for planet Earth. Attenborough highlights the speed at which the planet’s ecosystems have changed, and the catastrophic consequences of these changes: rising atmospheric carbon dioxide and a fall in the truly ‘wild’ nature left on earth.
Some of the programme’s statistics are stark. Forty per cent of the world’s sea ice has melted in the last 40 years as our systematic overuse of fossil fuels quickens the rate of global warming. Thankfully, the show does not end with an apocalyptic vision for earth’s future, but one of hope and opportunity.
Transitioning to net zero – an investment opportunity
A recent Financial Times article began with the same sentiment: “Saving the planet from catastrophic climate change is humanity’s biggest challenge. It may also represent the most spectacular investment opportunity of our lifetimes.”
The article states that the transition to a green economy has presented a number of opportunities for venture capital investors to become involved in climate tech. A report from PwC confirms this, noting that funding for climate tech companies has outstripped other sectors, including artificial intelligence, increasing from $418 million in 2013 to $16.1 billion in 2019. The opportunity for venture capital investors to make money while also saving the planet has an undeniable pull, but despite this dramatic increase in investment, the FT states that “climate tech still only accounts for about 6 per cent of VC’s investment portfolios today,” a figure that needs to increase sooner rather than later.
In an effort to accelerate sustainable investment, the world’s largest fund manager, BlackRock, announced last year that it would remove from its actively managed portfolios any company receiving more than a quarter of its revenue from thermal coal. Larry Fink, the firm’s CEO, stated in a letter to clients: “The commitments we are making today reflect our conviction that all investors – and particularly the millions of our clients who are saving for long-term goals like retirement – must seriously consider sustainability in their investments.”
A few months later, the FT reported that shareholder support for climate change resolutions at annual meetings had increased from 16 per cent in 2019 to 23 per cent. The companies who “suffered big shareholder revolts over climate change” in 2020 included US bank JPMorgan, Australian energy companies Woodside Petroleum and Santos, mining group Rio Tinto, shipping company JB Hunt Transport Services and energy group Ovintiv.
Transitioning to net zero – a communications challenge
So, what does this all mean for communications? Well, in the same way that the transition to a low-carbon economy represents the biggest investment opportunity of our lifetime, it is also, arguably, the greatest communications opportunity for a generation. As a post on Attenborough’s Instagram page explains: “Saving our planet is now a communications challenge.”
The UK Government has legislated to transition to net zero by 2050, and a number of other countries have echoed this decision with similar signals of intent. Added to that, major corporations across the globe, including oil and gas producer BP and US tech giant Microsoft, have also made net-zero pledges.
But these examples are still in the minority. What’s needed now is for every organisation to take meaningful action to reduce and eliminate its carbon footprint on the road to net zero, while ensuring its communications highlight that action to key stakeholders in a transparent and targeted way.
This blog post is the first in a three-part series discussing the communications challenges and opportunities provided by the net-zero transition. Forthcoming posts will examine the importance of communications in the context of reputation management, as well as potential ways to engage with government, the media and other stakeholders to positively influence the transition.