Green energy transitions and the Commonwealth webinar panelsTop left: Ensuring a just transition webinar panel [clockwise l-r] Raquel Moses, Sharan Burrow, Alisi Rabukawaqa, Tasneem Essop and bottom Dipti Bhatnagar. Bottom right Green Transitions panel: Sue Onslow, Roger Hosein, Janet Balkan, Arthur Deakin and Thomas Singh. ,

In the countdown to COP27 in November, Commonwealth networks have been debating the path to sustainable energy. A series of online debates, organised by the Commonwealth Foundation and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, have been taking place during October 2022, focused around the needs of small and vulnerable Commonwealth states.

Much of the discussion has focused on how to achieve an equitable move to green energy that allows poor and oil-rich small states to shift from fossil fuel consumption to green and sustainable energy sources. Many of the participants have argued for the path to Loss and Damage – the term used by a growing coalition of small states, their legal consultants and academics arguing for a structure making the world’s bigger polluters pay for the climate damage they’ve caused.

The Loss and Damage campaign has its roots in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It received more recent impetus from the COP13 Warsaw International Mechanism on loss and damage (WIM) declared in 2017, followed by the inclusion of the term “Loss and Damage” in the Paris Agreement in 2015. This mechanism is being actively promoted by a coalition of some Commonwealth and other vulnerable states ahead of COP27. During their discussions, academics, civil society groups, global trade unions and climate activists have been defining a “fair” path towards a sustainable planet.

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#Lossanddamage: The next step for the Commonwealth’s small states

The first of the sessions, a webinar entitled Ensuring a Just Energy Transition across the Commonwealth and organised by the Commonwealth Foundation as part of its Critical Conversations series, took place on 18 October.

A seat at the table

In a pre-recorded video played at the Foundation’s webinar, Tuvalu MP Simon Kofe defined a “just transition” as a clear plan to phase out fossil fuels without hurting those countries that are already feeling the impact of climate change. Talking about better access to climate finance, he said: “We need a transition that leaves no country behind”.

Sharan Burrow, the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), said it is promoting “climate justice” to unionised and informal workers to accept the value of the transition to sustainable energy, even when it affects their current jobs.

The Executive Director of Climate Action Network International (CAN-I), Tasneem Essop, spoke of the need for climate “justice” and bringing those feeling the impact of climate change to the discussion table and not just in a “tick box fashion”.

Alisi Rabukawaqa-Nacewa of the climate grassroots network has been working with Fijian and wider Pacific groups since 2017. She advised the Foundation webinar on working with “the communities feeling the impact” of climate change to find solutions to climate justice.

Environmental scientist Dipti Bhatnagar is a Climate Justice and Energy Program coordinator at Friends of the Earth International based in Mozambique. She saw climate justice as “a change in power relations” from the large energy interests calling the shots to discussions being led by those using the energy, from communities at a local level to indigenous groups.

A Commonwealth role

Racquel Moses is a UNFCCC Global Ambassador and CEO of Caribbean Climate-Smart Accelerator. She is also the newest UN Global Ambassador in the Race to Zero Campaign. As the webinar moderator, she asked her panellists whether the Commonwealth could do more with “our strength in numbers”.

She suggested that the Commonwealth “must promote a shift in the leadership paradigm”, giving small island states more of a say in the transition. She suggested that the motivation for this would need to come from the people of the Commonwealth putting pressure on their leaders to put green issues at the top of national political agendas.

Friends of the Earth International’s Dipti Bhatnagar said that the Commonwealth is in a position to forge an equal partnership, based on the lessons from its colonial past. She maintained that the Commonwealth could provide the “amazing space” to dismantle the current global top-down approach to discussions on green transitions.

CAN-I’s Tasneem Essop said that a “deep acknowledgement of the past” would allow the Commonwealth to argue the case for a new form of climate financing which she described as moving away from “a notion that this is charity …. No, this is reparation.”

Sharan Burrow of the ITUC said that the Commonwealth had the basis for equal partnerships to create a network on climate change that “puts itself in the shoes of the smallest and most vulnerable” member.

Resource curse

On 19 October, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICwS) held a webinar to explore the other side of the transition story – how two fossil-rich Commonwealth nations could move to sustainable and green economies in the face of much-needed oil and gas riches.

The ICwS session, entitled Challenges to green transitions – the case of Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago, explored what a traditional oil economy (Trinidad) and a newly-rich economy (Guyana) could do to develop viable sustainable green transition plans beyond current attempts. They also mentioned Suriname and its new resource finds.

Professor Roger Hosein of the University of the West Indies (UWI) spoke of the “resource curse” of Trinidad’s oil wealth with subsidised gas, cheap electric and very little incentive to change the status quo.

“None of these governments [Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname] will be under any tremendous pressure to create urgent change,” Prof Hosein told the ICwS webinar.

Dr Thomas Singh of the University of Guyana said that his country’s recent oil finds, the state control of energy strategy and the lack of international pressure to go green in the face of new energy resources, meant that Guyana was not thinking “beyond oil”.

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Associate Professor in the Department of Forest Resources Management at the University of British Colombia, Dr Janette Bulkan is a member of the Council of the Commonwealth Forestry Association. She looked at Guyana’s most recent Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) 2040 paper. However, without any tangible action points or a process allowing multi-stakeholder engagement in the energy industry, Dr Bulkan described the LCDS paper as a “a very inspirational document” that “we can wave at the foreigners”.

Roger Hosein said that people still wanted their “share” of the oil wealth and that, even with an “understanding of green energy”, there remained little drive to change the status quo. He called on NGOs in the global north to provide support for green transition civil society groups in small societies to break this mindset.

Dr Balkan said that small oil-rich countries needed green transition support from big countries including the UK, America and Canada – whose leaders were currently sending the wrong signals to Guyana on oil and gas exploration.

She said: “The oil goes north for processing … Guyanese are going to be left with … the costs, the risks of rising sea levels … [from] the mad digging of more and more wells in this kind of unaudited way.”

During this series of discussions, panellists agreed that the Commonwealth could be uniquely placed to lead on this, but only if it could openly discuss its imperial history, the history of pollution caused by its most powerful members and look at a more equitable discussion amongst its 56 member nations.

As Dipti Bhatnagar told the first Commonwealth Foundation discussion: “If we don’t understand how we got here … we’re not going to find a path out.”

 Debbie Ransome is the website editor for the Round Table.

Related articles and sessions:

Climate reparations: What must COP27 deliver? – Second Commonwealth Foundation webinar (25 October)

The Commonwealth at COP27 – timetable of events – Commonwealth Secretariat

COP27 (6-18 November) – Summit website