At Davos, Guterres spoke searingly in front of business leaders and described the business model of ‘fossil fuel producers and their enablers’ in the following terms: “racing to expand production, knowing full well that their business model is inconsistent with human survival."

In his address to the General Assembly he doubled down, “2023 is a year of reckoning.  It must be a year of game-changing climate action. We need disruption to end the destruction. No more baby steps. No more excuses. No more greenwashing. No more bottomless greed of the fossil fuel industry and its enablers.”

Are we the enablers?

It is very clear that this is a warning to the whole advertising industry. Our role as ‘enablers’ in the climate crisis is becoming increasingly understood by legislators, civil society and business leaders.

Industrial scale greenwashing and the role that advertisers play in funding content that denies the existence or gravity of the climate emergency are two of the defining issues of our times.

So will we tinker round the edges and celebrate incrementalism or will we radically step into the challenge and tackle the brief of our lives?

The risk involved with taking baby steps far outweighs that of acting decisively. Plus acting big will bring huge opportunities, as well as the small matter of widening the ‘brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future’ that the IPCC warns about.

First let’s look at the risk of taking baby steps.

1.       The climate crisis isn’t going away. We are not going to be saying at Cannes 2025 ‘do you remember that climate stuff a couple of years ago. Glad we fixed that. Anyway, pass the Rosé.’

2.       Scrutiny is here. France has passed laws banning fossil fuel advertising and strict rules on Greenwashing. The ASA upheld a complaint against an HSBC ad on the basis of ‘omission’ – not being transparent about its investment in fossil fuels. This sets a new and much higher precedent for advertising.

3.       The new ‘Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive’ will come into force in the EU in 2024 and 2025 compelling companies to report on environmental matters and human rights.

4.       With scrutiny comes accountability. Enablers in the communications industries are already being quizzed by Congressional committees in the US and by the EU Parliament. Client Earth are suing TotalEnergies and the board of Directors of Shell. Stop Ecocide International are progressing in their work to ensure that ‘ecocide’, defined as ‘killing one’s home’, becomes an international crime alongside genocide. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t fancy putting on my suit for an appearance in the Hague.

5.       Business models are being challenged like never before. The collapse in advertiser revenue at Twitter is due in no small part to the fact that brands do not want to sit next to posts saying #climatescam or posts by actual Nazis.

The scale of the challenge is vast and the risk of inaction is growing by the hour. But there are actions that we can and should take now.

·         Adopt the principle of ‘radical transparency’ advocated for by the UN High Level expert group Report on the Net Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Actors. We need to measure everything in order to start working on the problems. And by measuring I don’t mean just Scope 1 or 2. Open source your measurement to hold yourself accountable and help others. We are all collaborators now.

·         Advertisers must measure the whole value chain. The Purpose Disruptors’ pioneering ‘Advertised Emissions’ work is a great guide. Advertising works we tell each other in every awards ceremony we attend and case study we write. Well, if it is that effective, then we are adding huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for every car, plane ticket and burger we convince someone to buy. Measuring our impact in Scope 3 emissions is critical.

·         Enablers must decide in 2023 if they are going to continue to adopt the greenwashing practices of the past for high carbon clients. I would go so far as to suggest that continuing to greenwash for companies that have no intention of meeting the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement risks not just the planet, but the wallets and the future liberty of those enablers. Get ahead of the legislation and adopt the CMA green claims code now.

·         Consciously invest your media. Demand that platforms and media owners have robust policies on climate misinformation and greenwashing. Invest in great climate journalism. Exiting the fossil fuel media economy has done wonders for the Guardian US who have seen revenues increase by 40% in a year. The Conscious Advertising Network’s Sustainability manifesto is a great place to start.

·         Realise the opportunity of the net-zero economy. EVs are seeing record sales all over the world. Poland, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands saw heat pump sales double during the first half of 2022. There is a huge untapped market in the UK. Media Bounty have just released a report called Beyond the Climate Bubble, a report into a group we call ‘the Persuadables’ 69% of the UK population that believe in climate change, but are yet to make the step to buying sustainable products and services. The opportunity is there to be grabbed.

The language of the UN is very big and very scary. We are not used to using words like ‘liveable future’ and ‘human survival’. Yet we are the generation that has to rise to this challenge. Are we going to act quickly, radically and collaboratively in order to become the enablers and leaders of the transition? Or kick the can down the road and watch as business starts to falter, citizens hold us to public account and legislators start knocking at your door?

Disrupt or destruct. Your call.

Jake and partners of the Conscious Advertising Network will be contributing to the MAD//Insight throughout the year and speaking at MAD//Fest in July