COP26 Climate Action Champion Nigel Topping on creating an ‘ambition loop’ for bolder pathways to change

Curbing greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement will require greater action from all stakeholders - policy-makers, cities, regions, businesses, investors and society-at-large.

This article is part of the ISC’s Transform21 series, which features resources from our network of scientists and change-makers to help inform the urgent transformations needed to achieve climate and biodiversity goals.

As momentum builds around the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) that will take place in Glasgow, UK, on 1 – 12 November 2021, we spoke to Nigel Topping, High-Level Climate Action Champion for COP26.

What does your role as High Level Climate Action Champion for COP26 involve?

At the COP 21 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. Countries agreed to create the role of the High Level Champion to connect the work of governments with the work of cities, regions, businesses and investors and society-at-large (referred to collectively as non-state actors) to national efforts. The Champions are appointed for a two-year tenure by the COP’s host government. I work in partnership with Gonzalo Muñoz, 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. We aim to create an ‘ambition loop’ — where the ambition of non-state actors pushes governments to be bolder and more ambitious about their climate action plan, and greater government action creates space for non-state actors to go even further and faster. 

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.

At the heart of our efforts are two campaigns — the Race to Zero (the largest credible alliance of non-state actors coming together to set science-based targets to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 at the very latest) and the Race to Resilience (which aims to galvanise non-state actors to build the resilience of 4 billion people who are vulnerable to climate risks by 2030).

What does the scientific community need to do to ensure that the latest evidence on climate change gets to decision-makers in a useful way?

Scientists have been sounding the alarm on climate for decades. Policy-makers — and other key stakeholders in the fight against climate — need the support of scientists to continue to hold us to account and ensure that our efforts to tackle climate change measure up to the problem. We need to bring more scientists into boardrooms and into the heart of policy making. COVID has shown us just how important science-based policy making is. But the onus isn’t just on scientists. We need industry and policy makers to ensure that climate initiatives are developed in line with the latest scientific advice. The Science-Based Targets Initiative was pioneering in this arena — developing a framework for climate commitments that is rooted in science and evaluated on a regular basis to ensure it is keeping up with latest scientific developments. That’s why the Race to Zero campaign works with science based initiatives — such as the SBTI — to ensure that commitments made by non-state actors hold up to scrutiny and are science-based. 

Scientists — like many of us in the climate community — also need to find new and engaging ways of communicating the evidence to society at large (who often have the ear of decision makers). We have to talk about climate not just as a technical problem — focusing on just greenhouse gas emissions or reductions — but as a human problem that is directly related to health, justice, and the things we cherish as a society. We also need to talk more about the opportunity that tackling the climate crisis presents for us to achieve a fairer, healther society. It’s important to translate technical detail into powerful storytelling that engages the general public.

2021 has been talked about as a ‘window of opportunity’ for action on climate change. What are your priorities for achieving positive change this year? What gives you hope?

Scientists have given us a very clear indication of what we need to do to tackle the climate crisis. We need to achieve a zero carbon resilient economy as soon as possible and in the 2040s at the very latest. To achieve this, we need to prioritise rapid action in three key areas:

  • Mitigation: ensuring we decarbonise our industries and societies as quickly as possible, and in the 2040s at the very latest.
  • Resilience: rallying global support for communities, cities and businesses from all countries to build their resilience to climate shocks and stresses. Many communities are already experiencing the most severe effects of climate change including loss of lives and livelihoods. Millions more are at immediate and near-term risk. 
  • Finance: The transition to a zero carbon, resilient future is going to require a fundamental restructuring of our entire economy and society. Capital will be central to this challenge and opportunity. We need to catalyse the trillions of dollars required to fund this transition and the financial sector globally has a massive role to play.  

On each of these topics, there is a lot of work to do. We’ve made progress but it is not enough — and we need to ensure that we continue to shift from targets to implementation. I’m encouraged by the increasing ambition that we see from governments all over the world. At the US-hosted Leaders Summit on Climate in April, the US unveiled its goal to cut emissions by 50-52% and decarbonise the US economy by 2050, while Japan and Canada followed suit in raising their pledges. We applaud these increased commitments and need others in the industrialised world to follow suit. We also need to ensure that we move quickly from bold targets into implementation. 

I’m also encouraged by the pace of activity in the private sector and in wider society. Young people have been leaders in this movement — going out onto the streets to demand immediate action. Alongside this, growing numbers of businesses and investors from a range of sectors continue to set ambitious targets for rapid decarbonisation and building resilience. We need radical collaboration from all of society — from government to the private sector to young people — to create the transformation needed to accelerate the transition to a zero carbon resilient future. 

Nigel Topping

Nigel Topping
UN High Level Climate Action Champion for COP26

Nigel Topping is the UN’s High-Level Climate Action Champion, appointed by the UK Prime Minister in January 2020. Nigel works alongside the Chilean High-Level Climate Action Champion, Gonzalo Muñoz. The role of the high-level champions is to strengthen collaboration and drive action from businesses, investors, organisations, cities, and regions on climate change, and coordinate this work with governments and parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Nigel was most recently CEO of We Mean Business, a coalition of businesses working to accelerate the transition to a zero carbon economy. Prior to that he was Executive Director of the Carbon Disclosure Project, following an 18 year career in the private sector, having worked across the world in emerging markets and manufacturing.


Photo by Nuno Marques on Unsplash.

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