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Johnian magazine issue 50, spring 2023

Nigel Topping: in a nutshell

Written by Nigel Topping (1985)

2 min read

Bringing together an academic background in mathematics and a long-standing interest in travel and exploration, Nigel Topping (1985) focuses his work on tackling the climate crisis and driving the transition to net zero. He was appointed UN Climate Change High Level Champion for COP26 and was made Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in Queen Elizabeth II’s Birthday Honours 2022. Nigel is currently the Vice President of the Johnian Society.

I loved maths as a schoolboy. My grandfather was a mathematician and a Quaker, and he was a massive influence on me growing up. I spent a winter in East Greenland in my year off, carrying out scientific work while living in a small Inuit community.

It was the proximity to the playing fields that made me opt for St John’s. As a keen rugby player I knew I’d be spending a lot of my time there. I was lucky enough to captain the Redboys in my second year and to get two Blues, most memorably in a great victory in 1987 with my two Redboy Blues mates, Paul Beard (1984) and Jim Freeman (1984).

Paul Beard (1984), Nigel Topping (1985) and Jim Freeman (1984)

After university, I wanted to do something more practical so I went to work in manufacturing. When I was 29 I ran my first factory in Manchester, then a business in Hartlepool and in 2000 was part of the management buyout team that took the business private. That led to me relocating to Germany as we built the firm to become the global-number-one provider of friction materials to the automotive industry.

During this time I went on further expeditions to cross Iceland by mountain bike, ski across Mýrdalsjökull and then in 1998 to make the first north-south crossing of the Hielo Patagónico Norte, including making a couple of first ascents. All the time I was learning more about the cryosphere from a series of glaciologist friends who were also responsible for introducing me to my wife Ann, who is French Canadian.

In 2006 I took a year out to study Holistic Science at Schumacher College, which helped me connect my undergraduate maths degree with my growing concern for climate change and triggered my move into working on harnessing the power of business as a vector for delivering the solutions to climate change.

The most entrepreneurial phase of my career followed as I joined the Carbon Disclosure Project, and then became CEO of We Mean Business, a coalition of NGOs formed ahead of COP21 to counter the prevalence of the loud and negative hydrocarbon lobby. This literally gave me a front seat view of the conclusion of the key COP21 decision.

That led to my appointment as UN Climate Change High Level Champion for COP26. In this role I had the joy of working with the brilliant Gonzalo Muñoz from Chile to launch the Race To Zero and Race To Resilience campaigns, as well as the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero with Mark Carney. All three were central to COP26 being much more action-oriented than any of its predecessors. I’ve just stepped down after my tenure ran out at the end of COP27.

I’m now figuring out how to continue to be helpful in driving action to tackle the climate crisis and am focused on two key issues. First the need to mobilise $2.4tr of climate finance per year needed in emerging markets. My second focus is on driving the transition to net zero much faster than most commentators think is possible – but that I think can be achieved in most sectors by 2039.

My advice to my 16-year-old self would be to make sure that you are learning all the time. Don’t try to figure out what you will be doing in 10 years’ time, and remember that with the greatest education in the world comes the responsibility to be of service.

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Nigel Topping CMG was appointed by the UK Prime Minister as UN Climate Change High Level Champion for COP26. In this role Nigel mobilised global private sector and local government to take bold action on climate change, launching the Race To Zero and Race To Resilience campaigns and, with Mark Carney, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero. Nigel is now a global advisor to governments, financial institutions and private companies on climate and industrial strategy. He is a non-executive director of the UK Infrastructure Bank, an Honorary Professor of Economics at Exeter University and was awarded the honour of CMG in Queen Elizabeth’s final Honours list in 2022. Nigel read Mathematics at St John’s and won two rugby Blues, before entering a career in the manufacturing industry.