Bezos, 'phasing down', snoozing leaders, Irn'd media: COP26 Reputation Barometer

Which individuals, companies and governments have enhanced – and which have diminished – their reputations during the COP26 climate change conference and talks in Glasgow?

Credits: Jeff Bezos (Paul Ellis via Pool/Getty Images); Boris Johnson (Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images); Nicola Sturgeon and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (via Twitter)
Credits: Jeff Bezos (Paul Ellis via Pool/Getty Images); Boris Johnson (Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images); Nicola Sturgeon and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (via Twitter)

We have excluded celebrated campaigners such as Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough because, frankly, their reputations as authoritative and powerful voices on climate change could hardly be higher.

The Good

Barbados PM spells it out

Among the many speeches by world leaders, this one stood out. Speaking at the World Leaders Summit, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley explained that countries like hers are on the front line of the climate crisis, dealing with rising sea levels and extreme weather. She urged rich countries to "try harder" in the fight, and said the burden of fighting the problems lies primarily with them. The speech combined detailed breakdowns of where commitments hadn’t been kept with powerful rhetoric that emphasised the human impact of inaction. “How many more voices,” Mottley asked, “and how many more pictures of people must we see on these screens without being able to move – or are we so blinded and hardened that we can no longer appreciate the cries of humanity?” A video of the speech rightly went viral.

Supermarkets make credible pledge

Five UK supermarket groups showed a united front during COP26 when they pledged to halve the environmental impact of the weekly food shop by 2030, using measures such as reducing carbon emissions and food packaging waste. They also promised to establish science-based targets for how they would help limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures by the end of this year. The pledge – signed by Tesco, Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Co-op and Marks & Spencer – will be monitored by the WWF, the conservation charity, giving it an air of authenticity that’s sometimes lacking from such declarations. The specific and relatively near-future targets (compared to some other joint pledges) also suggest the retailers are taking it seriously.

Energy chief's emphatic plea

Away from Glasgow itself, but very much on-topic, Emma Pinchbeck, chief executive of the trade association Energy UK, cut an impressive figure as a panellist on BBC Question Time on Thursday night last week. Discussing the implications of an agreement at COP26, she said that, as a former climate activist, she saw the private sector moving faster toward decarbonisation than the public sector, and that business was “very annoyed” by slow progress at the summit. Pinchbeck also combined the emotional with the business case for those not yet convinced when she said: “Do better by my daughter. Do better by all of us…It’s the right thing to do. And if you stick to fossil fuels, you’re going to get left behind.”

Irn'd media

On a different, lighter note, Irn-Bru had a storming conference from a branding perspective. As The Guardian reports, its manufacturer, AG Barr, had an exclusive supply deal at the SEC and SSE Hydro convention centres used during COP26, and boy did it make the most of the opportunity. The high point was Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeting a picture of herself with high-profile US Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – who has 12.7m Twitter followers – holding a can of the fizzy drink. The image went viral and even made newspaper front pages. There was genuine intrigue for the brand, which has a ubiquitous presence north of the border but is much harder to find elsewhere (certainly outside these shores). Delegates’ affection for the host country seemed to transplant onto Irn-Bru, which became a kind of symbol of Scotland – a rare feat for any brand.

The Bad

Coal blow

A late, but crucial, addition to the list followed the agreement between the participating countries – The Glasgow Climate Pact -– on Saturday evening. The deal was historic, keeping alive the hope of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. But unfortunately, many headlines focused on a watering-down of commitments around ending coal use, following last-minute interjections by India and China. There would no longer be a “phasing out” of coal, but a “phasing down” of it.

Speaking to Reuters, India’s environment and climate minister, Bhupender Yadav, said the revision reflected the “national circumstances of emerging economies”. He said rich nations historically have emitted the majority of greenhouse gases and he highlighted the lack of action on oil and natural gas.

“We are becoming the voice of the developing countries,” Yadav stated, adding: “We made our effort to make a consensus that is reasonable for developing countries and reasonable for climate justice."

It's difficult not to have sympathy for India's historic predicament, but the fact remains, this was a reputational blow to the world's first and second-biggest coal-producing countries, in international eyes at least. We can expect 'phasing down' to become a byword for disappointment and missed opportunity for weeks, months and probably years to come. "China and India will have to explain themselves and what they did to the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world," said COP26 President and MP Alok Sharma.

Car pledge stuck in first gear

Like the supermarkets mentioned in the 'Good' section, major global car manufacturers also made a joint environment pledge – in this instance, to end the sale of fossil fuel cars by 2040. Ford, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and Mercedes signed up, but there were notable absences, including Volkswagen, BMW and Toyota. The latter’s statement that it “share[s] the same spirit and determination to address climate change and remain[s] open to engage and work with stakeholders”, and that it will “continue to contribute by making the best efforts to achieve carbon neutrality”, feels unsatisfactory; details about how it will act would have been more effective, in our view.

Unlike the example of UK supermarkets, the media coverage focused as much on those manufacturers that did not agree to the terms. To be fair, it’s not just car companies: 24 countries signed the agreement, but the major automotive-producing nations of the US, China and Germany refused.

Spaceman must come down to earth

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced a $2bn pledge at COP26 to help “restore nature” at the conference. However, the impact was marred when, in his speech, the billionaire discussed his recent journey to space, which taught him how "finite" and "fragile" the earth is. The disconnect was palpable: the reaction from many was that taking carbon-guzzling vanity trips out of the earth's atmosphere is not a great look when discussing limiting carbon emissions.

U-turn on deforestation

From one Amazon to another.

Backtracking on a positive commitment is never a good comms strategy. Hopes were high for progress on halting deforestation after Brazil joined the countries signing a pledge to work “collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030”. But during COP26, Rodrigo Pacheco, President of the Brazilian Senate, told the media that the government’s focus would be specifically on stopping illegal deforestation. Sadly, the South American country wasn’t alone in dashing hopes of a trouble-free agreement; days after his country signed up, Indonesia’s environment minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, said forcing the country to “zero deforestation" in 2030 is "clearly inappropriate and unfair”.

Asleep at the wheel

We could spend hours discussing the comms skills or otherwise of various world leaders during the summit, but let’s focus on the ‘optics’ of the UK Prime Minister and US President both being caught on camera apparently taking naps during COP26 sessions. Even if they were ‘resting their eyes’, and we can forgive some jet lag from Joe Biden, the image is not good in the context of the event’s importance.

In the UK, we’re getting infuriatingly accustomed to Boris Johnson not wearing masks in enclosed public spaces, but another photo of the PM sitting maskless next to 95-year-old Sir David Attenborough did him no favours. With so many speeches across the two-week summit, sometimes simple images can have a more powerful impact.

Perhaps we’re being unfair, however; maybe the real reputational blow is to the leaders of major countries who didn’t attend in person – among them Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

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