Around the world, this was a year of extreme weather. In North America, Hurricane Elsa was the first of its kind to strike Barbados in over 60 years, while Hurricane Ida was the second most damaging tropical storm to ever hit Louisiana. Flooding and landslides in India were responsible for around 200 deaths, while floods in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium killed around 180.

These events have been a wake-up call for anyone who remains unconvinced that climate change is not having an impact on the planet. More to the point, it’s only likely to continue if we don’t act fast. As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report stated, “it is now an established fact” that extreme weather events are linked to climate change.

With this in mind, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which took place in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November, was the most important yet.

With 200 countries coming together to discuss next steps, collaboration was at the heart of the conference: not only among governments, but also with business leaders, who play an integral role in the race to net zero. Recognising this, COP26 selected 11 companies across a range of different sectors as its principal partners, including Unilever, Sky, Sainsburys, NatWest Group and GSK.

These partnerships are significant not only for the insights they offered at the conference itself, but also for the opportunities they present for businesses to show their commitment to sustainability initiatives – a vital role given many companies are still failing to do enough to reduce their impact on the planet.

Research published by global asset management company Arabesque earlier this year found that just under one-quarter (24.84%) of companies listed on the world’s 14 largest stock indexes between 2015 and 2019 were aligned with the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit global warming to 1.5ºC, as adopted at COP21 in 2015.

GSK was announced as a principal partner in June 2021, strengthening the company’s existing sustainability goals. After all, the pharmaceutical giant had already committed to having a net-zero impact on climate and net-positive impact on nature by 2030. In a press release announcing the partnership, Emma Walmsley, GSK’s chief executive, put it like this: “We strongly believe that COP26 must accelerate global actions and collaborations to protect climate, nature and health and we are delighted to support the UK government with [its] ambitions for a successful COP26.”

Claire Lund, the company’s head of sustainability, echoes this view. “We […] want to refocus attention among key stakeholders on the 1.5ºC pathway to minimise the impact to both the planet and people,” she says.

Speaking two months before the conference, Lund explained that GSK is “working closely with the COP26 team and the UK government to develop climate and health-focused conversations in the run up to and at the Glasgow meeting”.

It’s a view she reiterates now. “We will share updates in support of COP26 and our sustainability targets, as well as work with other health organisations to improve understanding and measurement of the impacts of climate change and nature loss on health.”

With climate protests taking place around the world, businesses and governments are under growing pressure to act.

Ahead of the conference, Lund said that GSK has “stepped up” its ambitions to reduce its impact on the planet, “embed sustainability” into the business and “drive a net positive impact” as part of ‘New GSK’, “the new form of the company following the separation of our consumer healthcare business expected next year”. Certainly, GSK seems to be walking the walk.

Its achievements include generating 68% of its global electricity from renewable sources, joining the global EV100 initiative to accelerate the use of electric vehicles within the company’s sales fleet, and advancing the use of low-carbon and low-emission inhalers.

On the green path

Many businesses were already mobilising in the run up to COP26: ahead of the summit, nearly half of FTSE100 companies – including GSK, Sainsbury’s and Unilever – had joined the UN’s Race to Zero campaign, a global pledge to eliminate carbon emissions by 2050. As of September 2021, 47 companies were part of the scheme, representing over half the index’s value.

“We […] want to refocus attention among key stakeholders on the 1.5ºC pathway to minimise the impact to both the planet and people.”


Companies listed on the world’s 14 largest stock indexes between 2015–19 that aligned with the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit global warming to 1.5ºC.


Some businesses have even exceeded this goal. Indeed, as Lund explains, in November 2020 GSK “made a step change” in its environmental policy that not only matched but actually beat the UK government’s targets. “By 2030, New GSK will have a net-zero impact on climate and a net-positive impact on nature, across [the] entire value chain,” she says, adding that GSK has also been accredited for 1.5°C-aligned emissions reduction targets by the Science Based Targets initiative.

To encourage other multinationals to follow suit, the government has sought to support both small and large businesses in adopting a zero-emissions strategy. In May 2021, for example, the prime minister launched the ‘Together for our Planet’ campaign, calling on SMEs “to lead the charge to net zero” by halving emissions by 2030 and eliminating them altogether by 2050. The initiative aims to provide resources for small businesses, making it easier for them to reduce waste and energy usage.

Similarly, in September, Andrew Griffith, the UK’s net-zero business champion, wrote to FTSE100 companies, encouraging them to set net-zero targets and join the Race to Zero campaign. “With around 70 days until the UK-hosted COP26 climate summit, I’ve written to CEOs with a clear message that now is the time to get on board,” he said, explaining that the UK’s largest businesses “have a responsibility to show leadership on climate.”

“Collaboration between government and business has and will continue to be important in building new thinking and spurring action. COP26 is the next exciting opportunity to collaborate and we are delighted to support the UK government with the conference.”


The percentage of global electricity GSK generates using renewables.



UK businesses that have no environmental sustainability policy.

British Chambers of Commerce and SUEZ

Sea change

Despite these attempts to encourage change, and the successes so far, it’s clear that businesses are still lagging behind – but why?

It seems there is still a lack of understanding in terms of both the urgency of the climate crisis and what ‘sustainability’ means. Research published in September, by the British Chambers of Commerce and water and wastewater management company SUEZ, found that 64% of UK businesses surveyed have no environmental sustainability policy, while 82% think ‘environmental sustainability’ comprises only recycling and reuse of materials.

“With just two months until the UK hosts COP26 the time is ripe for a sea change in approach to make environmental and social policies a core part of UK business strategy,” explained John Scanlon, CEO of SUEZ. Scanlon argues that “businesses are looking to government for a supportive regulatory framework” and that “there is a clear need for top-down support”.

The same month, that sentiment was echoed by a letter to Boris Johnson signed by around 100 UK businesses across a range of sectors, including BT, Unilever, Tesco, the National Grid and Heathrow Airport. “A successful summit that achieves the UK presidency’s goals requires strong UK leadership combining effective diplomacy with credible outcomes, including international solidarity with countries lacking the resources to tackle these challenges alone,” the letter said. “The countdown to COP26 gives you a limited window to show such leadership.”

The UK’s ‘Together for our Planet’ initiative aimed to engage businesses, civil society groups, schools and people in the run up to the summit.

Lund agrees that businesses are only one piece of the puzzle, and that collaboration is vital: “No government or business can deliver climate targets alone. We must work closely to develop ambitious and achievable targets, backed by supportive commercial and industrial policy.” Lund cites the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest (LEAF) coalition as a key example of “an exciting approach between business and government”. GSK joined the initiative in April, which aims to raise $1bn to become one of the largest public-private efforts to help protect tropical forests.

Lund also notes that “what is really important is the ‘right’ partnerships being developed, not necessarily the number of partnerships. And these partnerships can take many forms, whether that’s with government, within a business sector or across multiple industries.”

“Businesses must continue working with governments to find policies and strategies that support [them] in achieving sustainability goals,” she adds. “Governments need to understand the science, develop the insights and work with business to back action. In doing so, governments can help minimise unintended consequences. At GSK we know we cannot deliver goals by ourselves and are working across our value chain to take action. Governments are a vital part of this.”

All the same, Lund is keen to stress that “aligned goals and transparency” are necessary in order for these partnerships to be successful, and that collaboration should be relevant and have clear aims.

Nevertheless, she believes that we will see increased collaboration between business and government moving forward. “I would expect that the number of partnerships will continue to grow, as recognition of the need to act across business and governments continues to build, and as established partnerships demonstrate that more can be achieved collectively than working alone.”

And as Lund adds, COP26 is a clear example of what can be achieved: “Collaboration between government and business has and will continue to be important in building new thinking and spurring action. COP26 is the next exciting opportunity to collaborate and we are delighted to support the UK government with the conference.”