An Audience with UN Climate Action Champion Nigel Topping

The Centre for Climate Engagement (CCE) supported a three-day visit to the University of Cambridge by Nigel Topping, the UN High Level Champion for Climate Action, to showcase the range of research and initiatives supporting the zero-carbon transition as part of Cambridge Zero. Nigel marked the first day of his visit by addressing an audience of students at Hughes Hall, home to CCE, where he spoke about his role as UN Champion for Climate Action, solving the brutally complex climate crisis and the opportunities and challenges from COP26.

 “Tackling the climate crisis is a wicked problem that is sometimes seen as beguilingly simple,” said Nigel Topping, UN High Level Champion for Climate Action to students at the Centre for Climate Engagement event at Hughes Hall. “All we need to do is stop using fossil fuels, and pay the global south so that they can develop beyond reliance on fossil fuels and tackle the adaptation needs. But it’s also the most brutally complex problem in the world because it means transforming the energetic basis of the entire global economy. It’s just as disruptive as the Industrial Revolution, and we have to do it much, much faster.”

Need for non-state actors to address the climate crisis and drive ambition

Explaining his current role, Nigel described how the mandate for the High Level Climate Action Champion for the UN emerged as part of the Paris Agreement in 2015 at COP21, when the UN system comprising 196 countries (now 197) agreed that the climate crisis could not be tackled through government alone. “It required non-state actors, including large and powerful businesses such as Apple and Amazon, as well as banks and investors that also hold more sway than many nation states. It required sub-national governments along with cities such as Mexico City and Tokyo that are huge economies with their own regulatory power and cultural momentum – but had no seat at the table.”

The role of High Level Champion was created to work alongside the UN negotiating system that requires consensus on detail between nearly 200 countries. The Champion-led system operates differently to drive ambition and action among non-state actors in support of parties and countries implementing the Paris Agreement supporting the three pillars of mitigation, resilience and finance.

Putting science front and centre of COP

Appointed High Level Champion ahead of Glasgow’s COP26, Nigel worked with the Chilean (COP25) High Level Climate Action Champion, Gonzalo Muñoz, a systems change entrepreneur who Nigel described as “trying to change the whole DNA of businesses and embed purpose, with profit at the heart of the business enterprise”. Gonzalo’s 2019 appointment ahead of COP25 in Santiago, Chile, was timely following the failure by parties at COP24 in Poland (December 2018) to agree upon the science presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) report outlining the consequences of 1.5 degrees, published in October of the same year.

With only months to go before COP25, Gonzalo was instrumental in putting this science front and centre, winning the agreement of the non-state actors to publish a pathway to 1.5 degrees for every sector of the global economy. These pathways were welcomed and endorsed by the parties at COP25, which took place in Madrid following protests in Santiago, Chile, where COP25 was due to hosted. The dynamics between the tightly negotiated consensus process, where people refuse to agree a higher-level ambition, and a loosely defined, more dynamic, arm’s length process, where that higher level of ambition was codified, proved fruitful. “Even those countries who are recalcitrant, or the anchors to ambition in the formal process, recognise that that formal process alone can never be enough to solve the problem, and welcome that kind of innovation and dynamism from outside,” said Nigel. “Everyone recognises that we need something that is going to allow more innovation and to stretch the boundaries of what people think is possible.”

Three pillars of Paris Agreement: mitigation, resilience and finance

The work of the Champions catalysed the launch of three global campaigns supporting the pillars of the Paris Agreement: Race to Zero, to commit all actors to Net Zero by 2050 or sooner (with actions in the short-term to be on a path to halving emissions by 2030); Race to Resilience, to secure the resilience of 4 billion people by 2030; and the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), a coalition of existing and new Net Zero finance initiatives led by Mark Carney, who was appointed Special Envoy on Climate Change and Finance to the UN Secretary General António Guterres in 2019. Nigel brought focus to the importance of not overlooking resilience to “address the vulnerability of the communities that are most impacted by climate change now, and in the future – smallholder farmers, the urban poor and coastal dwellers. Of course, that’s not a description of every single bit of adaptation and resilience, but if you want to actually run a campaign and get people to step up to action, at some point, you’ve got to simplify the complexity of the wicked problem.”

 COP26 – a complete failure or overwhelming success?

“You can legitimately read COP26 as a runaway success or a complete failure. Let me explain why I think you can do that,” said Nigel, who described each scenario and why it is essential to keep both in sight. “If you see a still photograph of the state of the world’s action on climate change at the end of Glasgow, it’s a disaster. We’ve known about the science of this for decades, yet the emissions are still going up. The commitment from the global north to the global south made in 2009 for $100 billion a year still hasn’t been delivered. Yes, there are more promises, but you can’t believe people who made promises, because they’re governments and businesses. This is a very strong interpretation of what happened in Glasgow, where all commitments are dubious, it’s all greenwashing and the agenda is still being hijacked by the oil industry lobby. And there’s a legitimacy to that view because the greenwashing does exist, because promises have been broken, and because the trajectory we’re on is still not getting us to 1.5 degrees.”

However, Nigel said there is another view. “If you look at the movie and the development over time, you see something very different. The track we were on before Paris was completely catastrophic – after Paris, less so. There’s been a significant increase in ambition in the system. You could say that the Paris Agreement is working because the Paris ratchet was specifically designed to break away from the fanciful idea that you can get nearly 200 countries to agree everybody’s target individually. That failed for 20 COPs because it’s just mind blowing in its complexity. Paris broke that deadlock. Remarkably, that ratchet is working – the sovereign nations make their best plan and agree the overall goal and then the non-state actors require those nations to come up with a more ambitious target every year. It’s not perfect, it hasn’t gone far enough, but if you look at where we were, it’s working.”

He also pointed out that the detailed rulebook of Paris, which was required to be completed, was finalised in Glasgow: “This has swept away a whole backlog of difficult technical conversations, which means solutions can now become the main focus.”

Two truths must be held together

These two truths and different perspectives Nigel said, must be held together: “Believing only that COP26 is a complete failure leads to the counsel of despair and giving up hope. If you believe it’s only a runaway success, you have similarly dysfunctional responses. Thinking it’s all taken care of leads to apathy – and it certainly isn’t all taken care of. It’s a decision that guarantees failure.” The real situation, he said, combines both perspectives: “There’s real acceleration in momentum, problems are being solved, and there is much more ambition and urgency. We’re not, by a very long way, on the trajectory which gets us to 1.5 degrees in a resilient way. There’s lots of very valid reasons for scepticism, which means that holding those accountable to their commitments is going to be really important.”

Proving sceptics wrong

Nigel spoke of the important role of scepticism, citing the speech by climate activist Vanessa Nakate when she addressed delegates at COP26. “Those are the words that are most seared in my memory coming out of Glasgow. She said she did not trust all the pledges and promises – but she pleaded to ‘prove us wrong,’” he said. “My job for the next eight months in this role is to prove that legitimate voice of scepticism wrong, and make sure that the movie keeps running so that the momentum eventually meets the size of the challenge – and the need for us to act much, much faster to get to a resilient Net Zero future.”

Emily Farnworth, Co-Director of the Centre for Climate Engagement, opened the Q&A session by asking what he hoped the audience would take away from the event. Noting that many of the students in the audience would one day be in positions of influence, Nigel said he hopes they are prepared for lives of impact to meet the needs of society and to solve problems to make a better world for everyone.

Looking to the future

Questions from students highlighted a range of topics, including: identifying agency for solving issues of climate change, effective forms of activism to generate political will to fulfil promises, mechanisms of accountability, capabilities of clean deployment paths, inequalities of climate impacts and solutions for resilience. Considering interventions to change systems and address wicked problems, Nigel described our present time as “living through the consequences of transgressing several system boundaries”. Closing his address to the students, Nigel looked to the future: “On the one hand, I would encourage you all to be really, really patient. And on the other hand, to know that you’re going to have a life of working on wicked problems. I think it’s much more exciting to be working on a collective project, which is not just about self-enrichment, but a map making the world a better place. I know that most of you are already working on being part of the solution to the wicked problem, and I wish you all the best of luck – because we need all hands and minds on deck.”

Thanking Nigel for addressing the students, Dr Ron Zimmern, Chair and Co-Founder of the Centre for Climate Engagement, said: “Nigel’s talk was ’spot on,’ and I thought greatly inspiring for the students. He stressed their importance, and how it would be them, not the likes of us, who would be taking the lead in future years.  He is so right. Yes, there can be two ways of looking at the success of COP26 (or otherwise) but I am an optimist, and look forward to future COPs building on the success of Glasgow.”

Emily Farnworth, Co-Director of the Centre for Climate Engagement, who hosted Nigel’s three-day visit to the University of Cambridge, said: “We were delighted that Nigel was able to learn more about the broad range of work that is happening as part of the Cambridge Zero initiative. It was a great opportunity to engage with colleagues doing amazing work on climate mitigation, resilience, nature-based solutions and technology innovation. It was especially inspiring to hear directly from Nigel at our event at Hughes Hall – we have certainly taken away some great ideas to develop our engagement with boards as we move towards COP27.”