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Carmine Di Sibio

EY CEO: ‘This is the COP to show, not tell, what climate action looks like’

(Credit: PATRICK T. FALLON - AFP - Getty Images)

Leaders from across the globe are set to convene in Dubai for the 28th annual U.N. Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP28). While each organization and national envoy will bring different perspectives–informed by the political and economic realities they face–there is overwhelming consensus on one point: The time to move from ambition to action is now.

Against the backdrop of one of the hottest years on record, a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change finds that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, temperatures will reach the threshold which would accelerate the worst effects of global warming in just six years.

This predicament reflects a challenge that we all must accept: Addressing the impacts and changing the trajectory will require cooperation across all levels of society, including private sector companies. So as COP28 gets underway, business leaders must do their part to slow our current trajectory. That means scaling up efforts to decarbonize, increasing investment in the low-carbon transition globally, and catalyzing scalable green technology.

This is the year to show, not tell

This year at COP28, the UN will conclude its first-ever global stocktake, an assessment that details how nations are progressing toward their goals. As countries reflect on their headway, companies will be expected to follow suit.

The World Economic Forum’s Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders conducted its own analysis of a thousand top companies and found that less than 20% have 1.5°C science-based targets and less than 10% have comprehensive public transition plans. Those who have set ambitious targets, according to the recent EY Sustainable Value Study, are extending them–the median target year has shifted from 2036 to 2050 in the last year. What many organizations are finding, is that the execution around ambitious goals is a lot harder than setting them.  

In some cases, this stems more from a lack of internal cohesion than a lack of will. Many businesses struggle to establish enterprise-wide sustainability strategies and source the talent and technology needed to implement them. Fearing missed goals or broken pledges, some companies opt out entirely.

Rising inflation, macroeconomic headwinds, and short-term budget pressures also prevent sustainability leaders from moving strategies up the commercial agenda. In the same recent EY survey, 34% of respondents planned to spend more to address climate change in 2023, down from 61% in 2022.

Despite these obstacles, leaders cannot let a desire for perfection give way to paralysis. Rather than delay and debate the complexity of the perfect plan, companies need to show they are acting, despite increased complexity. This means sustaining focus on the core issue: cutting emissions. Efforts to do so won’t be a straight line along a perfect plan. Many of the early wins around carbon reduction have been exhausted–and marginal gains are harder to achieve. Real change will require increased investment, strategic planning, and transforming operations–all while facing competing economic pressures. Stakeholders are looking for action, and the need to prioritize long-term, sustainable value creation–for them and the planet–couldn’t be stronger. COP28 is an opportunity to convene, discuss and learn, but the attention will be on those who act. 

Private sector finance has to be part of the answer

Our world is still powered by fossil fuels, and decreasing our dependence on them isn’t just complex, it’s costly. The Independent High-Level Expert Group on Climate Finance estimates that transitioning small- and medium-sized developing countries to a low-carbon economy will take more than $2.4 trillion annually for the next three decades. Clearly, this is a gap the public sector can’t bridge on its own.

Multilateral development banks (MDBs) are also an important piece of the financing puzzle, but their resources pale in comparison to the private sector. Assets under management by private institutional investors are 900 times those of the World Bank and all other multilateral development banks. An obvious solution is for the private sector, with its considerable resources, to undertake projects alongside governments and MDBs. However, blended financing initiatives often lack efficacy data and can be slow to generate returns–a deal breaker for private investors.

Large-scale collaborations are the answer, and initiatives like the Sustainable Markets Initiative and the World Bank’s Private Sector Investment Lab are attempting to prove it. With input from an array of finance chief executives and chairs, these initiatives will focus on dividing risk, building more favorable financing structures, and better aligning public and private capital. We haven’t yet begun to tap the true catalytic potential of blended finance, but leaders are hard at work crafting the right incentives–it’s up to companies to seize them.

The green tech race: Harnessing AI for good

AI promises to accelerate innovation across industries, including in the realm of green technology. Already, we’ve seen AI help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration improve its climate models, airlines optimize flight routes and scientists fight wildfires. Six in 10 CSOs surveyed in the recent EY Sustainability Value Survey believe AI will optimize supply chains leading to a reduction in carbon emissions.

However, AI is evolving exponentially and it carries inherent risks, from bias and misinformation to security threats and questions of ownership. There’s also the issue of AI’s footprint itself: If we don’t embed sustainability into the use of AI, it risks producing as many carbon emissions as it curbs.

Understandably, some leaders don’t yet trust generative AI. By centering people in its development and deployment and adhering to a responsible AI framework, we can create systems that are effective and trustworthy.

To leverage generative AI in the fight against climate change, organizations need to have clear governance and risk management structures in place, alongside accountability mechanisms. COP28 is a chance to engage policymakers and business leaders in a dialogue about harnessing AI for good.

Today, stakeholders around the world put more faith in businesses than they do in government–but the public’s patience for rhetoric without results is wearing thin. As COP28 gets underway, the world will look to those who lead our countries and corporations to secure a brighter future for all of us.

Carmine Di Sibio is EY’s global chairman and CEO. The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.

More must-read commentary published by Fortune:

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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