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How to turn climate ambitions into reality: Q&A with Nigel Topping

  • 2020 was supposed to be a landmark year for taking stock on climate and biodiversity commitments and determining how societies move forward to address the world’s most pressing problems. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic intervened, leading to the postponement or cancellation of many events, including the 26th United Nations climate conference (COP26).
  • But while COP26’s delay may have stalled government to government negotiations at national levels, it didn’t prevent the parties from advancing efforts to address climate change, including the push to connect government targets with initiatives by sub-national governments, cities, companies, and civil society groups.
  • To lead on this latter front, Gonzalo Munoz and Nigel Topping were appointed as High Level Climate Action Champions for the upcoming conference: “Our role is quite literally to champion the ambition and actions taken by non-state actors in addressing climate change. This means that Gonzalo and I work with partners across the world – cities, states and regions, businesses, investors, and civil society groups – to raise the awareness of, ambition for, and levels of action being taken to address climate change.”
  • Topping spoke about these issues and more during a January 2021 conversation with Mongabay Founder Rhett A. Butler.

2020 was supposed to be a landmark year for taking stock on climate and biodiversity commitments and determining how societies move forward to address the world’s most pressing problems. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic intervened, leading to the postponement or cancellation of many events, including the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which was pushed back a full year.

But while COP26’s delay may have stalled government to government negotiations at national levels, it didn’t prevent the event’s organizers and stakeholders from advancing efforts to address climate change, including the push to connect government targets with initiatives by sub-national governments, cities, companies, and civil society groups. To lead on this latter front, the host governments of COP25 and COP26 appointed Gonzalo Munoz and Nigel Topping as High Level Climate Action Champions for the upcoming conference. This means Munoz and Topping are charged with rallying concrete action on climate by “non-state actors”.

“Our role is quite literally to champion the ambition and actions taken by non-state actors in addressing climate change,” Topping told Mongabay during a January 2021 interview. “This means that Gonzalo and I work with partners across the world – cities, states and regions, businesses, investors, and civil society groups – to raise the awareness of, ambition for, and levels of action being taken to address climate change.”

Topping, who became the U.K. High Level Climate Action Champion in early 2020, has a lot of experience working at the nexus between business and climate policy. From the mid-2000s to 2014, he worked at the Carbon Disclosure Project (now CDP), which helped companies determine and disclose their greenhouse gas emissions, before joining the We Mean Business coalition as CEO, where he worked with the some of world’s largest and most influential businesses to take action on climate change.

Nigel Topping

In his new role, Topping started working with the Marrakech Partnership — “a global alliance of more than 320 major initiatives and coalitions” — to roll out the Climate Action Pathways, a set of milestones that aim to achieve the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

“These set out the near- and long-term milestones for limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5°C in key sectors of the global economy,” Topping said. “Collectively, they provide a blueprint to coordinate climate ambition among cities, regions, businesses and investors in the run up to COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021.”

He’s also working with the Science Based Targets Network, which translates science into specific action-oriented guidance for cities and companies, and played a central role in the launch of the 1.5°C Business Playbook, which lays out a framework for enterprises to accelerate the transition to a zero carbon economy. He says there is plenty of evidence showing the transition to a zero carbon economy will be beneficial both to people and the planet.

“Research has shown again and again that tackling climate change will enable us to create millions of good, sustainable jobs, prevent premature deaths by tackling air pollution – saving billions in health costs as a result – as well as helping to conserve our natural environment,” he said.

For that reason, he believes the transition to a new economy should be something that bridges the current political divides around some environmental issues.

“Environmental issues are not polarizing when we instead see them as human issues, affecting our health, our finances, our families. We need to better communicate how these issues impact each and every individual, which is why we need everyone – from government, businesses, and civil society – to work together in new and ambitious ways, and I think that includes across the political divide as well,” he said.

“These are not – or rather should not – be partisan issues, but key social benefits that we can all work towards together. We may all disagree about how we want to get there, but I think we can agree that a healthy, resilient, net zero future is where we should be headed. And that’s a good starting point.”

Topping spoke about these issues and more during a conversation with Mongabay Founder Rhett A. Butler.

AN INTERVIEW WITH NIGEL TOPPING

Mongabay: 2020 was supposed to be a landmark year for taking stock on climate and biodiversity commitments and determining how societies move forward to address the world’s most pressing problems. In that capacity, you were appointed by the UK Government as its High Level Climate Action Champion. What does that role entail? And how has that changed with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Nigel Topping: At the COP 21 United Nations climate change conference in Paris in 2015, governments agreed that mobilizing stronger and more ambitious climate action was urgently required to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. To connect the work of governments with the work of cities, regions, businesses and investors (referred to collectively as non-state actors), nations decided to appoint two high-level champions. The champions are appointed by the governments of the countries hosting the most recent COPs (Conference of the Parties), so I work in partnership with Gonzalo Munoz, the High Level Climate Action Champion for COP25 in Chile.

Our role is quite literally to champion the ambition and actions taken by non-state actors in addressing climate change. This means that Gonzalo and I work with partners across the world – cities, states and regions, businesses, investors, and civil society groups – to raise the awareness of, ambition for, and levels of action being taken to address climate change.

Crucially, we have been working with the Marrakech Partnership – a global alliance of more than 320 major initiatives and coalitions – to launch the Climate Action Pathways. These set out the near- and long-term milestones for limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5°C in key sectors of the global economy. Collectively, they provide a blueprint to coordinate climate ambition among cities, regions, businesses and investors in the run up to COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021.

Redwood forest in California. Photo credt: Rhett A. Butler

Covid has shaken our normality to its core, and shone a light on the implications of our continued encroachment on nature and our natural boundaries. But the Covid pandemic has  also highlighted the urgency of climate action, and this has been reflected in the results of 2020. Net zero commitments doubled in 2020 from non-state actors, and many of the world’s major companies – from Ford to Facebook – have stepped up during this time of crisis to commit to our zero carbon future so that as we now start the new year, net zero commitments cover nearly 70% of the global economy.

Mongabay: Prior to your appointment as High Level Climate Action Champion, you were CEO of We Mean Business and Executive Director of the Carbon Disclosure Project. How did your career path develop and lead to those roles? And what originally inspired your interest in sustainability?

Nigel Topping: It all started with my love of cold and wild places. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the Arctic, in Greenland, Iceland and Patagonia as a young man on slightly mad climbing trips, and so that’s where my interest in climate change started. Career wise I started off in the private sector working in emerging markets and manufacturing, and after working in industry for over 18 years I did an MSc in Holistic Science at Schumacher College.

Patagonia. Photo credit: Nancy Butler

That’s where it changed for me. After I finished the masters I worked at the Carbon Disclosure Project for about 8 years and then We Mean Business, and now finally as a High Level Climate Action Champion. I really enjoy working in the nexus between business, investment, and policy around climate change, and my background definitely reflects that.

Mongabay: In a recent TED conversation, you argued that the COVID-19 pandemic could accelerate the transition to a more sustainable economy. Can you elaborate on this?

Nigel Topping: The decisions that governments and businesses are making now and in the next year will set the contours of the economy for many years to come. Economic stimulus packages have the opportunity to set us on a green growth trajectory, and we’ve seen a huge appetite for this already across the globe. Not only that, but many have started to wake up to the fact that this money can be made even more effective by tackling climate change and coronavirus simultaneously.

More than 200 central bankers, G20 finance ministers, and top academics from 53 countries agree that many of the most effective solutions to recovering from Covid-19 are those that also reduce carbon emissions, according to Bloomberg. In addition, investment in climate-resilient infrastructure and decarbonization will create new and better jobs in the near term while protecting the economy, and today’s near-zero interest rates make this the perfect time to jump in.

Wind farm. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

We’ve already seen climate action accelerate during 2020 – with South Korea, Japan and China all making laudable net zero emissions commitments, and a round of enhanced NDCs at the Ambition Summit in December – as countries and companies alike have recognized the value in taking action. I look forward to this accelerating exponentially this year.

Mongabay: Research by the Finance for Biodiversity Initiative has indicated that very little of the stimulus money is going to “green” programs and projects. What is the role of the government in driving this transition versus non-state actors leading the charge?

Nigel Topping: Governments play a vital role in determining the direction of public capital to be injected into the economy as part of coronavirus recovery measures and laying out credible pathways to set the direction for corporate action, but they work hand in hand with non-state actors in driving this transition. Green finance – both public and private – is essential to support the transition of the whole economy towards net zero by investing in sustainable infrastructure, funding the innovation and re-engineering of business in all sectors of the economy, and transforming climate risks into strategic opportunities.

Consumers globally are starting to realize that their personal savings, investments, and pensions should be aligned with creating a healthy, resilient recovery, and are looking to the finance sector to take action. Non-state actors – from cities, states, regions, investors and civil society – have really stepped up this year in response. The Net Zero Asset Managers Initiative, for example, launched on 12 December 2020 and has committed over $9 trillion assets under management towards our net zero future, and they’ll soon be joining the Race to Zero. This kind of leadership from non-state actors demonstrates how finance is waking up to the crucial role they can play in driving our net-zero transition.

Mongabay: What is most needed to catalyze such a transition at scale?

Nigel Topping: Radical collaboration is essential to catalyze the transition to the low carbon economy. We need everyone – from government, businesses, and civil society – to work together in new and ambitious ways to accelerate the progress we are seeing in climate action and drive this transition to our zero carbon economy. This type of collaboration that I’m talking about is already starting to take shape around specific challenges that we need to address in this zero carbon transition.

Take Green Hydrogen as an example. In December last year, the world’s biggest green hydrogen project developers and partners came together and launched the Green Hydrogen Catapult to drive a 50-fold scale-up in six years. The initiative aims to drive down costs to below $2 per kilogram, and to transform energy across most carbon intensive industries such as steelmaking and shipping.

The founding partners of this initiative are collaborating to accelerate the necessary technology, component manufacturing and construction advancements, market development and flow of investment. This shows that the bold vision, leadership, and collaboration of businesses can propel green hydrogen and other climate solutions along an exponential growth trajectory to support economic recovery and deep decarbonization much sooner than anticipated.

Mongabay: What role does technology play in this transition?

Nigel Topping: Technology plays a vital role in the transition to our zero carbon economy, and I think what we need to do as a society is really start to back our own abilities to innovate. The transition to Net Zero will occur through exponential change. Exponential, non-linear change has been central to all major shifts in human history. Think of the shift from horse and car to the automobile or from coal power to gas.

Tipping point for coal in UK power generation. UK electricity generation (TWh) from coal and renewables 2000-2017. Image credit: Sharpe & Lenton (2020)
Electric vehicle (EV) market share in a sample of 18 European countries as a function of cost differential expressed as average of equivalent petrol or diesel vehicle minus EV (monthly cost of ownership in euros). Image credit: Sharpe & Lenton (2020)

Like it or not, exponential change is also increasingly how change occurs on our digitally-connected planet of interdependent economies and cross-cutting systems of government. A couple of years ago, organizations like the IEA were predicting that we were going to still be selling internal combustion engines into the 2070s – but now places like the UK and California have said they’re going to be phasing them out by 2035. So the future has come forward by nearly 40 years, driven largely by the research, development and innovations in electric vehicles and battery storage. Technology won’t fix everything – we cannot innovate our way entirely out of climate change – but it plays a crucial role in our race to net zero.

Mongabay: Environmental issues have become highly polarized in some countries. How big an obstacle to progress is political polarization? And what do you see as the best way to navigate this issue?

Nigel Topping: Environmental issues are not polarizing when we instead see them as human issues, affecting our health, our finances, our families. We need to better communicate how these issues impact each and every individual, which is why we need everyone – from government, businesses, and civil society – to work together in new and ambitious ways, and I think that includes across the political divide as well.

Sunset over the Pacific. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

New research has shown again and again that tackling climate change will enable us to create millions of good, sustainable jobs, prevent premature deaths by tackling air pollution – saving billions in health costs as a result – as well as helping to conserve our natural environment. These are not – or rather should not – be partisan issues, but key social benefits that we can all work towards together. We may all disagree about how we want to get there, but I think we can agree that a healthy, resilient, net zero future is where we should be headed. And that’s a good starting point.

Mongabay: In September, you played a central role at the launch of the 1.5°C Business Playbook, which lays out a framework for enterprises to accelerate the transition to a zero carbon economy. Who’s the main audience for this initiative? How’s the response been so far? And can you provide an example of a company that has been a particular standout when it comes to embodying or implementing these ideas?

Nigel Topping: The 1.5°C Business Playbook is for companies of any size who want to take climate action but are unsure of where to start. It is a framework for enterprises to identify value opportunities in their own business and prepare for a transition to this new zero carbon economy. Small, medium and larger companies may find it useful both for strengthening their own strategy and to help in engaging suppliers and setting requirements. Companies with advanced climate strategies that have already joined sector climate initiatives can use it to benchmark their approach and raise ambitions.

Beach in California. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

The response has been really positive, with over 50 partners – including BT, Unilever, IKEA, Nestle, Ericsson and the ICC – supporting the Playbook. This makes it hard to choose a particular standout, as they’ve all demonstrated impressive ambition and enthusiasm in addressing the climate challenge – which I guess is a nice problem to have.

One good example would be BT though. They achieved their first science-based target four years early – cutting the carbon intensity of their operations by 80% in 2016 – but they haven’t stopped there. They made £5.5 billion ($7.5 billion) of their revenue last year from products and services that helped customers avoid using 13 million tonnes of carbon, and they’ve been partnering with suppliers to reduce their emissions and spur innovation. When organizations approach decarbonization holistically like this and going beyond simply reducing the emissions of their operations, that’s when it gets really exciting.

Mongabay: How does We Mean Business relate to the Science Based Targets Network?

Nigel Topping: We Mean Business is a partner of the Science Based Targets Network. We Mean Business is a global nonprofit coalition working with the world’s most influential businesses to take action on climate change, with 7 members. This includes encouraging them to make science based targets, and SBTN translates science into guidance for companies and cities so they can set science-based targets to ensure we remain within all Earth’s limits while meeting society’s needs.

Mongabay: What would you say to young people who are distressed about the current trajectory of the planet?

Nigel Topping: First off, that I understand your distress and frustration. I would be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes feel it myself. But I’ve learned a lot from my friends and colleagues over the years, and especially from the architect of the Paris Agreement Christiana Figueres. Her philosophy of “stubborn optimism” has been a huge help during some of the more frustrating times working on tackling climate change, and I would encourage everyone to take a little bit of her wisdom.

Peyto Lake, Alberta, Canada. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

Secondly, as I’ve already said earlier, I would encourage them to take heart in the power of exponential transformations. We need to back our own ability to innovate, and recognize that the transition to Net Zero will occur through exponential change. Exponential, non-linear change has been central to all major shifts in human history. One of the reasons why it might not feel like it right now is because we’re really bad at predicting exponential, non-linear change – so take heart from our bad mathematics and learn about systems change.

And finally, I would encourage them all to keep going. Some of my most inspiring moments of 2020 were in dialogue with youth activists and climate campaigners. They keep us all going, and hopeful for the future – so I hope to see even more young people participating in Mock COPs, campaigns, and probably a million other ways of tackling climate change that haven’t even been thought of yet.