As 70,000 policymakers, executives and activists converge on Dubai for COP28, the world faces a crucial test of leadership. We are experiencing the climate crisis around us every day: 2023 is set to be the warmest year on record, and many regions are seeing unprecedented heat waves, wildfires and storms. Can leaders at the vast and hugely diverse convening that is COP muster the collaboration and common ground that’s needed to shift the planet onto a sustainable path?
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), as the host country of COP28, has set out an ambitious agenda that encompasses all the key elements of climate action. Sultan Al Jaber, president COP28, describes these as four “Fs”: fast-tracking the transition to a low-carbon world; fixing climate finance; focusing on people, lives and livelihoods; and full inclusivity. The UAE’s leaders have emphasized a focus on action, committing to bring together different actors—across the public and private sectors—with a can-do mindset.
The task at COP is hugely challenging, but if leaders across sectors can embrace such a mindset—engaging in true dialogue, listening with new openness, and shaping solutions that go beyond old boundaries—the results could be transformative. What makes COP unique is that it brings leaders from every country and industry together. “That is so important because it changes the dynamics. It forces the largest emitters to sit across the table from [vulnerable] countries like Vanuatu and listen to what it means if we don’t act,” said Jennifer Morgan, Germany’s special envoy for international climate action, quoted in the New Yorker.
This points to a crucial opportunity for leaders attending COP28—namely, to create the experience of walking in others’ shoes. For leaders coming together from all over the world, the call is to be aware of and embrace our diversity and our differences; we have a common goal, but we come from very different places. That will require self-awareness, reflection about our own identity, and empathy and understanding for the perspectives and experiences of others. In turn, this environment of openness will give disruptive thinking and new approaches a chance to succeed.
Such approaches, rooted in dialogue, are at the heart of Egon Zehnder’s latest report, The Power of Procurement: Tackling the Climate Challenge, developed in partnership with the First Movers Coalition of the World Economic Forum. In it, we highlight the requirement that businesses take a fresh look at collaboration as a key aspect of the new economics of climate transformation. Oliver Hurrey, who leads the Sustainable Procurement Pledge, says in report: “The leaders in sustainability… are ones that collaborate externally, enthusiastically.”
As delegates to COP28 will no doubt experience, it can be profoundly uncomfortable to let go of longstanding practices and notions of organizational self-interest to advance the progress that humanity needs. Leaders today need to take a systems view, moving beyond the linear thinking that has dominated most organizations.
In our new report, Kazuhiro Takahashi, Chief Procurement Officer of Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, highlights the new thinking that’s needed: “The shift to alternative fuels requires us to collaborate with other concerned parties, sometimes including our competitors, to achieve overall optimization—this has created a psychological dilemma in our company. It’s no longer just about our company’s success, but finding solutions that benefit everyone.”
Warren Bennis, the great scholar of leadership, once said: “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Previous COPs have set out bold visions for a world that harnesses human ingenuity to rapidly decarbonize economies, achieve net-zero emissions, slow down global warming, and protect the human communities and natural systems that are so vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. If COP28 succeeds, it will be because leaders are able to acknowledge and transcend their differences to agree tangible plans that realize this vision, spanning the public, private, and social sectors.
In other words, COP28 will stand or fall with leadership. This means that leaders will need to see themselves as conscious architects of a sustainable future, in the view of Michael Greenstone, co-founder of Climate Vault. In a recent interview with Egon Zehnder, he said: “I've been struck by leaders who are taking a stand on what's important. Many have decided voluntarily to commit their organizations to reduce their carbon footprint or to be net zero or carbon neutral.”
As COP28 delegates walk around Dubai, they’ll be reminded of the power of bold thinking to achieve rapid change. In the space of a just a few decades, Dubai has transformed from a small fishing port to a global city and hub for finance, trade and innovation. Oil now accounts for less than 2 percent of the city’s economic activity, while the UAE is fast becoming a world center for renewable energy and green hydrogen. More than anything, Dubai is a global meeting place and melting pot, home to dozens of nationalities—a space for cross-cultural engagement and co-creation. We hope it will prove to be the ideal environment for leaders from across the world to embrace their differences, find common ground, and commit to purposeful action to tackle the climate crisis.