by: E3G

November 4, 2021

The Charter at COP26: The Future of Professional Bodies in a Net Zero World

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Professionals Climate Charter at COP26

4th November 2021: On the 4th day of COP26, the Charter hosted its largest meeting yet, showing off the progress made since launching in July and sharing hopes for the future.

Opening the session, Nick Baker, Deputy Director of Business & Engagement at the COP26 Unit, called for a “step change” in climate action that would necessitate “working right across society”. The promising early outcomes from the Glasgow conference demonstrated this necessity, ranging from a declaration on land use covering 88% of the world’s forests, through the alignment to net zero of $130 trillion via GFANZ, to funding for the decarbonisation of the world’s most polluting energy company. Forestry, agriculture, finance and energy are just some of the professions and industries represented by the Charter and it was clear there would be plenty of useful work ahead for all to do.

Colin Church, CEO at the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining then introduced the Professional Bodies Climate Action Charter to the audience. Church was one of those to have contributed to the Charter’s development from the beginning and was insightful on the gaps in climate leadership that it filled. He noted that professionals are highly trusted by the public to provide advice based on authoritative evidence and that professional bodies were not motivated by commercial interests, placing them in a strong position for climate leadership.

More than this though, he stressed, they have an imperative to take action. This is both due to their constitutions and royal charters which may, for example, require they provide sound advice to ministers, but also due to their obligations to their members. Speaking of the demographic composition of the workforce in 2050, he said “a very large proportion of them are already in work… they need to be upskilled”. This, he explained, was the motivation behind the third commitment of the Charter, to “empower… members to drive sustainable growth” through addressing their training & development needs.

“If professionals don’t work together, there isn’t a solution”

During the subsequent Q&A, the first topic touched on was the role of all professionals in driving the green transition. Ethny Childs, Engagement & Communities Lead at the Institution of Environmental Sciences (IES), emphasised the importance of engaging professional members. “We really need your input”, she said, expressing hope that the Charter would help innovate on knowledge-sharing between the professions: “Each profession holds a little bit of the puzzle; hopefully this Charter can play a role in bringing these puzzle pieces together”.

Colin Church agreed, sharing his vision of supporting IOM3’s members – some of whom are engaged in polluting industries – “to be heroes of the transition to a low-carbon and resource-efficient society and not villains”. With the global shortage of engineers needed for the green transition, he stressed that the skills and knowledge of petroleum engineers would be vital for building the off-shore wind farms of the future. The work needed to achieve this end – providing access to technical knowledge, setting up networks for discussion and even providing the moral support to ask constructive questions about sunsetting industries – is “classic professional body, learned society activity”. “If professionals don’t work together, there isn’t a solution”, he concluded.

“We are down under… but the issues of course, here, are just the same”

Discussion then turned to the role of the Charter and the value it added to the already-crowded climate initiative space. Caroline May, Chair of the Law Society Climate Change Working Group and member of the Legal 500 hall of fame, emphasised the importance of the collaborative aspect of the Charter. “In my years of practice… there has not been a solution that hasn’t involved that multidisciplinary working so it’s an absolute no-brainer… my chemistry teacher would be amazed at my grasp of chemistry now”, she said, relating her experience working alongside engineers, chemical engineers, hydrogeologists and more. “Collaboration is key, I think membership gives you a community, it gives you support, it gives you networking opportunities and a very powerful voice”.

Klaus Veil, President of Australian Council of Professions (ACoP), noted that this interdisciplinary decision making was often missing from the policy-making process: “governments have denuded themselves of expertise… today we find increasingly little”. To fill this gap, May said, “Lawyers are shirking our responsibilities if we don’t stand up and get involved”. Not only was collaboration important across professions, but also borders, as Veil noted: “We are down under… but the issues of course, here, are just the same”.

“It’s working on the transition together; it’s not demonising people”

The need for collaboration is clear, but what about the panel’s hopes for how the Charter would fulfil this need? Childs was clear on the need to engage not just with other professional bodies but with the membership, to ensure that change at the top was informed by the grassroots. Work on this in Oceania is already underway, with Veil announcing that, inspired by Charter, ACoP had set up a Professional Bodies Forum for Climate Action, open to all types of organisation.

May was more specific about the open questions facing her profession in the near future that would need frank discussion. Questions such as “Should you act for oil companies, should you act for heavy polluting industries? Which has snow become a hot topic, particularly at the younger end of the profession”. May emphasised that it was the role of professional bodies to provide clear guidance on such issues, not just for ethical but also economic reasons, saying many clients now “won’t engage a law firm that doesn’t have proper sustainability principles, that hasn’t set net-zero targets, that hasn’t signed up to the Science-Based Targets Initiative”.

On holding themselves accountable to the Charter’s commitments, there was a strong emphasis on a cooperative and systematic approach. This meant the setting of clear targets and reporting on them transparently, rather than simply vilifying people based on perceptions. May said: “It’s working on the transition together, it’s not demonising people… and then it’s having a methodology of taxonomy and reporting and disclosure that is viable and auditable and independent”. Church mentioned the climate action plans – one of the Charter commitments – as being a key element of accountability, and that “being transparent to your members about both what you’re doing with your own operations but also what you’re doing to support the wider conversation… will hold our feet to the fire over time”.

“We are all going to have to get to net zero… and actually, joining the Charter, it will provide you with resources to help you do this”

The discussion closed with some encouraging remarks for those perhaps feeling daunted by the scale of the task ahead. Church reflected that the panel were all from “organisations have been thinking about this for some time”, which could give the impression that the Charter was only for organisations at a similar level of progress. “That’s not true”, he said, “this is a device to help you get into that space”. The panel agreed, with Childs saying “we are all going to have to get to net zero… and actually, joining the Charter, it will provide you with resources to help you do this”. Veil noted the different options available for those wanting to get involved: “different organisations will be at different places in the journey and we need to bring them all with us. Hence the distinguishing between interested organisation, supporting organisation and signatory organisation”.

The discussion closed with a reflection on the context of the discussion, on the 4th day of COP26. “We really do need to take what’s decided here and make that into tangible actions”, Childs said, “we need to see this COP as the beginning, not the end, of the journey”.

The recording of the session can be found at the PBCAC YouTube channel.