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How corporate affairs can play a crucial role in the transition to net zero

By Mark Hutcheon

In the end, COP26 acted as more of an inflection point for corporations to unite and rally internal change rather than an external communications platform. Leaders in the private sector now accept that their businesses are expected to go further and faster in the transition to net zero emissions.

Corporate affairs functions should relish the opportunity to play a prominent role in driving their organisations through this next decade of transition to 2030 and beyond. We argue how they can rise to this defining challenge.

Be the ultimate change agent

Corporate affairs teams thrive in times of change and uncertainty. Why? Their ability to set out a new vision, manage often competing stakeholder views, assemble coalitions for change and mobilise support through impactful campaigns. These are invaluable competencies for organisations needing to transform themselves as they act to prevent climate change.

Merge net zero and corporate strategy

It is important to frame environmental action as a key driver of corporate strategy not a footnote, ingrained in brand purpose, and necessarily bold over the long term. To make a real difference, action on climate change needs to be a whole organisation effort. Corporate affairs teams have a powerful role to articulate a version of the future and is equipped to make vital decisions at pace.

It can also help articulate how business growth and carbon reduction co-exist in the same narrative.

Nudge audiences towards new ideas and behaviours

We need to nudge audiences more to seed, mainstream and normalise new ideas and behaviours to achieve the required response to this crisis. Corporate and consumer brands have a central role to play in order to provoke large scale behavioural change with those audiences who still don’t appreciate their individual role.

Unequivocal leadership

Corporate affairs can guide and enable corporate leaders to capture the mood of change. Advise personal commitment, urgency and honesty in leadership communications. Challenge executives who seek the comfort of speaking only through annual reporting. Encourage real conviction when voicing their views on the scale of change ahead of us and the tough choices it represents.

Be hands on with the mechanics of change

Reducing Scope 3 emissions will be the hard yards for organisations to get through. Highly ambitious coalitions across the supply chain and your wider industry are needed to start to bring emissions down together. Corporate affairs can play a vital role in assembling supply chain partnerships and communicating this journey by creating a shared narrative to focus minds.

Act with purpose

There’s increasing pressure from consumers and employees, as well as investors and Government, to see more action. Consumers increasingly make decisions on who they buy from, and employees who they work for, based on the action a company is taking to reduce emissions and tackle other important environmental issues. Deloitte’s latest CFO survey found that transitioning to net zero would especially benefit a business's brand and help attract top talent. Corporate affairs can highlight these changes – and why they’re taking place – to stakeholders.

Build from strong foundations

Businesses are expected to make decisive climate commitments and external focus will increasingly fall on the credibility of how progress is measured and reported. In line with new government guidance, UK listed businesses will be expected to:

  • Have a net zero by 2050 commitment, backed by the CEO, with interim targets
  • Publish a net zero transition plan
  • Report and share transparent progress markers annually.

Without these fundamentals, efforts may be perceived as gestures. Businesses should also test communications and policy positions against other key climate change issues such as carbon offsetting, biodiversity and climate finance.

Prepare to be a target

As your business transitions, areas of weakness will become clearer and be called out by your critics. This pressure can be used positively to increase the focus on the need for change. Organisations should calmly respond to activism without shying from the debate and possess a credible science-based response in defence.

Think forward

Stakeholders want businesses to convey a sense of urgency and will be held to account before COP27 takes place in Autumn 2022, and beyond.

There needs to be clear vision of what your organisation’s net zero future looks like, so audiences buy into it and can play their part. In what will be a decades long radical transformation of our economy, corporate affairs belongs at the heart of it.

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