Review of 2020: The year we became 'accidental climate heroes'

As part of Campaign's 'Not Normal' series of essays about 2020, we examine the negative impact of climate change, which made its presence felt in 2020, but also the way that coronavirus brought some environmental positives.

To add to the tally of calamities in 2020, it was a year marked by fires. First, record-breaking temperatures and a drought fuelled massive bushfires across Australia. Then in August, wildfires began sweeping California, while there was also a surge in blazes across the Amazon rainforest, which rivalled the devastation in the region from the previous year. For those who had been campaigning to demand action on climate change, the flames brought fresh urgency to their cause.

In the advertising industry, as in numerous other areas of society, the climate emergency had already come to the fore after the Global Climate Strike, the international movement fronted by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, inspired protests around the world last year. As a result, some business leaders had promised real action in 2020, but then another crisis arrived and took precedence: the coronavirus pandemic.

Yet even as the global focus shifted to public health and economic recession, ad industry network Purpose Disruptors, which was behind last year’s Create and Strike initiative to galvanise creatives in the climate fight, saw glimmers of hope. One side effect of lockdown was that many of the behaviours that people adopted when forced to stay at home – such as reducing consumption and the use of public transport – were beneficial to the environment.

A study by environmental researchers in May found that widespread confinement had led to significant changes in energy use and global carbon emissions, with the latter predicted to fall by up to 7% in 2020. Coincidentally, this was the same annual reduction that climate scientists had said would be required to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius – the United Nations’ target for mitigating the damages of climate change.

Floods hit the UK in early 2020 (above) and wildfires brought devastation to the US (top)

“All these things we’d suggested could be done [in the ad industry] to help the environment – cutting back on flying to meetings, reducing the number of people on shoots – suddenly happened because of lockdown,” Jonathan Wise, co-founder of Purpose Disruptors and consultancy The Comms Lab, says. “People became accidental climate heroes.”

Purpose Disruptors seized on the opportunity to encourage the unexpected, positive shifts emerging from the pandemic. In July, as the first lockdowns began to ease and economies reopened, the group unveiled a follow-up to Create and Strike, with The Great Reset, an initiative calling on the creative industry to promote the “new normal” of sustainable living and continue the progress made in tackling climate change.

The impetus for long-term change was there: 77% of respondents in a OnePulse poll said they thought that it was the creative industry’s responsibility to encourage people to behave more sustainably.

“While the Covid crisis has been traumatic, it has also awakened people to this idea that not everything is as stable as we think. It has brought into sharp focus what living in a sustainable way looks like,” Lisa Merrick-Lawless, co-founder of Purpose Disruptors, adds.

In September, The Great Reset campaign launched with five winning ideas from the competition, which asked for entries that “celebrate the accidental climate heroes of Britain and encourage them to make it a badge of honour”.

The following month, Purpose Disruptors continued the push by creating a new metric for the ad industry beyond return on investment. “Ecoffectiveness” is measured in “return on CO2e” – the additional revenue generated for every tonne of CO2 equivalent emitted. The initiative was led by Ben Essen, chief strategy officer at Iris, and Caroline Davison, managing partner at Elvis, and the methodology was launched at the IPA EffWorks Global conference in October.

Purpose Disruptors launched The Great Reset calling on the creative industry to promote sustainable living

Purpose Disruptors sees these steps as only the beginning of a long-term effort to overhaul the advertising business and ensure it does good for the planet. As the year that no-one could have anticipated draws to a close, Wise says the group’s focus for 2021 will be: “Can we move people from being the accidental climate heroes they were in 2020 to making an active choice to become active climate heroes in 2021?” Purpose Disruptors plans two follow-up initiatives in early 2021 ahead of Davos to further galvanise business and creative leaders.

Their message seems to be resonating: Merrick-Lawless says the network has grown from about 400 in 2019 to 1300 people this year. “We’re seeing a real shift in momentum and building our community,” she adds.

At the end of the year, the Advertising Association and its members also launched Ad Net Zero, an initiative billed as the “UK advertising industry’s response to the climate emergency”. As part of this, the AA unveiled a report on adland’s carbon impact and published a five-point plan aimed at reducing it.

However, there can be little doubt that many people who have lived through 2020 may be too weary to consider any cause beyond their personal or business survival. In 2021, as the industry begins to rebuild, Purpose Disruptors’ greatest challenge will be inspiring people to continue the fight.

“I think this is the point at which you need leadership,” Essen says. “No leadership has happened at easy moments. Greta Thunberg sat outside a school on her own for a long time before anyone paid any attention to her.”

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