Interview with Niclas Svenningsen

August 7, 2023

“We have all the technologies we need to be able to keep the average global temperature well below 1.5 degrees, but we just need the push from governments, companies, and individuals to use them.”

– Niclas Svenningsen

Member of the Airport Carbon Accreditation Advisory Board and the leading voice of the Climate Neutral Now campaign, supported by the programme, Niclas Svenningsen doesn’t need an introduction. We’ve had the opportunity to talk with him about climate action and his views on the way forward. Here is what we’ve learned…

How did you become involved in the fight against climate change?

There are two answers to this question. Firstly, I believe that at the moment when you’re born, you become a part of the equation, in which two factors will weigh in on each other. On one side, your life as an individual will inevitably have an impact on the climate, and on the other, the environment in which you live will be of paramount importance to your wellbeing.
On a more personal level, I guess for me it all started when I was living in Asia-Pacific, working at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in Bangkok. I spent 10 years in that part of the world, including quite a lot of travelling. I had too many opportunities to witness the negative sides of human impact on nature, such as deforestation, waste spread over acres of land, skyrocketing levels of air pollution, difficult access to clean water, etc. These issues were not per se climate-specific, but they have funneled my interest in the matter. During the many hours spent in traffic jams on my daily commute, I had enough time to come to a realisation, that we can’t go on like this. At the time I was working at UN Environment but after a while I had the opportunity to more exclusively focus on climate actin by joining the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

What exactly is the role of the UNFCCC and how does it facilitate progress on this issue?

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is an international convention set in 1992, whose main focus is on limiting the impact of human interference on Earth’s climate system. Our initial task, that took us quite a lot of time, was to develop a blueprint on how this global reduction of greenhouse gases could be achieved by the signatory countries. In fact, this blueprint was only finalized in 2015 and is known widely as the Paris Agreement. 195 countries worldwide have signed the Agreement so far, two more than United Nations count as members. The Agreement aims to limit the increase of global average temperature to well below 2.0C, through Nationally Determined Contributions (national climate action plans), but also through ‘bottom up’ action, driven by the private sector, civil society, local communities and individuals. Our mission is to encourage all these stakeholders to take immediate and continued action to reduce the collective carbon footprint.

Given the growing pressure and the reaction to the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, are you still optimistic that the signatory countries will meet the targets?

I am, actually. First of all, the US government is completely alone in this decision. By this I mean not only on the geopolitical arena, but to a large extent also among their home-based network of stakeholders. Regarding the former, the decision of Donald Trump to leave the Paris Agreement spurred a completely opposite result to weakening it. In a bid to protect the deal, the one country that until then refused to sign the agreement, namely Nicaragua, has inked it almost immediately.

The support for the deal was further strengthened by numerous stakeholders from the US, including cities, private companies and influential individuals, pledging to step up their climate action in the face of the gap leadership of the Trump Presidency in this regard. A good example of how climate action is still deeply woven into the American public landscape, is that by far the largest climate-related event worldwide for non-government stakeholders – the Global Climate Action Summit – will happen in California this year.

What countries have woven genuinely significant climate action into their policy agendas?

The answer to this question is quite complex, since there are various angles from which you can gauge the climate action of countries. It is not only about how ambitious a given country is with its National Action Plan, but also how realistic its implementation is. There is also the necessary distinction to make between the developed, richer countries, which contribute a lot to the global carbon footprint, but also have the necessary resources to spend on mitigation, and the developing countries, that are less industrialized, but also have smaller resources to invest in cleaner technology. The way they exercise climate action will naturally be different, but in both groups you will find “best of class” examples. From the top of my head, I would say European countries, especially the Nordics: Sweden, Norway, Finland, are very active. In Africa, Morocco would get a special mention as a particularly involved country. Ethiopia is a great example of a country that is not industrialized, but puts sustainability high on their policy agenda. Their plan to tackle carbon emissions is ambitious and at the same time realistic.
Even though China and India have still a long way to go, they are very dynamic and are willing to go the extra mile to meet their targets.

For some countries, like the small island states that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, putting climate action on their policy agenda is a matter of survival. However, no matter how pious in the implementation they would be, they are still affected by the greenhouse gas emissions of other countries. This is why climate action needs to be built on an international and global level.

What are the industries which, through their own voluntary actions, are making a particularly positive contribution?

We can observe a range of initiatives spanning across different sectors, that bring climate action forward. There are sectors that have quite large footprints, such as transport, energy, construction, but where you will also find many companies and organizations investing a lot in climate solutions and are eager partners of our efforts.

Notably, one such initiative that comes to my mind is Airport Carbon Accreditation, the voluntary climate action led by airports worldwide. This is a great example of an industry push towards low carbon economy, that forms an important part of the overall solution.

It’s widely known that the Swedes are exceptionally conscious about the impact that the modern lifestyle has on the environment. Did your Swedish upbringing act as catalyst in your work?

It’s possible. I must say that being out in the nature is a favorite pastime of most Swedes and we do put great value to a clean and healthy environment. When I was a child, we also used to go on voluntary hikes, sort of daytrips, during which we learned a lot about the environment. This is a great way of sensibilising the youth about the importance of nature.
However, I want to underline here, that I don’t think it is something that is unique to Sweden.

For example, here in Bonn, Germany, where UNFCCC is headquartered, environmental consciousness is quite well ingrained in the local community, despite the presence of heavy duty industry in the region. For example, UNFCCC works with a number of schools to develop climate curricula for students and the response we get is very positive. We also cooperate with the city of Bonn to organize public events on the topic of climate action. Upon these exchanges, I’m always pleased to notice that Germans are very “green” people. It appears that, even if you were raised in an industrial area, or perhaps thanks to this fact, you will be able to appreciate nature and fight to preserve it.

What plays a more important role in advancing global climate action: innovation or motivation?

I believe it’s motivation. We have all the technologies we need to be able to keep the average global temperature well below 1.5 degrees, but we just need the push from governments, companies, and individuals to use them. There are of course a couple of innovations, that may become major breakthroughs in the way we do things. I’m thinking here about the hydrogen economy or solar powered flights, but I’m also convinced that we shouldn’t wait for them. Motivation is the most important factor, because it drives habits, and as we know, good habits can reduce the effort to accomplish something by far. It’s important to note here, that habits are developed when you are young, so access to information early in life is crucial. I see that the young generation, who are very digitally savvy and well connected, are also very open to new ideas. I’d like to see my generation to be so open!

How do you see the role of mobility within the realm of climate action, especially in the context of organizing the annual Conference of the Parties? How could we better embrace the opportunities it brings about?

Mobility is absolutely essential for us. We simply wouldn’t be able to deliver our work on climate without the ability to travel. As inevitable as it is, staff travel and that of the delegates coming to our conferences constitutes the biggest bulk of our carbon footprint as on organization. UNFCCCis already climate neutral since many years, and in fact, the entire UN system plans to become fully climate neutral by 2020. Going climate neutral means that we measure of our climate footprint, proactively seek to reduce it, and offset what we are not able to avoid. For instance, we do encourage the use of online platforms for meetings, that can be carried out remotely, and we do support climate neutral policies in terms of ways of working. In terms of the offsets we use, we have our own UNFCCC-supported, Certified Emission Reduction units (CER), which are developed under the Clean Development Mechanism. These projects have a vast range of application, including support of sustainable travel options, wind and solar energy generation, implementation of clean cook stoves, etc.

We could also see during the last COP that many individuals were incited to go climate neutral. Could you explain how this works?

It is a very timely question, because we are now in the process of revamping the old website and the calculator that served this purpose. Thanks to these tools, anybody can calculate his/hers annual carbon footprint, get tips on how to reduce it, and eventually offset it using the best projects on the market. We are about to launch a new version of this website, which will be more user-friendly and will contain upgraded functionalities and many more options than the previous one. Our main goal is to empower individuals and show them that they can be part of this collective effort. Of course, people might complain that their carbon footprint is not significant enough to make a change, but just imagine if all the people on Earth engaged in this…
It’s not only about offsetting, and we do encourage sustainable practices through the Sustainable Development Goals on an individual level as well. We all need to eat, be able to move freely, put clothes on our back. There is no question about it. What really matters are the choices we make. More and more companies are willing to put climate-smart options on their offer. Fashion brands, restaurants, hotels, etc. make climate declarations and strive to become less carbon-intensive. The trend is very encouraging and we want to keep this momentum going.


Can you describe the scale and the ambiance of the COP meetings for us?

Frankly, it’s very hectic. It’s like entering a very busy airport, with lots of people passing by in a rush, with big screens announcing the meetings currently taking place, with a lot of information to process at once. As a result, a first-time attendee might find himself or herself a little lost. To give you a rough idea of the scale of such an event, there are over 25,000 people gathering in one place during two weeks, to participate in over 2000 separate meetings. The partial outcomes of these negotiations need to be later merged into a one big decision. 195 countries trying to agree on something is not easy in the first place, and then you need to add a layer of political game that comes into play. Even though at times I find the process quite frustrating, I still believe that COP is the meeting place for people that care about the climate and really want to do something about it.

For the representatives the conference is also very tiring physically. The negotiations are intense and sometimes go on well into the night. For us at the UNFCCC secretariat, the conference means literally a fortnight without sleep…
Over the years, the COP conference has also evolved to include a vast array of side events. They are more accessible to a broader audience and can touch upon topics suggested by the parties or the observer organisations. To me, this part of the conference is very interesting, because these meetings and pavilions push specific issues, very practical ones. For instance, we’ve had a science pavilion put in place by NASA, a high-tech pavilion brought by India, etc. At last year’s conference there was an airport-specific event as well, relaying the role of airports in forging a more sustainable air travel.

We are most of the time talking about stopping the change, but it cannot be done without implementing… changes. What change are you most looking forward to?

Personally, I really look forward to climate neutral travel. Given its fundamental importance to my work, it comes as no surprise that I would love to be able to travel in a low-carbon way. I think we are on a good track to implement solutions for local transport, for example, with the non-fossil fuel-based rail getting closer to realisation. At the current pace of innovation, I’m sure that the aviation industry will follow through shortly, especially with initiatives such as Airport Carbon Accreditation paving the way.
Further to my wish list, I think there is still more to be done in terms of online communication. A really good online conferencing tool is yet to be developed. There are some solutions on the market, but conducting an efficient meeting with more than 10 participants is quite difficult, let alone 25,000.

Lastly, I would like to see a shift to a culture of increased consumer awareness. In my view, the different industries, such as transport, leisure, fashion, food and so on, should provide consumers with a panoply of more sustainable products and services and to inform their choices. It is really up to the industry to lead this transformation, but once this culture shift takes place, the critical mass of individual, smart choices will create and unstoppable tide of positive change.

Niclas Svenningsen is the Head of Strategy and Relationship Management unit in the UNFCCC Secretariat. In this capacity he is responsible for developing and strengthening approaches and strategies for catalysing climate action under the UNFCCC framework, in particular through private sector cooperation, market based instruments and regional outreach. Niclas has a background in civil engineering and environmental law.