On the 16 April, 52 Commonwealth heads of state will gather in London for a biennial summit and the UK will become their official chair in office for the next two years. This role could have major implications for advancing global action on climate change and biodiversity loss.
Opinions are divided on the merits and geopolitical influence of the Commonwealth today but it undoubtedly has international clout. Best described as a ‘network of many intergovernmental, parliamentary, professional and civil society bodies’, its membership includes a huge variety of nations from the biggest to the smallest. Together they represent a third of the world’s population, $10 trillion in GDP and 25 per cent of the UN member states.
Unlike many other global fora, Commonwealth members carry equal weight, and this unique characteristic has allowed smaller states to build alliances, amplify their voices and raise concerns on a global scale. While they have no formal or binding obligations to each other, together the members’ collective ‘soft power’ and ability to generate consensus means the Commonwealth has an important role in the world, particularly in climate diplomacy.
Climate action will be a major topic on the agenda
The focus of this year’s summit is ‘a common future’ and tackling global challenges. Subjects up for discussion are trade and prosperity, environmental sustainability, security, fair governance and empowering youth and women.
It’s no surprise that climate change will be a big topic on the agenda as many of its members are small island states, highly vulnerable to climate change impacts. The UK’s role as chair this year is actually a result of extreme weather: Vanuatu was supposed to host, but was prevented by Cyclone Pam, which devastated the island’s infrastructure and economy in 2015.
The Commonwealth has a strong past record on climate and played a key role in the negotiation of the Paris agreement. In the run up to Paris, it successfully united its members (even sceptical ones like Canada) around the small island states’ demand for the inclusion in the agreement of the ambition to keep temperatures from rising above 1.5° C . And recently it established a Climate Finance Access Hub as a mechanism to help vulnerable countries build local capacity and mitigate against climate impacts.
A pivotal role for the UK over the next two years
The UK is set to shape the agenda and the role the Commonwealth plays over the next two years. We are responsible for ensuring that whatever is promised at the summit is delivered in the years to come. The prime minister has already announced her intention to reenergise and strengthen the relationship between Commonwealth members in dealing with future global challenges, including climate change.
It’s also a chance for us to revitalise our role as a climate leader at a time when we need to emphasise our reputation and standing in the world. The next two years will be eventful, not only because we are leaving the EU, but the Paris agreement comes into force in 2020, the same year as the deadline for meeting Global Biodiversity Targets and Sustainable Development Goals and setting new ones for 2030. This deadline is just two years away but only five per cent of countries are on track to meet the biodiversity targets. And nature in the UK is faring worse than in most other countries. Explicit Commonwealth effort to meet these targets alongside commitment to more ambitious climate pledges would be a significant achievement for the UK in our term as chair. Our leadership could help to make sure the Paris agreement becomes operational on time and demonstrate clear positive action to reverse global biodiversity loss.
Whilst it would be unfair to hold the UK responsible for other countries’ actions, in our role as chair of the Commonwealth we should lead by example. The recent Clean Growth Strategy and 25 year plan for the environment have the potential to do this as they promise great things but, so far, they lack the policies to follow through on the promise. As we prepare to celebrate the tenth anniversary of our groundbreaking Climate Change Act and take up a new role on the world stage, the UK has a unique chance to show the rest of the world it is a country that means business when it comes to paving the way towards a greener, more sustainable future.
[Image: Commonwealth Day, Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Flickr Creative Commons]