The UN Climate Change High-Level Champion for the COP26 summit in the UK sets out how the private and public sectors can work together to tackle the climate crisis and other systemic threats. Words by Miles Costello.

Read this article to understand:

  • The three rules that can help deliver the transition to a net-zero future
  • How being more ambitious on net zero could be a competitive advantage for countries and companies
  • Why applying a Marshall Plan-type approach to the climate crisis would be a “massive non-zero-sum-game” for the global economy

Nigel Topping is the UN Climate Change High-Level Champion appointed by Boris Johnson just over a year and a half ago in the run-up to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. His job has been to mobilise businesses, investors, cities, regions and other non-state actors behind bigger and faster efforts to tackle the climate crisis, showing governments the real economy is already speeding towards a resilient zero-emission economy by 2050.

While High-Level Champion, Topping was also named as an independent director at the government-owned UK Infrastructure Bank that launched in June 2021. He particularly enthuses about this because of its goal of channelling public to leverage private finance together in the drive to achieve a net-zero carbon economy.

Topping’s approach is rooted in his understanding of maths, which he studied to master’s level at the University of Cambridge during the mid-to-late 1980s, followed by a second master’s degree in holistic science from Schumacher College in Devon nearly two decades later. These underpin his belief in the power of systems, or the science of patterns and their underlying rules.

His life in between consisted of a prolonged period in industry, including as a senior consultant at Lucas Industries, a parts manufacturer for the automotive and aerospace sectors, and a member of the management board at TMD Friction, the world’s largest maker of brake pads.

Topping is also the former chief executive of We Mean Business, a coalition of businesses committed to halving emissions by 2030, and a one-time executive director of the CDP (formerly known as the Climate Disclosure Project), a charity that helps businesses and cities report their environmental impact.

“There’s something beautiful about solving problems and finding patterns. Although I did maths at Cambridge, I was never interested in going into the international financial system. I wanted to work in something concrete. My father is a civil engineer. It’s why I went into industry; it’s real people making real things, not like finance, where no-one makes anything,” he says.

Three rules for transformation

Topping has laid out three “rules” he believes, if they are followed by all players in each of the world’s systems, can help transform those underlying patterns and ensure a successful transition to a zero-carbon future.

First, he says, we must “harness ambition loops”. This means locking in the positive effects of bold climate commitments, with policy measures such as tax breaks and subsidies to forward-thinking businesses, which in turn fosters invention.

Next, we must “set exponential goals”, Topping says, arguing history shows that, while the early stages of a transforming development might be slow going, progressively lower costs and increased innovation ensures growth quickly becomes more rapid over time.

The third rule is to “follow shared pathways” or ensure everyone involved takes the required action so as to reach net zero in time to limit global warming.

The three rules are so seductively simple and appetisingly ambitious, it’s tempting to argue we need a paradigm shift in the world’s thinking, away from the conventions of capitalism, economics and politics.

Those rules, many of which don’t serve the goal of reaching net zero and limiting climate change, are gradually being changed as part of the transition process, Topping says. And “externalities”, or consequences of our actions for which we’ve not taken responsibility, are slowly being brought on board.

We’re not moving quickly enough. It is clear the pace of change has to accelerate

But there’s a problem. We’re not moving quickly enough. In the UK, for example, the government has laid out a bold set of climate targets, but is failing to deliver with policy implementation. It is not currently on track to enact its “green industrial revolution” in time for the 2050 deadline, according to the independent Climate Change Committee’s most recent report in June. It is clear the pace of change has to accelerate.

“What we’re not doing yet is driving the feedback loop between the public and the private sector – or the ambition loop as I call it – which builds confidence on going faster and faster. In Denmark, they have it built into law now as they have to update their policies every year, and they do that in consultation with the private sector. That’s building confidence.”

Race to the top

There is evidence some governments are beginning to ratchet up their efforts to accelerate the transition process, which in Topping terms would help feed into his idea of harnessing the ambition loop.

There is also an increased drive among business to move more swiftly, which should help to feed into the same virtuous circle of Topping’s ambitions. He is a commissioner on the Energy Transition Commission, whose 2018 report Mission Possible, he argues, “flipped the paradigm”.

We’ve got sectoral collaborations figuring out what the roadmap is and de-risking the transition

“So now we’ve got sectoral collaborations figuring out what the roadmap is and de-risking the transition. That is emboldening for policymakers, which changes the conditions for the laggards to realise they are going to have to change.”

Moreover, consumers – or as Topping would rather describe them, citizens - have an important part to play.

“Citizens have a huge role. You see that with citizen activists. They’ve changed the politics of this country because politicians have seen the level of [feeling]. They may have gone too far in some cases, but they’ve definitely made politicians aware there’s a mass wrong. And the fact people are buying electric vehicles way faster than anyone thought possible a few years ago is a signal to policymakers and to market participants to have more confidence in investing in that transition.”

But there are other, concrete measures that can be taken now, including greater collaboration between the public and private sectors. Topping believes the UK should jettison its fear of “private sector policy capture”, or big business gaining too much influence over government policy.

A Marshall Plan for the planet

“What we need – which is why the GFANZ work in mobilising finance in emerging markets is so important – is global Marshall Plan-type thinking,” says Topping. (GFANZ stands for Global Financial Alliance for Net Zero and is a coalition of financial institutions that aims to speed up the decarbonisation of the economy.)

We know the world economy will be much bigger when we solve for a resilient net-zero climate everywhere

“We know the world economy will be much bigger when we solve for a resilient net-zero climate everywhere. But there will also be much less conflict in the world if we invest in that because we will be partners in development and growth around the world rather than enemies. And you have to say that global geopolitics doesn’t look very collaborative at the moment, which is why the mechanism of the Paris Agreement is still a miracle of multilateralism and our biggest hope for driving that kind of change.

“It’s difficult, but we’ve done things like this before; we have the scientific evidence; we all agree we have to get to net zero now. We also have the economic evidence doing this together is way better. It’s a massive non-zero-sum game.”

Miles Costello is a multi-award-winning writer and journalist.

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