Nigel Topping: Climate COPs are ‘evolving’ and taking business action ‘much more seriously’

It has now been almost one month since COP27 closed in Sharm El Sheikh. The bulk of the media attention towards the end of the COP was (as expected) on tensions in the negotiations as debates around the final agreement over-ran by almost two full days. There was then much analysis of this final agreement, with widespread welcome for a long-overdue breakthrough on Loss and Damage finance but concern about weakening language on efforts to cut emissions, particularly from energy.

But it bears noting that, as was the case at COP26, attendees saw something of a ‘tale of two COPs’ in Egypt – that of the official negotiating process, and that of the agreements forged and progress posted by non-state actors (NSAs) including cities, NGOs and businesses.

edie’s content editor Matt Mace wrote, post-COP, about the willingness of businesses in the Global North to step up on climate mitigation and show more ambition and action than the text.

But there was undeniably a different mix of businesses on the ground in Egypt, with a different framing of the challenge, Nigel Topping tells edie in an exclusive interview.

He says: “It was a little less fanfare and a little more rolling up of the sleeves to focus on implementation, which is what the Egyptian [Presidency] wanted… there was less emphasis on starting new things and more on building upon initiatives we’d already started.”

‘Together for Implementation’ was notably Egypt’s chosen theme for the COP. The theme speaks to the fact that progress to actually deliver the Paris Agreement’s aims on the ground is off-track, with global emissions rising and international finance flows not scaling as needed. This is feeding a breakdown of trust between nations, as well as between the UN and the general public.

For Topping, the role of NSAs in delivering actions to translate lofty global pledges into action on the ground locally is swiftly becoming recognised at COPs.

He explains: “I think a really important evolution of the COP process is that, previously, they have tended to be very internal looking. It asks what countries can do within the UNFCCC. This year seemed to be a point, in quite a lot of ways, for focus on what needs to happen beyond the UNFCCC. This includes the non-state actors… but also very direct language from countries around the reform of multilateral [development banks].

“I think this is an important evolution; the COP process can, yes, deliver change directly -but it can also influence other things. It is a unique platform whereby all parts of the global system can contribute now, sending signals to other parts of the system.

“Collectively, we’re learning that the UNFCCC cannot solve everything. I’m using less blunt language than Mahmoud [Mohieldin, COP27 High-Level Climate Champion] as someone from the Global South, would use.”

Are energy transition fears founded?

Topping added that, as expected, there was “a more global business presence” than he observed in Glasgow, making for a different framing of the issue. While companies in Europe “have the luxury of focusing on decarbonisation rather than development”, Topping argues, emerging and developing markets must couple economic and social development first and foremost.

“A lot of big deals on green energy, green hydrogen, green ammonia, green shipping, and so on, landed in Egypt and other African nations during COP26 and COP27. More are still coming through. I don’t think you need to label this as within the sustainability community; it is a growth opportunity, it is what will drive development in emerging markets, it is different framing.”

But there were also several notable fossil fuel deals done on the sidelines of the COP. The UK and US laid the foundations for a deal on natural gas, to give one example. Global Witness also sparked the debate about who should be allowed to attend COPs in what capacity, claiming that more than 630 fossil fuel lobbyists were registered for COP27.

Topping is of the opinion that this figure is likely inflated, given that it includes ministers from fossil-exporting nations that are signed up to the UNFCCC, plus representatives from diversified energy companies such as Enel. He also believes that the overarching trajectory of the energy transition is clear due to the rapid scaling of renewables and their falling costs. The International Energy Agency (IEA) concluded earlier this month that renewables will account for 90% of global capacity additions in electricity generation between 2022 and 2027.

Topping told edie: “We’re in the age of the end of coal, albeit that there is still some work to be done. Oil is going to be the next fossil fuel in the spotlight because of the transport revolution. Then, we’ll be talking about when we stop gas. This will vary country by country.

“When you look at Africa, there are only a few countries seriously trying to exploit gas. They know it is the tail end of this industry. There are many more, like the six in the Africa Green Hydrogen Coalition, looking at quite a fast energy transition.

“This is where I think we get it wrong. We keep looking at policies now and status now, when everything is actually changing all the time.”

Focus areas for 2023

While the rush to divest from Russian fossil fuels is feeding increased investment in energy efficiency, renewables and nuclear, there are concerns about the other practicalities of delivering unprecedented global climate action in a recession. Wealthy nations have, since 2009, failed to deliver their committed $100bn to developing nations for climate finance – and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

As Climate Change Committee chair Lord Deben told edie before COP27, now is a time when you really need an abundance of capital and resources to deploy from wealthy to emerging markets. Instead, we’re facing a crunch.

Topping agrees. He says: “People don’t stop investing. There may be a ‘wheat from the chaff’ moment, but those who are really committed through good business plans still have the capital to deploy.

“The situation is, of course, different when you look at debt-stressed emerging markets. This is more of a concern. The public finance needed to create the right environment and to co-invest in early-stage projects is going to be harder to come by.”

“I see the evidence of, if anything, a continued acceleration of investment in clean technologies. My main concern is the geographical distribution of that investment.”

With this in mind, Topping was heartened to see Barbados’ Mia Mottley kick-starting the new Bridgetown Agenda to help reform international development finance, removing barriers for indebted, low-income nations on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

Going forward, there will need to be concerted collaboration between nations, businesses, finance providers, multilaterals and other key finance system stakeholders. This is why the High-Level Champions team has begun operationalizing regional finance roundtables – a workstream that Topping says was “very much the brainchild” of his successor for COP27, Dr Mahmoud Mohieldin.

It is also why the organisation worked with experts including Professor Nicholas Stern to develop a framework for scaling climate finance from all sources in line with meeting the Paris Agreement. It outlines how more than $1trn per year can be financed in emerging and developing markets excluding China – but only with “urgent” actions to transform financial systems in the near-term.

There is also the question of finance focus as well as the top-line figures. A greater portion of this finance will need to go towards adaptation than at present. The UN concluded last year that estimated adaptation costs in developing nations are five to ten times greater than current public finance flows.

Topping notes that adaptation will be a key focus for Dr Mohieldin this year, with work with NSAs needing to mirror nations’ work towards the Sharm El Sheikh Adaptation Agenda. The Agenda has a headline vision of improving climate resilience for four billion people this decade. While nations are being called upon to produce and update their own adaptation plans, as with mitigation, delivery will depend on NSA action as well.

The High-Level Champions is perhaps best known for supporting the Race to Zero for NSA emissions, but also operates the twin programme Race to Resilience. More than 2,000 NSAs are signed up to the Race to Resilience and we can expect further growth in 2023.

You can watch Topping and Dr Mohieldin’s closing speeches at COP27 here.

You can read all of edie’s content relating to COP27 here. 

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