Nick Mabey is London Sustainable Development Commissioner & Founder of London Climate Action Week. Michelle sat down (virtually) with Nick to discuss the power of collective action and COP26, which is set to begin 31 October 2021.
Michelle Kennedy: So where are you from? Tell us a little bit about yourself and E3G, the company you’ve founded.
Nick Mabey: I’m from London, I was brought up in the UK and I founded E3G around 15 years ago. E3G is an environmental think tank working across EU and globally, which I established when I left government looking for a platform to do different things, and move things forward faster than you can do inside a big institution. So we’ve been working on climate change and other environmental issues and really trying to build coalitions and political constituencies for faster change.
We do work on policy but our main focus is how do we get people to organise and align around faster change? And that was one of the reasons we set up London Climate Action Week as part of our forward thinking of how do you actually get whole societies to act on climate.
M: Awesome, can you give us an overview of London Climate Action Week and how it’s been going over the past few years?
N: We founded London Action Week with the Mayor of London in 2019, basically because I realised that even though there were probably more people working on climate change than any other city in the world by quite a large margin, we never met up and worked together. So on that very simple premise, I went to all the people I knew in London and said what about running a climate action week, which would make us all work better together, but would also reach outside our usual bubble and engage Londoners on how to change the city, and our international networks on how to drive things fast in the world. That was the premise and we set up a platform expecting to get around 40 or 50 events, and we ended up with more than 170 events and 80,000 people turning up for the week! Build it and they will come, and they certainly did come!
M: That’s an incredible outcome for your first year. And it just goes to show how active London is in climate action. How has London Climate Action Week evolved?
N: It’s evolved quite a lot but it’s kept its DNA. So we started off by consulting people. I’ve lived in London for 20 years, and in this process I found so many more people working on climate change than I knew about. Particularly reaching out in sectors like food, culture, arts, education, museums… it’s just amazing. So, we’ve grown over time… we’ve just held the third London Climate Action Week with 250 events. We haven’t quite got the participation figures yet, obviously it was all virtual.
What we’ve seen over this period is that not only have we expanded to broader audiences and perhaps we’re less community based because of Covid, but we’re seeing bits of the London ecosystem self-organising. We did a lot of work with schools, now we have a London Schools Climate Summit which is the biggest climate summit for educators in the UK and probably the world. We’ve seen sectors like the legal profession and the arts self-organising. That was the point: to get people organising themselves and seeing other people doing similar things and saying ‘well let’s do stuff together because it’s better and we’ll get more out of it’. So that’s how we’re evolving and we’re really looking forward to next year. We’ll be back in person and we can see what all that investment has led to in terms of mobilisation.
M: Absolutely – it’s exciting to hear about people self-organising. I know, being in the driver’s seat this year, it takes a little bit to get people warmed up to the idea and understanding what’s going on, but once people get it and share it, it kind of snowballs and it takes a life of it’s own across the various areas and sectors.
N: We do a survey at the end of every London Climate Action Week and ask people what they get out of it, because they don’t have to turn up, we just provide a space – virtual or real – for them to come to. The top reason is collaboration, because they meet others they can work with and build long term collaborations. The second top reason is visibility. It’s interesting – in the first year, we had some big corporates move events out of London Climate Action Week, because they were afraid there wasn’t enough audience to go around. Whereas what people have actually found is audiences crowded in. Because everybody gets more visibility, particularly the smaller groups.
One thing we’ve set up between the big organisations and the smaller groups is sharing social media, speakers, and comms teams. Part of the package of being part of London Climate Action Week is you get to promote your own event, but you have to promote other events too. And that kind of equalises big and small organisations, but it also just means that everyone gets more visibility and therefore they get more people turning up to their events than they ever thought possible. So that’s the kind of win-win which brings people back – there’s a festival atmosphere which we’ve now created.
M: That’s such a neat way to do it and I think that’s one of the problems isn’t it – that the smaller groups don’t usually get that voice amongst everything else that’s going on. It’s nice to be able to create a platform that does that. So, we’ve got COP coming up and I know you’re heavily involved in that yourself. For those who don’t know about COP, can you explain a little bit as to what it is and why it’s so important right now?
N: COP or ‘Conference of the Parties’ is where all the countries that have signed up to the UN Treaty to solve climate change come together every year to monitor progress and update the agreement. This year is a very special one, because it’s six years after the Paris Agreement, but it’s also the first time countries have to come back and say ‘how are we doing?’ in relation to the goals we set ourselves in Paris. So it’s not a place where we’re going to negotiate a new treaty; we did that in Paris and that framework is still going to last us. COP26 is all about ambition and delivery, where countries are coming back and saying “here’s what more I could do, here’s how I’m delivering what I’m going to do”. So some things they need to negotiate, but it’s really a stocktake of where we are relative to the state of the climate, and countries saying what they’re going to do to bridge the gap between what we need to do to keep everybody safe, and both reducing emissions and helping in adaptation, as well as what countries have already pledged to do.
M: So how are you involved?
N: I advise the UK government, which is the President of the COP, on how to deliver it. But also at E3G we’re working on a whole range of big ticket items going in both countries’ pledges but also areas like finance, coal, and financial reform. So we’re doing a lot of work to bring as much ambition as possible.
M: What’s your sense leading into it – how do you think we’re going?
If you’d asked me a few weeks ago, I’d have been quite down, because there wasn’t a lot of political energy. Afghanistan had really taken the attention of leaders away from COP, and China and the US were kind of fighting over how to deal with climate change as a geopolitical issue.
So it was all a bit depressing but I must admit, I’ve got more optimism now after we’ve had this meeting in New York [UN General Assembly]. The US has announced some new climate finance which was a promise they made 10 years ago and now they’ve finally lived up to it, which really unblocked the summit.
The Chinese said they’d stop funding coal power stations overseas, we had some other movement on vaccine deployment from big countries, which was the big thing souring relations, so it feels we’re starting to get some momentum towards COP.
I’m looking forward to some of the big countries who haven’t put forward new pledges – which include China and India, Indonesia, South Africa – coming forward. And also for us to start hitting some of the big benchmarks for COP. One of these is stopping all new coal stations being built – we’re going to quite near that outcome which would be incredibly important, as will stopping all public money going to fossil fuels – that’s another one we’re trying to get major progress on by COP. So there are some really big ticket items on the table which we’re trying to pull countries together on, and it finally feels like we’re getting a bit of momentum towards that.
M: That’s really exciting to hear, especially because you’re in the thick of it yourself. You’ve mentioned finance coming out of those sorts of projects, what about finance going in? Things like new technology, new energy and so on?
N: There’s a whole set of things we want to see from COP. Firstly there’s this pledge on the $100 billion they made in Copenhagen. A lot of this money should go to countries to help with the damage from climate change, but currently only 10% goes to these countries in need, when it should be 50%. So that’s one of the big things we’re trying to get: more money going to Pacific Islands, Bangladesh, Caribbean and Africa. They’re really at the front line of climate change.
We’re also hoping to see some really exciting technology pieces on the table. There’s a push to get all the major car markets to sign up to phasing out internal combustion engines by 2035. We’ll see how far we get with that but that’s going with the grain.
We’re hoping to see some really interesting investments in forestry and saving forests, producing green hydrogen… there’s a whole set of things we’ll see over the week at COP, when governments but also big companies and investors will come forward with their pledges. So none of those are being negotiated right now, they’ll be revealed with big set pieces at the beginning of the week. So yeah, there should be some exciting stuff come out of that as well.
M: Yes, really looking forward to seeing what pledges are announced. For us as New Zealanders, how do you think things might go for us, and on the flip side, what do you think our role might be in climate change in the global commons?
N: I think there’s some really important pieces. New Zealand’s always been a core part of the Environmental Integrity Group, and one of the big issues this year is going to be about agreeing the rules of how you count carbon and how you trade emissions under the Paris Agreement. This was slightly unfinished business from Paris. And it’s really important that you get countries sticking up for environmental integrity.
Also, a lot of businesses will put forward environmental pledges and again all of those have to have integrity, so that’s one of the areas we’d hope to see New Zealand playing a strong role in making sure the rules are as tough as possible, and making sure people aren’t greenwashing countries or companies their pledges; we don’t have enough pledges on the table as it is, and if the pledges on the table are not seen as trustworthy, that can be terrible – so that’s a really important piece.
The other thing that’s going to be interesting for New Zealand is the soft launch of a new agreement on methane reduction by the EU and the US. They plan to take that to COP and get a load of countries to sign up. That covers both fossil methane – so emissions from coal mines and gas piles – but also from agriculture and obviously that’s a big issue for New Zealand, as it is for countries like Ireland.
So the other piece that’s likely to be on the table at Glasgow is realising that methane is one of the areas we need to move much faster on if we’re going to close the gap to 1.5 target. So one thing I expect at COP is a big move on methane going into and coming out of COP. It’s a big thing for New Zealand, as it’s a big exporter of methane derived agricultural commodities. That’s something we’ll hope New Zealand would lean into and say “yes, we need ambitious rules and we’re going to help solve this problem with other richer countries like Ireland and we’re going to help other countries that aren’t as rich solve the problem”. So that might be one of the big new things on the table which people won’t be expecting this year but is going to come up on the inside very rapidly.
M: It is going to be interesting for New Zealanders. To wrap up, you’ve mentioned recently that the last five years has been tumultuous – we’ve had Covid, we’re having a recession, we’ve had the accelerating climate crisis, so what do you think post-COP, 2022 is going to look like? How are you feeling going into it?
N: I have a feeling there is a lot of work to do. We’ve spent a lot of time setting targets, doing some work to change our economies, we’ve developed a lot of cheap, clean technology, renewables, cars etc. But now we’ve got to get them out at scale.
So next year is a real delivery, delivery, delivery year and that’s going to affect peoples’ lives. It will change what we do. It’s all good change – it’s cheaper, cleaner, safer – but it’s a huge job, and to be honest that’s going to involve a lot more people that currently work in climate. Everybody’s going to be working in climate.
Again, that’s why events like Auckland Climate Festival are so important. They bring everybody together and say “everybody’s got a role to play”, and start to mobilise a whole of society approach to the job. That’s my hope and slight fear of next year is finally we’re going to go “OK, let’s crack on with the job”. In places like Europe, you’ve got to quadruple the rate of renewables. In other countries (most developing countries) it’s seven times the annual rate. That level of scale up is a huge opportunity. Next year we’ll be discussing the recovery from Covid, building back better for people, balancing our economies, and these are all opportunities for countries, not as blessed as New Zealand is, to build renewables rather than importing fossil fuels which are currently causing chaos with high prices across Europe. So it’s a really optimistic and powerful job to do to bring people “behind”, but we need to organise people behind that.
Why we set up London Climate Action Week is why you set up Auckland Climate Festival, and that is because we need to break out of the climate bubble and give people space so they can realise it’s their job and they can do things and it’s their responsibility to do things. So that’s next year, delivery year.
M: I’m optimistic as well. I think there’s a lot of opportunity and I think that’s the way we’ve got to keep viewing it, isn’t it. Globally, we’ve actually got to look at what those opportunities are and what the benefits of change are, and that’s certainly something we’re going to be focussing on at ACF this year: what are the co-benefits, and how can we go about those co-benefits in a just way to make sure no one’s left behind.
Thank you so much Nick, that was really insightful and helpful to have a bit of background on COP26 and what your thoughts are for New Zealand going into 2022.