If governments set more ambitious goals and policy decisions, the world could reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions in the early 2040s, the UK’s outgoing climate business expert has said.
Nigel Topping served for two years as the high-level champion for the UK’s presidency of the UN COP26 climate summit, passing on the role to Egypt’s Mahmoud Mohieldin late last year at the COP27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh.
Topping’s responsibilities included forging alliances among businesses to help companies set targets to reach net zero emissions and lay out the measures they would take to achieve them. More than 8,300 businesses around the world are now members of the UN’s Race to Zero initiative, alongside more than 3,000 other organisations including cities and local governments.
Commenting on his time in the role, Topping said his experiences with businesses had shown him that governments could move much faster, without harming their countries’ competitiveness or alarming the business community.
“Governments could be way bolder in setting targets, and back their scientists, engineers, businesses, banks, cities to come up with solutions,” he said. “The moonshot analogy is not inappropriate.”
In the UK, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) produced a plausible scenario by which the UK could reach net zero by 2042, he said. “Given that we’ve now got California and Germany saying 2045 is their target, I think you can argue quite strongly that the whole world could get to net zero in the early 2040s, and in many sectors in the late 2030s.”
The experience of the Covid-19 pandemic had shown what governments could do when they tried, he added. “The lesson [from the pandemic] that I still don’t think we’ve learnt enough is that we can do unbelievable things, governments can turn on a dime if they need to, and the government/private sector relationship can be transformed to deliver solutions way, way faster if we really put ourselves on an emergency footing.”
“I think that squeeze is coming because it’s a squeeze between the growing realisation of just how bad the damages are [from the climate crisis] and growing confidence – which is the real lesson I’d like us to take from Covid, which is that we’re amazing. We should back ourselves more,” he said.
However, he said some sectors were continuing to hamper progress in the fight against climate change. For example, Oil, gas, and coal companies made bumper profits in the past year on the back of record fossil fuel prices which were sent soaring by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Topping said fossil fuel companies would do better to redirect their engineering skills towards renewable energy. “We’re maybe in the last huge bonanza of oil and gas profits. Maybe there’ll be another one, but shareholders will demand that those who can’t invest in the transition [to clean energy] will just have to give their money back to shareholders to allocate it,” he said.
“A lot of this grows exponentially,” he continued. “If you look at where we’re at now [in terms of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions], it never looks good enough. But if you look at the trajectory [for low-carbon technologies] it can be much more encouraging.”
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