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Nigel Topping, UK High Level Climate Action Champion for UN climate talks Nigel Topping, UK High Level Climate Action Champion for UN climate talks  

Cleaner future needs head, heart and hands

The UK High-level Climate Action Champion, Nigel Topping, shares his reflections on his mandate and on global efforts to stem the impacts of climate change as he looks ahead towards the UN Conference of the Parties (COP26) scheduled for November 2021.

By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ

Every year since 1994, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) holds a summit known as a Conference of the Parties (COP) attended by representatives of participating countries. 

This year, the twenty-sixth COP was postponed by a full year due to the ongoing pandemic. Originally scheduled for November 2020, it will now be held at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow from 1 – 12 November 2021.  COP26 will be hosted by the UK in collaboration with Italy, which will be hosting key preparatory events such as a Youth Event and the Pre-COP summit.

On Tuesday, Nigel Topping, the UK High-Level Climate Action Champion for UN climate talks spoke at a briefing held at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome. The event, organized by the UK embassy to the Holy See, was themed “The Road to COP26.”

During his speech, Mr. Topping highlighted that with an estimated 1.3 billion Christians worldwide, the Church has the capacity to effect massive change through concrete actions and multi-faith dialogue. He also urged everyone to be committed and accountable in their personal, concrete initiatives in the fight to stem the effects of climate change.

Other speakers at the briefing included Fr. Augusto Zampini, adjunct secretary for the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, and Tosca Barucco, the Italian Envoy for COP26.

Nigel Topping (2nd right) with other speakers at the Briefing held at the Pontifical Urbania University on 29 September 2020
Nigel Topping (2nd right) with other speakers at the Briefing held at the Pontifical Urbania University on 29 September 2020

Stimulating action alongside policymakers

Mr. Topping explained that his role as the UK champion for climate action was created in 2015 by all the parties to the UN Climate Convention in Paris. He added that the countries recognized that, aside from national governments, civil society, businesses, investors and the private sector have a role to play in determining the success in the fight against climate change.

"My task, therefore, is to drive ambition and action alongside the policy-making process, and to help governments go faster,” explained Topping to Vatican News after the Tuesday briefing.

“The faster that business and civil society goes, the easier it is for policymakers; and the bolder the policymakers are, the faster that businesses and cities can go,” Topping observed, adding that they reinforce each other in “a positive dance of change.”

Interview with Mr. Nigel Topping

Charting the path to begin anew

Responding to a question about the choices we should be making as countries restart their economies after the lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr. Topping proposes two options.

The first, he explains, is the faster transition towards a cleaner economy. He pointed out that seven million people die prematurely every year because of air pollution - mostly from the same sources that drive climate change, including cars and coal. He recommends choosing to not support the old industries in the same manner as before, but rather transitioning towards newer ones that promote a cleaner economy. However, this transition, Topping notes, must be “done carefully” and be “just,” as we cannot simply get rid of all the jobs attached to the old industries.

The second, continues Topping, is the "equity" dimension of the transition. He explained that with the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as with climate change and other challenges, there is a disproportionate level of suffering among the more vulnerable and minority communities. Therefore, in transitioning to a zero-carbon economy, there is a need for human solidarity. 

Head, heart and hands

Mister Topping said that to make the transition such as the one we called to make now, we will need a combination of heads, hearts and hands.

The head, he notes, is the intellectual understanding that we “just cannot continue like this,” and the ability to “read the signs” seen in floods, fires and the melting of glaciers. The heart, he continues, helps figure out the spiritual element providing motivation behind fighting for a better, cleaner climate. These, he explains are contained in transcendent values like justice and honoring the beauty of creation as Pope Francis illustrates in the 2015 Encyclical on the Care of our Common Home, Laudato sí.

The hands, for their part, help in carrying out bold, concrete actions that the head and the heart inspires them to do.

Coordinating concrete efforts 

Speaking further on his mandate as the High-Level Champion, Topping said that he works with non-state actors - civil society, investors, schools and people of faith, among others - to encourage them to be bolder in taking initiatives. He then amplifies the visibility of these instances of positive action to inspire other people to take action in their turn. 

The more people are committed and acting towards the zero-carbon future, the easier it gets for everyone, he said. “By moving together, we reduce the risk for everybody, which actually means we can go faster.”

“We always have agency over our future,” Topping said, adding that it is choice that requires moral courage.

However, it is already too late to stop some things: “We already have one degree Celsius of warming and three times as many extreme weather events as we had twenty years ago.”

Nonetheless, “it is never too late to act,” he insisted.

He pointed out that in addition to working towards achieving zero carbon emissions, he is particularly interested in working with vulnerable communities, especially as catastrophes like sea level rises, droughts and floods are now much more likely than they were 10 years ago. He hopes that through collective, global solidarity, the impact of these challenges will not be disastrous on poorer communities. 

Hope for the future

Mister Topping expresses his hope that 2021 will bring about the better actualization of the multilateral processes of the 2015 climate convention and the 1992 biological diversity convention.

The two conventions are already beginning to yield fruit, as China has recently committed to zero-emission in the 2050s and 71 countries signed a nature pledge on Monday.

His second hope is that we learn to “express our commitments to new global goals” like the Sustainable Development Goals and work towards a more equitable society. 

For some, noted Topping, 2021 is the year of the “great reset”. “We are not just going back to where we were before! This is a very big challenge and an opportunity to accelerate some changes and to change direction” towards building a cleaner, more equitable global economy for future generations.

30 September 2020, 17:57