Opinion

A guide to the Paris climate change talks for marketing and communications people

Andrew WoodwardOn Monday the UN Climate Summit 2015 will begin in Paris. Andrew Woodward looks at what do people in the media/marketing world need to know about the talks. 

When I first started working in the industry, I was told by one of my first bosses that marketing and communication was simple – it is about getting people do things they would normally not do.

We want them to buy way more than they need – more in volume, quality, functionality and frequency. That basic philosophy drove marketing for the past half a century.

It is called consumerism. It came after half a century when there were two world wars, punctuated by a great depression. Peace, mass manufacturing, economic development, credit cards, air travel, globalisation, the internet and electronic commerce fuelled an orgy of consumerism. Sadly that party time is officially over. 

We have had too much of a ‘good’ thing. We now have to pay the price. The price is an opportunity and threat for the marketing and communications industry, as it is for all areas of business, government, communities and individuals.

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 3.05.32 pmNext week, world leaders will convene in Paris to agree on a new plan to address climate change with the focus on keeping the planet’s temperature increase below 2°C. Indeed, many say we need to be below 1.5°C.

These numbers are the headline act and it is the thing you will hear the most about. We’re at the ‘must do now’ stage because the world has not done near enough since warnings started 50 years ago and came to the fore when the Earth Summit was held in Rio in 1992.

In 2006, former Vice President of the United States, Al Gore, told us of the Inconvenient Truth.

Nearly a decade on, the truth is even more inconvenient. It is frightening. But let’s understand one thing up front.

The Paris meeting will not, according to Australia’s chief climate negotiator, put the planet on track to keep global warming below two degrees. “Paris is a waypoint, not the final destination in our efforts to tackle climate change,” Peter Woollcott said in Brisbane last week.

So what should the marketing and communications industry look for over the next few weeks from Paris? The majority of our industry should see Paris as a signal to start engaging on this mega issue.

There aren’t going to be any immediate impacts, like new regulation or price hikes, to contend with. There will be in the medium to long term. There will be a carbon pricing mechanism, inevitably, and some prices will rise due to supply constraints, like cocoa for chocolate.

Consumers aren’t going to suddenly change their views of products or consumption habits.

They will, however, start changing in the next few years.

The process has already started. Just ask the people who make solar panels, who are benefitting from an 80 per cent reduction in the cost of solar compared to five years ago.

Did you know around one in four houses in Queensland has rooftop solar? Yes, really.

Companies aren’t going to change overnight. But in the medium term we’re going to see the emergence of corporate super heroes who put the environment at the centre of their corporate philosophy and communication.

I am talking about the likes of Unilever, Apple, Ikea and Patagonia to name a few. These companies know there’s sustainable competitive advantage in doing something real about climate change and telling the world about it.

So here’s a few things about what you are going to see and hear about in Paris next week.

First of all, it is convened by the United Nations (UN); Paris is the host city and, France is the host government.

‘Everyone’ will be there. Barack Obama will make the most noise as he is making climate change a legacy of his Presidency and a focus of work in his last two years in the job.

France is deeply concerned about climate change and has been running a big diplomatic effort in lead up.

The recent terrorist attacks will, however, take some of the focus away for President François Hollande.

Expect big noises from the Germany’s Angela Merkel and EU as a whole, except for David Cameron who is in the climate policy dog house after promising much before this year’s election and delivering little after.

Prime Minister Turnbull

Prime Minister Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull will be there. He is playing a Jeckyl and Hyde approach – his Jeckyl side comes from having to stick, under the threat of a second political death from his own party’s hard right, with Tony’s Abbott’s widely condemned and ineffective climate policy action policies.

His Hyde comes from his deeply held views about the need for dramatic and prompt action on climate change.

The up and coming rock star of addressing global warming are the Chinese. They’re going from the biggest user of fossil fuels to the fastest decelerator.

They’re way ahead of the game as they are clever. They saw two things. They saw the clean energy revolution coming and decided to own the majority of manufacturing for it, providing jobs, growth and wealth. Tick. Secondly, they saw that many of their citizens wouldn’t have food, water, clean air and a place to live if climate change ran its course.

What happens when people are hungry, thirsty, homeless and desperate? They overthrow governments. That’s not the sort of thing the Communist Party normally goes for, is it? Tick.

Corporates have been making lots of noise in the run up to Paris but don’t expect any of the super CEO’s to get much profile at the meeting. The big Super C’s in addressing climate change and actioning the clean energy revolution are Elon Musk of Tesla, Paul Polman of Unilever and Tim Cook of Apple.

It wouldn’t surprise if Richard “Jack-in-the-box” Branson pulled a stunt. He’s long said: “Climate change is one of the greatest wealth-generating opportunities of our generation”.

The business agenda for Paris, subscribed to by many Australian big brands, concerns agreement to reach zero net carbon emissions; accelerating action on climate change; the introduction of carbon pricing; investing in clean energy and, routine to achieve short and long goals term success.

Now to some of the lingo of next week:

  • “COP21” – that’s just UN language for “Conference of the Parties – Meeting Number 21”.
  • “UNFCCC”: That’s just the “United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change” – the department in the UN that runs climate policy.
  • “Multilateral” – that’s just diplomatic wankery for meetings for representatives between more than two countries. It is nothing special.
  • “IPCC: That’s the UN’s “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” – the hugely huge and technical work of scientists the world over on looking at the impacts of climate change. It’s work is the main scientific reference point for the UN and governments around the world.
  • Actors: Stakeholders – just another wanky term – this time from the land of academia.

So what’s happening at the multi-laterals involving the UNFCCC at COP 21 when actors discuss IPCC findings? Are you turned on yet? Of course not, you are not a bureaucrat. It is basically going to come down to a few issues which, as I said, have a mid to longer term impact on marketing and communication. Here’s a rundown of what you need to be across.

Reference point: You will hear lots of talk about this and that rising. Rising since when? When we are talking rising temperatures and carbon pollution in the atmosphere, we’re talking since the start of the industrial revolution in the mid 1700’s.

Temperature: Since the start of the industrial revolution, the average global temperature has gone up one degree. What’s one degree? It is the difference between ice and water. Simple, as that. The current pledges by nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions amount to 2.7 degrees. That’s bad. If it was business as usual, we would be up over four degrees by the end of the century. That’s catastrophic.

The environment movement globally, Greens in Australia and low lying nations want temperature limited to 1.5 degrees. The Government and Labor in Australia are aiming for two degrees. Did I mention that the Great Barrier Reef dies at 1.5 degrees? Yes, really.

Greenhouse gas emissions: These primarily come from fossil fuel – coal for energy production and gasoline for transport. Don’t get hung up on farting cows and burping kangaroos. Prior to the industrial revolution, the atmosphere had 280 parts per million of CO2,.

We’re now at 400 ppm. There’s been rapid growth since the mid 60’s. It took 250 years to go up 120 ppm (and that increased the temperature by one degree). Business as usual has us doing in the next 30 to 40 years what we did in 250 years. Bad, huh?

Sea level rises: What’s two degrees? Two degrees has water lapping the top of the sea wall at Opera Bar at Sydney Opera House. Four degrees has the Opera Bar submerged. Now that’s serious! Oh, we also lose many Pacific and Indian Island nations and, closer to home, the Gold Coast.

Globally, 750 million people will lose their homes under the four degree scenario. If we do nothing on emissions, NASA’s former lead on climate change says the global sea-level would rise between 4.3 and 9.9 metres.

Targets: You will hear lots of talk of targets. Let’s deal with two types of targets. One is the emissions reduction targets (averaging around a 25 per cent to 30 per cent cut over the next 15 years) which won’t get us where we need to be. That gets us 2.7 degrees. #fail.

The general consensus is we need a 40 to 50 per cent emissions reduction to get the two degrees. Secondly, there’s renewable energy targets. Malcolm Turnbull is aiming for 23.5 per cent by 2020. Labor wants 50 per cent by 2030.

The Greens want 90 per cent by 2030. The general consensus is that the world must be net carbon neutral by 2050. Science and academia says we can get there.

Money: Expect to see the developing world put its hand out in a big way for help to reduce emissions and support the development of renewable energy. They blame the west and they’re asking the developed world to pay.

Also expect to see strong rhetoric on governments ending taxpayer subsidies for fossil fuel. This is a big deal. The IMF says fossil fuel government subsidies globally in 2015 will total $6.6 trillion including $41 billion, yes, 41 followed by nine zeroes, in Australia this year.

That’s $1,700 for every person in Australia a year. It makes the demonised carbon tax look like bugger all. Getting rid of fossil fuel subsidies in Australia equals roughly the same amount of money generated by raising the GST from 10 to 15 per cent. Hmmm….

Coal: Coal is the new tobacco. It really is. Investment houses are ditching fossil fuel and mining investments. Consumers and students are calling on their banks, universities, governments and others to divert of fossil fuel investments.

The coal price has plummeted and coal use has started to decline. Just as smokers were ostracised and punished, so too will the coal business be. Coal is the villain. Expect to see it demonised in Paris and beyond. Renewable energy and battery storage are the future.

What I have spoken about in this piece is the tip of the (melting) iceberg. I haven’t even touched on population growth and the issues this other meg issue creates.

planet-eart-370x370The impacts of climate change alone are horrific. What we have done to the world is horrific. The inaction has been horrific.

There is, however, room for optimism.

There’s a body of world leadership, most notably from China, the US and EU on climate change; climate villains like Tony Abbott and Canada’s Stephen Harper have gone; business has recognised that action on climate is good for business and, the clean energy revolution is well and truly underway.

Al Gore is optimistic. He said recently in Melbourne – we must do this, we can do this, we will do this.

Marketing and communication will change forever over the next few years.

Companies, consumers, products and perceptions will change. It has started.

Marketing and communication is going to be about “sustainable consumption and production patterns”. Indeed it is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. Sustainable consumption and production aims at “doing more and better with less”.

“It involves engaging consumers through awareness-raising and education on sustainable consumption and lifestyles, providing consumers with adequate information through standards and labels and engaging in sustainable public procurement, among others,” says the UN.

That’s a massive challenge for the marketing and communication industry. It goes against nearly everything we have done. At this time last decade, our industry was starting to come to terms with social media.

In the years following, we learned that it changed everything. What social media was to us as an industry last decade, climate change is to us this decade.

Climate change is the issue of the decade for marketing and communication. It will change out business forever and, again, for the better. It really is the new business environment.

Andrew Woodward is a principal at Climate Communications. 

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