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8 November 2021

Nigel Topping: “There is some bulls**t. But to label everything as greenwash is nonsense”

The UN’s high-level climate champion explains the “ambition loop” that is driving climate action from business.

By Philippa Nuttall

With his #ShowYourStripes tie and mask, and blue and orange runners, Nigel Topping stands out from the crowd. The day before I interviewed him at Cop26, Topping followed former US presidential candidate Al Gore on to the stage wearing bright red socks. On a grey and rainy Saturday morning (6 November), when most of us should still be in bed, the colour, and Topping’s enthusiasm about climate action, is infectious.

Topping has the prestigious title of UN high-level climate champion, an honour he shares with Gonzalo Muñoz, a Chilean sustainable business entrepreneur. The role was created under the Paris Agreement to help encourage businesses, cities and investors to reduce emissions and move towards net zero. Topping was appointed to the role in January 2020 by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as host of Cop26. 

When I asked exactly what his job entails, Topping laughed and referred me to Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, who in his book, The Great Derangement, apparently pokes fun at the creation of this role, asking what these “mythical creatures” had done to be appointed as “champions”. What Topping had done was show solid credentials as a sustainable business expert – he was previously CEO of the We Mean Business coalition, executive director of the Carbon Disclosure Project, and worked in the private sector for nearly 20 years.

The day before we spoke, Greta Thunberg had told an enraptured Fridays for Future audience in Glasgow that Cop26 was a “corporate greenwash festival” rather than a climate conference. “There is some bulls**t,” said Topping. “There is greenwash, but to label everything greenwash is not true. You have to be more forensic otherwise you throw the baby out with [the] bathwater. You have to be sophisticated… and not just label everything as nonsense otherwise it is very difficult to make progress.” 

Just like governments, some companies are really ambitious and some are lagging behind on climate action, said Topping. But, in general, “We are seeing real leadership from the private sector that was unthinkable a couple of years ago.” Topping described an “ambition loop that is playing out in real time”, where governments and businesses are pushing each other forward to bigger and better pledges on climate action.

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The biggest change, he said, is that companies no longer see climate action as a cost or an opportunity, but simply as “an inevitability”. Youth activists, regulators, mayors, technologies, consumers and suppliers are all pointing in the same direction, said Topping. “You would be mad as a CEO not to read that, you don’t have to be a soothsayer to see that redirection, it is screaming at you.”

While he believes “system change” is happening, it is a move to a different form of capitalism rather than a total overthrow of the status quo. “I haven’t seen anyone make an intelligent suggestion for an overthrow of the capitalist system and an alternative,” said Topping. “We know capitalism is very good at certain things and it is up to society to decide what the goals are.

“We are leaving a period of unfettered greed and a slightly myopic belief in the power of capitalism and dribble-down economics, and realising that society can decide we want an economy that operates within plenary boundaries and is more distributive,” he suggested. Looking at the “human transition and some of the inequalities that climate change drives into focus” will be key to Cop26 discussions this week.

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Despite his optimism, Topping is clear the pace of change needs to speed up. The world’s slow reaction to climate change is not just a “failure of imagination” as Ghosh would have it, but also “a failure of self-confidence”, said Topping.

“We are unbelievably innovative as a species when we put our mind to something,” he added, citing John F Kennedy’s “moonshot” ambitions. “People thought he was nuts,” said Topping. Almost none of the technology to land on the moon existed and mathematicians were at a loss how to calculate the trajectory of the spaceflight. “JKF said, ‘I don’t care, fix it.’” We should take a similar position on climate action, instead of the “defensive stance” adopted in the face of negative lobbying. “We need more imagination and boldness to set goals about where we want to get.”

And market forces will also enable faster progress, bringing down the costs of new technology, as has happened with solar and wind power, which are now cheaper than fossil fuels in most of the world. 10 November is transport day at Cop26. Topping hopes it is the day the world agrees to end its love affair with the internal combustion engine. The future is a few people reminiscing about cars running on petrol and diesel, the way “grandfathers in flat caps” meet at weekends to discuss the past merits of coal-fired steamrollers, he said.

It won’t be without difficulty. Any big transition means “risks and opportunities”, and we need to “be careful of unintended consequences”, said Topping. A rapid move to electric vehicles must not mean dumping combustion engines in developing countries. At the same time, “We should be careful not to fall into the old trap of assuming that technology transitions have to happen 20 years later in developing countries,” he noted. He cited the example of mobile banking in Kenya, which is “more sophisticated than it is here in the UK or in Manhattan”.

Behavioural change is largely absent from the negotiations in Cop26, even if there are plenty of calls for it on the streets – Friday and Saturday (5-6 November) saw big climate protests in Glasgow. Topping believes companies can also help with this. Walmart and Ikea selling energy-efficient LEDs, instead of incandescent light bulbs, “helped choice edit the consumer” to adopt new purchasing habits that became “normal over time”, said Topping. The same change is already happening with food, he believes.

“We are seeing a dietary shift before our eyes,” said Topping, with, for instance, McDonald’s launching a plant-based burger and Sainsbury’s putting alternative meats in the meat aisle. Such actions are “mainstreaming” different behaviour. “It means you are not a strange alternative-meat person who needs to go to the corner for your special collection.”

[See also: “More optimistic, less pessimistic”: Laurent Fabius on Cop26]

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