When Heads of Government assemble in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November, a massive challenge to the 54 member states of the Commonwealth will be on the table. After all, 32 of them are classified as small states and all of these often find it hard to get their message across in large international fora on their own, yet climate change threatens them all. So the need to work together is essential, along with other small states in the Francophonie and beyond.
The Commonwealth Secretariat has placed itself at the heart of this process, but the difficulty lies in the fact that the global climate change agenda is vast. The COP-26 website states the objective to “Secure global net zero mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach”. This requires adaptation in so many areas and the priorities of the large powers and the small states are not always in sync. There is agreement that a practical programme of action must result, but that is the easy bit. After all, the oceans and the plastic that lies within does not rate a mention on the COP-26 website under “What must we achieve?”, let alone rising sea levels. Of course, we are told keeping within 1.5 degrees lies at the heart of this. So is the time right to bring out the Commonwealth Blue Charter? Let us not forget that the oceans affect so many Commonwealth Countries and for them it is a top priority.
There are many other questions to answer and no space to list them here. Yet under “need to achieve” comes the need to adapt to protect communities and natural habitats. At a recent Commonwealth Foundation Critical Conversation, involving younger people from all around the Commonwealth, the question of what the limits to adaptation might be was raised and from which a lively discussion followed. The answer was never clear and that flowed on to the recognised need to mobilize finances and meet the requirement for £100 billion in public and private sector finances. In that respect, governments at conferences such as this are great when it comes to pledging large amounts but not quite so good at coughing up, yet nothing seriously substantive will be achieved without a major input of required resources. So accountability is no longer a nice idea. It needs to be pursued with vigour and that requires political will.
So the call is “Work together to deliver” and who can argue against that? Suggested under that is finalise the Paris Rule Book and accelerate action to tackle the climate crisis collaboration between governments, businesses and civil society. It seems that the Commonwealth is eager to promote such an agenda, but it is too late for talk so a real and a manageable programme for real action is needed to emerge from the conference.
As mentioned, as the Commonwealth has so many countries on the front line of the climate change battle, its collective voice must be heard. Had CHOGM been held in Kigali, Rwanda, that would have presented a great opportunity but COVID-19 put paid to that. So the voice of the smaller countries need solid support from the larger and financially important ones ones such as Australia, Canada, India, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom. The collective voice of Africa is also most important including Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and South Africa.
That brings me to the role of the United Kingdom as host. It is in a unique position to ensure that the collective voice of the Commonwealth is heard clearly and strongly in Glasgow. I am delighted that the small civil society organisation that I chair, namely the Commonwealth Human Ecology Council (CHEC), has been given provisional accreditation should Heads so approve. We will organise a webinar in October to air all these important issues. At the same time we must encourage Commonwealth member states to make their voices heard not just collectively but also regionally. Never has the phrase “put your shoulder to the wheel” had more relevance.
We must always remember that COP-26 is not the end of the process, but a step on the road to something really meaningful. There must be no waving of magic wands, the need is for a programme of practical action that is both understandable and believable.
In that respect it should be remembered that The Queen’s Canopy, thanks to the hard work of the Royal Commonwealth Society, is going from strength to strength now involving 52 countries. Planting trees and establishing new forests go to the heart of sustainability and if an example of practical action is needed that is one.
Mark Robinson is a member of the Round Table editorial board.