Nigel Topping is tasked with encouraging businesses and investors to be more ambitious in combating climate change. He speaks with Brunswick climate expert Phil Drew.
Nigel, what’s at stake at COP26? What do you think success will look like?
What’s at stake at Glasgow is really this: Do we as a global community—politicians, businesses, civil society—believe we can together solve the problem of climate change?
The consequences of deciding that we can’t are unlikely to be good. Because if you decide you can’t do something, you normally stop trying. That could inspire a retreat to populism—drawbridge up, anti-globalization—and we could lose five years, when we don’t have a year to lose.
What success will look like is an interesting question. In Paris, it was very simple: “Can we agree on one thing: a treaty to prevent the worst of climate change?” Glasgow is much more complex. There are over 190 countries coming together to negotiate the final details of the Paris rule book. That really matters for businesses, particularly around reporting. If you’re a CFO, you need to know when and how and what format you’re expected to report to capital markets, right? It’s quite geeky, it’s quite detailed, and if it goes wrong, it will be a signal that the multinational system can’t agree with itself even on things that don’t seem too politically charged.
I think success would also be some combination of big sectoral moves—can we get all of the world’s car companies to agree that they’re going to stop producing combustion engines by 2040? We see the UK, the EU, even the US moving in that direction, but can we get a definitive sense that technology of the fossil fuel age is heading for the museum? You could say that across any industry, but automotive is a big one.
I would say also keep an eye out for high-profile moves and announcements from leaders. It’ll be really interesting to see what the likes of Johnson, Modi, Biden, Xi or Macron stand up to launch that are bigger than their individual countries—whether they build coalitions and include the private sector to move the needle. We’ve seen before that leaders like to use this platform to really demonstrate their influence.
Your official job title is linked to Glasgow: “UN High Level Champion for Climate Action for COP26.” What does that mean in practice?
International governance has for a long time been based almost entirely around nation states. Something really interesting happened a little bit before Paris [COP21 in 2015]: The UN system, the 196 countries who came together to forge the Paris Agreement, recognized that nation states alone would unlikely be able to solve a problem of the magnitude of climate change.
They recognized that although only nation states had a seat at the negotiating table, more organizations—like investors, civil society, and cities—would need to be mobilized if we’re to make the transition.
To address that, they created this role of the High Level Champion. It’s an appointed position, and there are always two. I work with the Chilean High Level Champion, Gonzalo Muñoz, to drive ambition and action among non-nation state actors, which have such important roles to play. If you combine the gross revenues of Apple, Walmart and Amazon, for instance, then you’ve got the GDP of more than 100 countries.
When America was pulling out of the Paris Agreement, you saw businesses, investors, cities and states going in a different direction, having their own campaigns. That kept things on track, so to speak.