Last week I was joined by a brilliant panel on the Climate Action Stage at COP27, the UN’s annual climate conference, to shine a light on advertising's role in driving consumption. Our stage curated for ‘climate blindspots’ - was wholly appropriate given we were one of a small handful of advertising organisations present in Sharm El-Sheikh (in good company with CAN
Whilst some important wins at COP27 were witnessed, including a loss and damage fund that will see rich nations pay poorer countries for the impacts of climate change. There was no major strengthening of climate commitments in the final text battled out by nations. The vital 1.5 degrees global warming limit which if surpassed spells unprecedented climate breakdown, is on a life support machine.
Above: Nadeen Ayyashi, Ben Essen and Solitaire Townsend and Bill Wescott at COP27
At this moment in time, we both as individuals, as businesses and as an industry need to ask “what can we be doing to increase the industry’s transition at this time?” - we need an all-in effort.
Now, more than ever, forces behind government need to show moral and radical leadership to help “imagine better times and unleash the ingenuity of humankind,” as Nigel Topping, the UN high-level climate action champion says in his closing speech
So what is the advertising industry’s role in this story?
Our goal, as Purpose Disruptors, was to shine a light on what is the elephant in the room when it comes to advertising and climate change. Advertising driven consumption.
Advertising's role in the climate story has only recently been coming into view.
The more ads we see, the more stuff we buy, the more stuff gets made and more emissions are generated. Everything has an associated carbon footprint. Last year magic numbers and Purpose Disruptors introduced a new metric to measure this effect - ‘Advertised Emissions’.
Reining in unsustainable consumption by changing what we buy, eat, and how we travel amongst many other things is one of our best hopes to slow runaway temperature rises according to the climate authority - the IPCC. It’s also what we as an industry can influence.
What’s the size of our influence?
The new research that we previewed at COP27 tracks progress since 2019 and unfortunately, it’s not good news. Despite a dip during covid, Advertised Emissions are up by more than 10% since 2019. We’ve gone from influencing 186 million tonnes of CO2 emissions to 208 million tonnes. The industry's Advertised Emissions are now equivalent to more than 56 coal fired power plants running for a year.
But to do our bit for maintaining a liveable planet, Advertised Emissions need to be cut in half by 2030.
What is fascinating but perhaps not surprising, is our Advertised Emissions dropped in 2020. The pandemic forced us to change our behaviour, and whilst this time was a unbelievably challenging for many, from an industry perspective, limiting advertising spend overall, and diverting spend from some high-carbon categories amongst other factors led to a huge 22% drop in Advertised Emissions, taking us well below where we needed to be to be on the right trajectory to halving emissions by 2030.
As things picked up and went back to normal, our industry was not an anomaly. The full force of the machine kicked into recovery mode and rebounded with gousto. But this rebound set us back into a business as usual pathway of rising emissions.
To see the level of change required in this current moment, we invite bolder, more innovative thinking to break this upwards emissions trajectory.
What can we do to make the change we need to see?
With this information we are presented with a choice. How do we navigate the climate transition?
This invites two questions:
Firstly, can we make better choices around where we currently place our creativity and effort?
One way to help agencies overcome this challenge is by introducing the ‘Advertiser Carbon Index’. We’re helping organisations review their client portfolio mix based on the carbon impact of the category or product being advertised. When armed with the knowledge of how good or bad a brand is in relation to its impact on the planet, we can then choose to shift spend away from promoting high-carbon intensity lifestyles to low carbon, sustainable lifestyles that we all need.
Secondly, can we use our industry’s superpower - creativity, to imagine new products, services and business models needed to diversify?
One way to approach this, is to think about what are the awesome skills within the industry that we can apply to an alternative outcome? We’re master storytellers, strategists, communicators and project managers - what are the alternative things we could do and create with this abundance of skills other than drive consumption? We need to decouple the skills from the outcome and reapply those skills to an alternative outcome.
As each climate conference unfolds, urges for better communication to help convey core climate messages are rampant. “Saving our planet is now a communications challenge. We know what to do, we just need the will,” stated Sir David Attenborough; “What’s needed is a mindset shift. Yet changing mindsets is not mentioned
in many of the excellent climate action and nature conservation roadmaps that leaders consult” - could our skills be applied to mobilise mass behaviour change?
In October 2018, the IPCC said
: “Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
Such a statement applies as much to the advertising and marketing communications industry as anyone else. We can collectively choose to step up and play a bigger role in this climate era, we can take stock of our full influence in the climate story and rewrite the future so we’re supercharging solutions with our creative talents.
That is a kind of future that requires radical, bold leadership, that we need to work towards now.