It makes a world of sense that Gonzalo Muñoz was the Chilean presidency’s choice of high level climate champion for COP25 and COP26. His enthusiasm is infectious and his background in building one of the biggest social enterprises in South America makes his message hard to disagree with. “Covid has shaken us badly as a global economy – it has shown us how wrong (and how fragile) our previous model of growth has been. But it has also demonstrated how we can do things differently.”
Muñoz politely contradicts me when I suggest that Covid has come as a body-blow to the climate movement, shifting attention away from COP26 and towards more immediate problems. “It’s quite the reverse actually.”
“Of course, the immediate priority is to save lives, but if what you are saying is true, then why have we been able to increase the number of corporate commitments to science-based targets by a factor of ten since Covid hit? Why are we seeing more and more governments committing to unprecedented funding for the green transition and setting targets to match – just look at Japan’s announcement – this is a revolution. And it’s because business leaders and political leaders see the pandemic for what it is: an opportunity to redouble action on climate change.”
“When we launched in 2019”, Muñoz continues, “we had 50 or so major businesses. By COP25, in Madrid, we had loads more. These are B-corps and others from more than 77 countries. That number is now sitting at over 1000 – and most of them are SMEs – many of them are from South America. So you can’t tell me these are only massive global brands from the developed world, there is no excuse for not getting involved; you are seeing big signals everywhere.”
So, what’s the end game for Race to Zero, I ask. Where the finish line? COP26 in 2021, 2030, 2050?
“We are looking to create an ambition loop”. “Our job is to go out there and convince non-state actors to follow the science and then give them the tools to make meaningful commitments to reduce their emissions in line with the ambitions of the Paris Agreement. Clearly, we need to get to Net Zero in the 2040s, so we are now asking for, concrete, 2050 Net Zero pledges.”
But how does this relate to the political process in the room – COP is mainly a diplomatic event? – I ask. “It’s actually about helping the parties [i.e. the national governments + the EU] feel comfortable about submitting their own credible national commitments – to ensure we stay under 1.5 degrees.” “They can’t start blaming business if a critical mass of companies has already submitted their plans and if these plans add up…These companies then become messengers – and it’s my personal ambition to ensure we arrive in Glasgow with an unanswerably large number of corporate pledges.”
I finish on an issue around which Munoz has a huge amount of personal experience: the vast (and growing) material footprints that have come with rising affluence.
“We can’t go on this way, clearly”, he replies, “but a while ago I decided to become an optimist and to see how this could actually be tackled in a practical way.”
“I am more of an optimist now as we have the evidence that – perhaps – we lacked when I got started in this space: the fact that we absolutely must reduce waste (of all kinds) and move to a much more circular economy, the evidence is there. A decade ago, there was a lot of complacency. Now we know we need to act.” He goes on to list six specific waste-streams that need urgently tackling: the scandal of food waste in a world where 800 million are still going hungry; Plastic waste, “it’s hard to solve but we now know of a variety of ways to tackle it”; textiles; e-waste; building materials and – finally – medical and pharma waste (“it has a huge natural footprint and is growing in severity”).
Muñoz has his work cut out to persuade even more businesses to publish big commitments in one of the most economically disruptive years on record. He’s certainly right about the urgency and with Covid now dragging down global growth – optimists with a plan are very much in demand.