COP28: What are the takeaways for HR Leaders?

COP (Conference of the Parties) is the main decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and this year was held in Dubai.

Each year, COP manages to be controversial, and this year was no different. 

COP28 president, Sultan Al Jaber, who runs the UAE’s state-owned oil company, Adnoc, raised more than a few eyebrows saying that there was no science indicating that phasing out of fossil fuels was needed to restrict global heating to 1.5C.

Great Thunberg lambasted the conference describing it as ‘blah blah blah’.   

Despite the controversy, the conference is undeniably the most significant event of the year relating to sustainability and meaningful change has been actioned at previous COP’s - the Paris Agreement (a legally binding international treaty on climate change) was adopted by 196 Parties at COP21 in Paris back in 2015. 

So what happened this year and what does it mean for employers and HR leaders?

Increased investment in sustainability will continue the growth in green skills

Demand for green skills has been outpacing what the talent market can deliver for some time and between February 2022 and February 2023, LinkedIn job postings requiring at least one green skill have grown by 15.2%.  

One of the key highlights at COP28 was the announcement of large-scale investment commitments – prime minister Rishi Sunak confirming a new £11 billion investment partnership for the Dogger Bank offshore wind farm was just one example. 

Such funding will fuel the need for green skills, both direct and indirect, and HR leaders need to understand what green skills they have in their organisation currently and to develop a talent strategy for 2024 – likely a blend of upskilling, reskilling and external hiring. 

First step for HR leaders: explore internal talent marketplaces such as Gloat and Fuel50 to improve HR’s visibility of skills.

Increased expectations of the private sector will impact HR leaders

Sustainability and environmental policy have historically been primarily on the shoulders of governments and international bodies, but a hot topic at COP28 has been the role that the private sector will need to play in achieving environmental commitments. 

Tokenistic corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives and offsetting projects are no longer going to be sufficient.

Some of this pressure will be passed from C-suite to HR – this could include the creation of teams, new business areas and an increased focus on auditing and optimising employee sustainability propositions (the ESG-aligned commitments and benefits offered to employees). 

First step for HR leaders: audit your employee sustainability proposition.

HR leaders need to wake up to greenwashing

Greenwashing is a form of advertising or marketing spin in which green PR and green marketing are used to persuade consumers that an organisation's products, aims, and policies are more environmentally friendly than they actually are. 

COP28 saw proposed clampdowns on greenwashing and whilst this has typically focused on consumer marketing and ESG investing, it also applies to employer branding. 

Overstating green credentials to employees and potential employees brings, in addition to the moral issues, business risk. 

Read more: Too many businesses still hiding behind green PR

Research suggests that greenwashing can negatively impact employees to the extent that they might consider leaving a company and can also lead to retaliatory response from employees.

Another key trend of 2023 has been the rise of employee activism, as Disney and Netflix amongst others have found. 

First step for HR leaders: analyse employer branding and internal communications, factchecking to ensure accuracy.

HR leaders need to own their personal ESG upskilling

Private sector representation at COP28 continued the trend of CEOs and CFOs owning the ESG agenda with HR leaders almost entirely absent, despite many of the COP28 agenda items being closely related to HR.

If HR leaders are going to have the opportunity to shape and influence ESG in the private sector, increased knowledge is essential. 

Organisations such as Deloitte are ramping up their ESG learning and development (L&D) propositions and HR leaders need to raise the baseline of knowledge in their own teams and the broader workforce. 

First step for HR leaders: ensure that science-based sustainability and climate learning forms part of your L&D proposition.

As COP28 draws to a close, the headlines will fade and the day-to-day operational and challenges risk distracting HR leaders from the more strategic challenges and opportunities that ESG brings. 

However, future-focused HR leaders will use COP28 as an opportunity to elevate the role of HR and action meaningful change.


Tom Lakin is global practice director at Resource Solutions