Profiles of Paris: Nigel Topping on the path from Paris to Regenerative EconomicsNigel Topping, CEO of the We Mean Business coalition
My earliest experience of the United Nations was not auspicious. After 20 years in the private sector, I first attended UN climate negotiations at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 on behalf of the Carbon Disclosure Project. Despite having full accreditation, I spent 8 hours in sub-zero temperatures with an increasingly frustrated, cold, hungry, fractious crowd, including several senior negotiators. I could sense the crowd losing faith in the very institution we were supposedly relying on to save the world from the worst impacts of climate change. Some delegates were writing messages of distress like ‘haven’t had any water for 10 hours’ and pushing them up against a wire fence for cameras to broadcast around the world. It felt like the scene in the dystopian film I Am Legend when the last ferry departs Manhattan, leaving thousands behind to a gruesome fate.
I pondered our ability to get tens of thousands of people quickly and safely in and out of pop concerts and football matches every day of the week somewhere in the world and the inability of the UN to pull off this most basic of requirements for successful negotiations. I left and spent the rest of my time in Copenhagen in a hotel several miles away where businesses, cities, senators, those with no formal role inside the UNFCCC but with plenty of skin in the game, were rolling up their sleeves, sharing ideas, exploring what they could contribute to our shared challenge. My conviction then that those businesses with a real stake in the future of our planet, and the power to contribute to solutions, should somehow be included in the UN process would have to wait 4 years before we started to see progress.
The first signs of that progress came in the cold grey winter of 2013 at COP 19 in Warsaw, Poland. I have memories of a soulless conference building and Ban Ki-moon calling a small group of us together – leaders from business and NGOs working with business – acknowledging that this group had much to offer and inviting our voices inside the conversation, though not of course inside the formal legal process.
The next year two passionate Chief Sustainability Officers, Steve Howard of IKEA and Hannah Jones of NIKE, called a group of business NGOs together and laid down the gauntlet – whilst each organisation was doing great work, we were being outspent and out-communicated by those who would benefit from delayed climate action. It was time for us to come together and get aligned quickly if we were to have a chance of using the many positive voices from global business to influence the Paris negotiations. And so we formed We Mean Business – a coalition of NGOs working with thousands of the world’s largest businesses to accelerate action on climate change. We came together to align our messages and give power to the voices of the majority of CEOs who understand the science and are committed to the transition. These leaders are increasingly stepping up courageously themselves and calling for long, loud, legal policy signals to help harness the power of business to deliver the solutions we need.
We agreed aligned messages and created a simplified ‘Take Action’ platform of transformative commitments, which business leaders could take. Launched at the Secretary-General’s Climate Summit in September 2014, this platform included commitments such as ‘Science Based Targets’ [clear public commitments to reduced company emissions along the entire value chain in line with the science of 2 degrees] and RE100 [an unambiguous commitment to source 100% of a company’s electricity from renewable sources].
By the Lima COP later that year, momentum was already building. Growing numbers of businesses were asking for a bold climate agreement and speaking out, even attending the COP to make sure that negotiators heard from them directly. They wanted a clear target, long-term policies and a global framework, although we hadn’t yet figured out how to deliver these messages to negotiators in a language which was helpful to them in crafting treaty text.
Many personal and structural elements came together in the run up to Paris to ensure exceptional alignment among a diverse range of actors.
For example, my good friend and colleague at CDP, Tom Carnac, joined Christiana Figueres as a key advisor at this time – this meant Tom and I could very quickly exchange ideas and put solutions into practice on the basis of trust, not having to wait for long institutional decision-making processes. Secondly, I joined one of Christiana Figueres’ strategy groups, meeting from time to time to share ideas and align intentions. Finally, our group of business NGOs opened up communication with leading civil society organisations, enabling us to explain to each other our thinking and tactics and to avoid mis-interpretations which could have undermined our impact. As a result of all of this we were able to avoid a splintering based on minor differences along the lines of the famous Monty Python ‘People’s Front of Judea’ scene from The Life of Brian, focussing on our common ambition that we should secure a successful, ambitious deal.
By the time we arrived in Paris, the coalition partners had learned to value their differences, seeing strength in the diversity of our approaches, when in service of a shared mission. And we were organised. With over 70 staff all linked via WhatsApp, we had access to many delegations who were keen to understand what business was looking for and put on a host of events to spread the news that business was in town to help ensure a deal was done. To support this we identified 8 very specific elements of a treaty, which would be welcomed by the majority of the global businesses in our community. This equipped all of our teams and business attendees with the specific language needed to translate these ideas into elements of the text which was actually being negotiated.
My memories of the 2 weeks of COP21 are a blur of impressions. I existed on a few hours of sleep each day, decadal high adrenaline levels, camaraderie and the audacity of hope.
The We Mean Business offices were a long away from UNFCCC rooms at the far end of the conference centre, so I walked miles every day back and forth, visiting delegations, participating in events, talking to media, often meeting Tom Carnac for a quick coffee or beer depending on time of day to share news, ideas.
I came to see, feel and understand our highest nature as cooperative beings when we align with a transcendent collective purpose. It was my honour to lead a small secretariat team within a larger We Mean Business team within a huge climate solution community within the community of humankind, blessed to be given and to share a role of such purpose.
In the second week I had to pinch myself – I had never imagined I would end up with Tom and Al Gore holding daily briefings for the growing groups of CEOs, mayors and governors, who had turned up to lend their shoulders to the wheel and were asking for advice on how best to help.
I witnessed evidence that supported our founding beliefs – that a group of future-oriented private sector companies, and their CEOs, have the power to shape a constructive narrative rather than a regressive one.
I felt the humanity of lead negotiators with Christiana Figueres being looked after by her daughters, Laurence Tubiana working tirelessly despite a recent ankle injury, Manuel Pulgar Vidal’s unceasing generosity and good humour and the grace of Ajay Mathur as I realised he was not just negotiating India’s position within the UNFCCC but negotiating with domestic politics at the same time.
For the first time I felt the positive power of social media as our WhatsApp group shared great insights from broad interactions with business leaders and negotiators, allowing us all to be better informed and to leverage our presence collectively.
And I sensed the positive power of social media to act quickly, both bringing the corporate voice to bear on a couple of occasions when we learned of wobbles in national delegations, and allowing courageous individuals to quickly reach out directly to key actors.
As the second week came to a close and I realised my work was coming to an end, serenity descended. Soothed by the epigrams of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, I took to slowly walking the hallways as the sense of impending climax created a crescendo of manic energy, bumping into running friends, encouraging them to walk, stopping for some calm exchanges.
On the final Thursday, I received a call and looked down at my phone to see that it was from Tom, but when I replied ‘Hi Tom’, a cheeky female voice with a familiar Latin American twang answered instead – it was Christiana using Toms’ phone! I thanked her for her work and asked how I could help. ‘That’s just the point’, she said, ‘I’ve called to thank you for all you and your team and the We Mean Business coalition have done’.
I knew then that we would have a deal, and a good one. But I couldn’t tell anyone! I went outside the hall into the crisp December air to reflect on the import of what we were collectively achieving. After a quick cry, and calls to my mother and my wife, Ann, I shared the news with my good friend and We Mean Business’ brilliant political strategist Ed Cameron. There followed a surreal 24 hours wandering the halls, speaking with friends, not knowing who knew, sure that many others did, feeling a sense of privilege, of pride and of comedy.
The closing session was later than originally planned and I will forever be grateful for the wisdom displayed by Tom in convincing me to stay until the final gavel, to witness the final theatre from a front-row seat.
I took my seat early next to Tom and another dear friend Paul Dickinson, founder of CDP. It was thrilling to see the human face of senior political figures such as the delegates from USA, China, India, Marshall Islands and many more exchanging high fives, hugs, taking selfies, sensing the historical import of the moment and their rare collective transcendence to serve the whole.
I enjoyed my own selfies with Paul and Tom and with Nick Stern and Al Gore! And then of course the final drama regarding that crucial nuance in the text and at last the Paris Agreement was a reality!
I was sitting right in front of a massive screen projecting the face of speakers as comments were given following the final gavel. Two of the first will stay with me forever – they illustrate the depth of compassion and the courage to embrace diversity which stood at the heart of the success of Paris. First to speak was Tony deBrum, representing the Marshall Islands and the small island states. His face glowed with emotion as he addressed COP president Laurent Fabius with genuine affection, acknowledging that he and his fellow community of islanders ‘had been listened to for the first time in 21 years’. This observation that the Paris process had been genuinely inclusive was confirmed by the next speaker, Venezuela’s representative Claudia Salerno.
She had first come to my attention in the opening plenary, when her complaint about the security procedures for entry into the COP had shocked me in its pettiness. But now, she was beaming as she addressed ‘Brother Fabius’, thanked him for his trust in giving her responsibility for managing the perambulatory text [she called it ‘revolutionary’!!], acknowledged that this text now contained many ideas dear to her heart that had been unthinkable a few weeks before, and announced that Venezuela had just submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC).
In 2015, we proved that faith in each other and commitment to the whole are capable of delivering extraordinary achievements and I believe the Paris Agreement will go down as the most important and ambitious multilateral treaty ever.
Paris has provided us with a clear north star and a mechanism for ratcheting our ambition. Some parts of our energy transition are clear, others less so.
By 2020 we will have reached global peak carbon and will know that zero carbon grids, zero carbon transport and zero carbon buildings are both possible and desirable, both more quickly and more cheaply than we dared to dream. Growing numbers of businesses, cities and countries will be committing to this zero-carbon energy system future.
Our understanding of the various pathways to decarbonise heavy-emitting sectors will be richer, and we will be making real progress in exploring the possibilities of near-zero marginal cost electricity, the circular economy, and carbon usage.
We will increasingly be working on the two related problems which we need to address to complete the transition to a zero carbon economy – the systemic inequality within and between our societies and the broader relationship between the economy and our shared environmental commons.
My greatest lesson from the experience of Paris? We can come together in a broader form of multilateralism where the legal power of nation states works with the convening power of cities and the innovation power of the private sector to accelerate solutions to global challenges within clearly defined scientific boundaries. These planetary boundaries, as Johan Rockstrom describes them, are not a source of fear for the private sector – but a source of innovation. Long, loud and legal policy signals, based on solid science, provide both the certainty and the motivation for companies to innovate solutions for a global economy which operates within those boundaries.
In 2015 the concept of Science Based Targets (SBTs) was one year old and had 100 companies committed – less than three years later that number stands at over 400 and the practice of setting short- and long-term emissions reduction targets in line with the science of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the politics of the UNFCCC is being embedded in global capital markets. The Carney-Bloomberg Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosure [TCFD] has recommended that all financial actors and major companies consider the implications of the Paris targets in their strategies – effectively requiring companies to show that they have set a science-based target, have a plan to implement it and are on track to do so.
And so, we can imagine building on what we are learning in terms of implementing the climate constraint in capital markets via Paris, SBTs and the TCFD – extending that to the other elements of our global environmental commons, where we are living beyond our means. These are captured in the other environmental Sustainable Development Goals [water, life on land, life below water] and in the respective planetary boundaries [water, Phosphorous/Nitrogen flows, biodiversity, land use]. Work is now beginning to convert the science of these boundaries into their own Science Based Targets and the first major companies are already adopting these broader SBTs.
Perhaps now we can forge a solution from a combination of clear science, science-based targets for business and a concerted effort to address the risk to global financial markets of breaching our planetary boundaries. Perhaps now we can dare to dream that the Convention on Biological Diversity COP in China in 2020 will be where we apply the many lessons of Paris to our broader ecosystems. Perhaps at last we can plot a path towards the Regenerative Economics that will be the foundation of an Ecological Civilisation.