Press release

Turning targets into action: the CEO agenda beyond COP26

Turning targets into action: the CEO agenda beyond COP26

Bain & Company’s new report highlights four tangible actions for leaders to move towards a sustainable future after COP26

  • November 03, 2021
  • min read

Press release

Turning targets into action: the CEO agenda beyond COP26

LONDON—November 3, 2021—Over the past few years, many companies have set ambitious decarbonisation targets. Now, they are shifting their attention to disciplined delivery. In a new brief from Bain & Company, Beyond COP26: An Action Plan for CEOs, the firm uses its deep expertise in advising sustainability transformations to guide companies on their path to net-zero.  

“Sustainability initiatives have a higher risk of failure than other transformations, meaning the challenge to making it happen is much greater,” said Jenny Davis-Peccoud, co-head of Bain & Company’s global Sustainability & Responsibility practice. “But corporate leaders should not shy away from this challenge. Like many successful transformations in years past, businesses can play a leading role in combatting climate change and overcoming the difficulties of the carbon transition.”

According to Bain’s research, companies looking to meet their climate goals should make the carbon transition integral to their strategy, by embedding sustainability into their business operations, finding ways to monetize investments in carbon reduction and engaging frontline employees in the transition.

Through these findings, the firm has identified four key actions CEOs can take to achieve their sustainability goals:

  1. Make carbon transition a pillar of strategy. Too often, a company’s carbon transition ambitions are formulated as afterthoughts. Instead, they should be a core part of the strategy process, with executives using their sustainability goals to guide their business decisions. This includes where to play, identifying new products or markets that benefit from transition, and how to win, by creating new or prioritizing low-carbon differentiation. These ambitions should then be translated into resource allocation and capability building.
  2. Get more bang for your net-zero buck. Increasingly, companies are pushing their carbon transitions with the same rigor as any other business initiative, which means improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the effort while also measuring and reducing cost. Additionally, this allows companies to find opportunities for monetizing investments in sustainable technologies. As an example, Cemex is selling a range of concrete, Vertua, which contains 70% less embodied carbon and offsets the rest of its emissions to deliver a carbon-neutral product.
  3. Embed carbon transition into the fabric of the business. Even the best strategy and value creation plan will fall flat without the correct supporting practices. Three tactics, in particular, are helping companies through their carbon transitions:
    • Pricing. Internal carbon pricing is becoming mainstream; more than 2,000 companies representing $27 trillion of market capitalization have embraced it. Once carbon is priced, companies consider it like any other cost in their decisions about capex, procurement, and R&D, guiding their portfolio decisions. It is not unusual to see pricing of $50 to $100 or more per ton of CO2 equivalent, with the median of $25 in 2020.
    • Incentives. Linking short-term and long-term incentives to the transition ensures it remains on the agenda. Leading companies have a significant share of variable pay linked to sustainability and deploy these incentives across the organization.
    • Tracking. Leading companies increasingly treat greenhouse gas emissions as they would cost, and they track, report and manage them similarly. Instead of a once-a-year, compliance-driven, Excel-based exercise, companies use the latest software-as-a-system platforms, such as Persefoni, to extract data from their systems and convert activities into precise carbon emissions. This helps them understand their footprint and guides improvement.
  1. Avoid the hourglass effect. Sustainability transformations have a lower success rate than other transformations, with only 7% of these efforts meeting their goals, compared to 12% of all change efforts. This is, in part, due to the hourglass effect, where top management embraces the transition, new workers have chosen their employment based on its sustainability credentials and middle management is left to turn these net-zero goals into tangible results—despite possibly having limited knowledge of the topic or little experience managing trade-off decisions. These workers are also expected to manage revenue, cost and safety in aligning these goals. Leadership teams should bridge this disconnect by simplifying their targets, clarifying trade-offs, and training and educating their employees on how to make good, strategic decisions.

“COP26 is a momentous occasion: the business world is focusing on decarbonisation more than ever before, creating a tremendous opportunity for change,” said Torsten Lichtenau partner and global head of Bain & Company’s Carbon Transition Impact Area. “But moving from targets and promises to actions and results requires bold action and dedication—leading businesses will treat decarbonisation as they would any other business transformation, by setting a robust strategy and plan and preparing for some difficult decisions along the way.”

Editor's Note: To arrange an interview, please contact Aliza Medina at or +44 207 969 6480

About Bain & Company

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Across 65 cities in 40 countries, we work alongside our clients as one team with a shared ambition to achieve extraordinary results, outperform the competition, and redefine industries. We complement our tailored, integrated expertise with a vibrant ecosystem of digital innovators to deliver better, faster, and more enduring outcomes. Our 10-year commitment to invest more than $1 billion in pro bono services brings our talent, expertise, and insight to organizations tackling today’s urgent challenges in education, racial equity, social justice, economic development, and the environment. We earned a platinum rating from EcoVadis, the leading platform for environmental, social, and ethical performance ratings for global supply chains, putting us in the top 1% of all companies. Since our founding in 1973, we have measured our success by the success of our clients, and we proudly maintain the highest level of client advocacy in the industry.