Turning up the heat: IPCC synthesis report confirms the need for sustainability to be at the heart of business strategy 

Turning up the heat: IPCC Synthesis Report confirms the need for sustainability to be at the heart of business strategy 


We’ve all heard the radio reports and read the headlines, haven’t we? The world is burning. Ice caps are melting. Climate action is urgently required. Our chance to maintain world temperatures below 1.5°c has either passed or, if not, we have a very slim chance of holding them. 


In a way, the IPCC’s Synthesis Report, a landmark document drawing together a comprehensive review of global knowledge on climate, doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t already heard. Climate change having profound and catastrophic impacts on the world around us is nothing new. We already understand that progress is being made, but the vast majority would agree that current progress is not enough.  


However, this is no ordinary report. This is a powerful document, compiled by the United Nations’ specialist body for assessing the science related to climate change, informed by thousands of hours of research and alongside input from hundreds of climate experts. We should not underestimate its impact. Not only does it present a clear position based on undeniable science; it also brings together global governments, innovators and business behind the thinking and action required to combat climate change. It piles huge pressure on these actors to accelerate progress made and, crucially, provides instruction on what must be done.  


For business leaders and policymakers, the world is watching. So, how should you respond? 


A constructive report requires a positive response 


Despite the obvious gloom presented by the data, the IPCC is constructive (and instructive) about the task ahead. The first sentence of its press release reads, “There are multiple, feasible and effective options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to human-caused climate change, and they are available now”. In its announcement, UN secretary-general António Guterres describes the report as a “survival guide for humanity”.

The UN isn’t pushing us out to sea without a paddle. We’re already out to sea. This report is the paddle, and its findings are a challenge to readers to build the lifeboat.  

This presents a proposition for policymakers and business to either willingly accept or actively reject. Reputationally, there is only one choice to be made. Reject the science-backed urgency and you risk alienating peers, partners, employees, consumers and voters alike. Responding positively provides opportunities for strong brand recognition. It can inspire positive audience engagement. Importantly, taking a proactive approach can also drive business resilience as we prepare for a world with depleted resources, greater social insecurity and economic uncertainty. 


The climate conversation is mainstream 


Some business leaders may be tempted to believe that the IPCC report is a technical document, only to be discussed at a meeting of Chief Sustainability Officers or in the corridors of the United Nations. Make no mistake, this report, and the narratives around it, are in the mainstream. It will impact the decisions and the agreements that global leadership make around topics such as financing and subsidies. It will influence corporate reporting on climate actions. It will place responsibilities at the doorstep of business. It could encourage strengthened legislation and penalties for unsustainable operations. Inaction also risks negative impact on employee engagement and recruitment.  


It only takes a cursory look at the media coverage to see the report’s launch seizing headlines across the world. The BBC, for example, put the report as its lead story ahead of other, not-insignificant, news items including rail strikes, wage stagnation and risks to the UK banking system. 


Understanding and accepting that this story is living in the mass consciousness is crucial for business leaders and their communications teams. Telling your sustainability story in plain, yet motivational, language that can be easily understood, while still capturing the rigour and detail needed to support that story, will be vital. 


Meaningful action is required 


The report is another reminder that a lack of meaningful sustainability and climate strategy, alongside clear, credible communications to support them, is a reputational risk. Lip-service platitudes and minor sustainability initiatives, supporting far-off targets that are difficult to measure, all come with laser-sharp scrutiny and cynicism from onlooking NGOs and consumers alike. Legislation, too, is tightening to combat ‘greenwashing’ in many regions across the world. Today, only taking measurable action to create meaningful change, gives businesses, brands and policymakers the right to talk about it. 


Being caught on the wrong side of this ever-growing pressure for action is both an operational risk for unsustainable businesses, and a reputational hazard waiting to happen.