Ep43: Nigel Topping 'Racing to Zero'

“Climate justice is at the heart of the geopolitics of climate change and there's plenty of work to be done there”: Nigel Topping on COPs, climate change and electrification.


In this episode of Cleaning Up, Michael Liebreich is joined by Nigel Topping, the High-Level Champion for Climate Action at the upcoming COP 26 in Glasgow.

The conversation covers the importance of the Paris Agreements, how Nigel came to the climate cause, the importance of electrification, and his views on the forthcoming COP in Glasgow.

This is an abridged transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity.


Michael Liebreich: Nigel, thank you for joining me on Cleaning Up. You are a High-Level Climate Action Champion for COP 26. Can you tell the audience what does that mean?


Nigel Topping: The role was created as part of the Paris Agreement five years ago, in recognition by the parties to the UN Climate Convention that this is such a big deal that countries can't do it on their own, and that they wanted somebody to be working, in parallel to the multilateral process, to drive what they call non state actors: mainly private sector, local government and civil society. So everyone who's not got a seat at the table, to raise their ambition and drive action and in so doing support faster action by the countries. So  my job is to generally to push everyone to go faster.


ML: You have been to almost a dozen COPs – can you talk about the one in Paris and how it changed climate policy?


NT: There are a few genius bits of the Paris architecture. One is the flipping from 196 countries trying to negotiate everybody else's fair share to bottom-up. I know Christiana Figueres, who led the talks, didn't expect to have anything like the number of national plans turn up in time, but it was strange, in a weird way, it looked like a lowering of ambition, but it was actually  an empowering of ambition.

The other thing was the welcoming of the non-state actor community into the conversation, which changed the dynamic. Third, there are redundancies built into the Paris Agreement. For example, there's not just the bottom-up nature, there's the ratchet. So, you get to have a second and a third attempt. But also, if the politics of a country mean you can't improve in the short-term, you also must submit a long-term strategy, which seems to have different politics, it's very cleverly constructed to be quite robust against the normal cycles of politics, Donald Trump notwithstanding.

A year after the talks were concluded, I wrote that in 30 years’ time, if the Paris Agreement is successfully implemented, and the ratchet process keeps going, then we'll look back on the Paris Agreement as the greatest ever treaty between nation states.


ML: What about the upcoming COP 26 in Glasgow? Why is it so important?


NT: Well, even a normal COP 26, without COVID, would have been exceptional, because it's the fifth COP after Paris, and Paris set up this five-yearly promise review ratchet process. There's so much attention on Glasgow because it's the first real test of the Paris Agreement. That's with or without COVID.


ML: I think that Glasgow is already a success because you've got all of these net zero pledges that cover something like 80% of the global economy by 2060. If that gets translated into nationally determined contributions, which is just the kind of the delivery of a report, then it's going to be a huge success, because it is so far beyond even Paris.


NT: Remember most countries self-identify as climate vulnerable. The climate injustice aspect of, ‘we didn't cause it, you did’, is important. ‘We’re suffering from it more than you are’, is at the heart of climate politics, which is why things like the commitments on finance and action on resilience are as important to many countries, more important than net zero. So, I think it's possible that this is a net zero COP, but not a success because of that. I think you're right that we're making huge progress in terms of net zero becoming a North Star. I mean, the question really is are the short term plans up to that ambition. But for most countries who are parties to the Paris Agreement, it's about more than net zero. It's also about finance and resilience.


ML: Will there be some other countries, aside from the big economies who might be on track, running around saying, ‘it's not enough and it's not legally binding, and nobody wrote me a cheque’?


NT:  If you think about the context we have in terms of COVID vaccine diplomacy and fiscal pressure on a lot of middle income and least developed countries, think how well the global system is coming together in solidarity in what is effectively a post-war moment, economically now,  do we have the equivalent of a Marshall Plan approach to refloating the whole economy? Or do we have a bifurcation?


ML: Nigel, before your role at COP, before your move into the climate arena, to CDP and WeMeanBusiness, you had a successful career in the automotive sector. What happened to you in 2007? I mean, was this just an epiphany on environmental challenges?


NT: Two things really. One, I've always been an outdoorsman with a particular fascination for the polar regions, so I spent a lot of time climbing and ski touring in Iceland, Greenland, and Patagonia, as a young man. In 1987 I came across the stark impacts of climate change when I was supposed to be doing some scientific work on the snout of a glacier, which wasn't where it should have been. It had retreated by 20 kilometers. To come to a point on the map, where a massive object like a five-kilometer-wide glacier is not there and it’s just water. That was an epiphany.

Then in 2006 I was on the executive committee of TMD Friction, working closely with the CEO and when the CEO and the Chair decided to part company, I went with the CEO. I spent some time thinking. And then that brought the environmentalist, or the wilderness lover in me. I kept meeting environmentalists who kept saying ‘business is the problem’. And I was like ‘really?’ … everything that you're using to run your campaigns is produced by business. So, I don't think business is a problem. I think maybe the way that we're directing the markets is the problem. I'm really fascinated by how markets can serve society rather than the other way round. So that's how I ended up doing this work.


ML: This episode of Cleaning Up has been sponsored by Eurelectric, which is the association of all the different players in the European electricity industry. Now, we had Kristian Ruby on Episode 34 and I asked him, what percentage of the world's energy system is going to be electricity? It's currently about 20%. And I was rather surprised that he said 60%, not 100%. There are some people who say electrify everything and make electricity zero carbon. What is your position on that debate?


NT: It’s interesting just how quickly even people who've been experts in sectors for 30 years, given exposure to the facts, can change their minds. One thing I saw with CEOs from power production, grids, hydrocarbon sectors is they realized that we're going to have to electrify the hell out of everything. And that means there's a kind of ‘no regrets’ to building more generating capacity pretty much right now. But also, there's going to be a significant role for green hydrogen, which means more electricity.

Technology will drive that transition faster than people think. But the question is what is that transition? What does it look like? I think it's something we've got to get our collective heads around, I think when making these kinds of transitions, it's really helpful if we have a shared sense of what they are, not just total chaos.

One of my mentors in systems thinking always says, when two intelligent people disagree about something, it's worth paying attention, not just dismissing. So, if you and I disagree about the role of hydrogen, or the role of nuclear, I would want to double click and say what are the assumptions that we're both making? It's the future, it’s uncertain, so, we'll be making different assumptions. I always use the example of telephony where we're used to the idea of generations like 4G to 5G, it seems to me like we need to agree the broad direction for the next generation with no regrets, while still debating, discussing and arguing about the generations beyond that.


ML: Final question: optimistic, pessimistic or neutral on the prospects for COP 26 in Glasgow? And why?


NT: Overall, I’m optimistic for just the sheer amount of momentum on net zero, the politics is lining up, private sector and capital markets are really piling in. My word of caution is about the global politics of climate change. The climate justice question which is at the heart of the geopolitics of climate change, and whether that makes enough progress for this COP to be seen as success, I think that there's plenty of work to be done there still.