Saving the Commonwealth, and the planet

The recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London would have struck many as easy to dismiss as a byproduct of an acute colonial hangover.

On the contrary, however, I strongly believe that this year’s summit presented a historic opportunity for the Commonwealth to address its twin, and often complex legacies: empire and industrialisation. How? It can do this by using CHOGM as a launch pad for renewing, reaffirming and restructuring its global leadership on climate change.

Under the slogan of “Towards a common future,” the stated aim of the meeting was “to reaffirm our common values, address the shared global challenges we face and agree how to work to create a better future for all our citizens, particularly young people.”

Perhaps, unwittingly, this provides the perfect, galvanising context for discussing climate change, the greatest of all our challenges, and what is at stake—the next generation.

The threat we face is ultimately an existential one, and countries like India are on the front line. In 2016, India reported the highest number of deaths worldwide from extreme weather.

The Global Risk Index 2018, released at Cop 23, identified India as the sixth most vulnerable nation on earth when it comes to climate change, and the International Monetary Fund has pointed to a similar level of exposure. Meanwhile, millions of people have had their health blighted and their lives cut short by India’s world-beating levels of air pollution, with the country home to half the earth’s worst-polluted cities.

Despite this, we cannot escape the fact that 240 million Indians cannot take for granted what every Irishman or Icelander can—the simple joy of flicking a switch on a wall and being bathed with light. With 240 million of our 1.3 billion strong population still without electricity, India cannot forego the fruits of economic development enjoyed
by the west.

It is equally clear that, not withstanding its current reliance on coal, it cannot achieve this in the same way that the UK has, without imperilling the wellbeing of millions, if not billions of people. With Indian energy consumption predicted to double by 2030, it is universally acknowledged that—whether or not the world succeeds—keeping warming under 2C may ultimately be determined by the path that India takes.

But, the fate of India—and perhaps the world—does not rest in its own hands. And, that is where the UK (and the Commonwealth at large) comes in.

After leaving the European Union, Britain, to mint a phrase, has lost a continent and is looking for a role. Prime Minister Theresa May‘s government has identified a comprehensive free-trade deal with India as key to making a new global role for Britain a reality. The basis for seeking this is self-evident. India is already the world’s third-largest economy in purchasing power parity terms, and will become the world’s fifth largest economy in actual dollar terms this year (overtaking the UK). Trade between the two has stalled since the turn of the century, while trade with the EU has tripled. To reverse that trend, the UK must seek to strike a new kind of partnership with India to the mutual benefit of both. The shared opportunities and challenges in tackling climate change and pursuing clean growth offer a way forward. A misguided weakening of environmental standards, in order to strike a trade deal with the US, is not compatible with these aims.

Given US President Trump’s well-publicised denunciation of the Paris Agreement and his refusal to engage with the reality of climate change, there is a global leadership vacuum on climate change. Europe has sought to fill that, especially under Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, but is handicapped by the fact that it belongs entirely to the global North.

The Commonwealth is different. The UK began to show the way almost 10 years ago by passing the world’s first Climate Change Act and has since become a world leader in offshore wind power. The north and south both have a strong voice in the Commonwealth.

A new, even bolder vision and set of commitments is now required to meet the ambitions of the Paris Agreement. It has also become increasingly clear that growth, trade and climate mitigation can walk hand in hand.

Just as important in tackling climate change will be scaling up investment to the levels required. The city of London, as a world financial centre, will continue to have a key role in developing green finance and moving it into the mainstream.

These are all reasons for cautious optimism. There can be no Empire 2.0; Empire 1.0 was too disastrous to be replicated. But, there can be a New Commonwealth. The UK must seize the moment.