Is net zero heating up? Communicating when the consensus becomes controversial

By October 19, 2023No Comments

Until recently, net zero was unproblematic. How can comms professionals thread the needle?

It’s funny what can make people angry.

We wouldn’t have expected net zero – a catch-all term for balancing out the emissions there is a scientific consensus are heating the planet and putting our way of life in question – to end up controversial, but somehow it has.

In the UK, Rishi Sunak’s government is pushing back targets set by its predecessors for the end of the sale of new petrol cars, and his right-wing MPs are growing increasingly vocal in criticising the whole programme. In the US, sustainability and net zero have become such political footballs that – anecdotally – some global companies are removing all mention of them from their American marketing materials.

This creates an interesting communications challenge.

For years, many of our clients and potential clients in the financial services industry have gone all in on net zero, ESG and sustainability in their marketing and communications.

To look at the covers of their thought leadership and to listen to their panels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that several investment banks were environmental charities rather than profit-seeking entities.

Now, however, they have found themselves with entrenched, long-term messaging that is – at least – contrary to some bracing political winds.

It’s easy to poke fun at PDFs with green shoots on their covers, but the underlying question is a serious one: how can we now communicate around these issues without implicitly starting a media bunfight with this or that political figure?

The first thing to remember is authenticity will always be key, and the perception of a brand or senior leader who bends too easily in the face of resistance to long-held stances is easily worse than journalists placing them in opposition to the government of the day.

The second is connected. Greenwashing – the dressing up or exaggeration of a company or product’s environmental credentials – is about as inauthentic as it gets, and is sadly far from rare.

If we’re now thinking more about where and how we build net zero into a message, is it a bad thing? No comms is better than bad comms, and if there’s an upshot to previously safe territory like ‘saving life as we know it’ becoming a political football, could it be that we don’t use the consensus around it as a crutch for lazy thinking and/or a lack of creativity?

Sunak presumably wanted to start a frank debate about the costs as well as benefits of net zero (the UK’s last carbon budget was debated in Parliament for 17 minutes). His announcement predictably got swept up in culture war posturing by the usual suspects, but rather than presenting an opportunity to weigh into an increasingly testy debate, the positive outcome could instead be a renewed focus on communicating honestly and straightforwardly around a complex topic.

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