We have 32 countries on the frontlines of climate change

The Commonwealth grouping was among the early multilateral bodies to evolve a practical action plan for members to promote environmental sustainability. The organisation’s Secretary-General Patricia Scotland speaks to Manka Behl about their current programme to deal with the fallout of climate change.

Do you see any correlation between the global pandemic and climate change? 

Climate change is now striking, at the same time as the coronavirus pandemic takes control over people’s lives, their mobility, and their livelihoods.

This poses a lethal threat to South Asia and the Caribbean, which prepare for monsoon and the hurricane seasons respectively. The current climate-linked disaster management strategy does not take into account the multiple risks, including pandemics, while planning rehabilitation and reconstruction. However, we, through the Common Earth programme, are working to try and connect those two elements.

What has been the role of the Commonwealth in combating climate change? 

We are 54 countries. Our combined population is 2.4 billion. 60% of our citizens are under the age of 30. So, it’s predominantly a young Commonwealth. 32 countries are classified as small states and 24 of them are small island states. Therefore, they are extremely vulnerable on several fronts.

The Commonwealth has a very long history of demonstrating its collective political will to protect the planet for future generations. In 1989, our leaders, which included India, signed the remarkably prescient declaration at Langkawi in Malaysia that warned about the degradation of the environment from the greenhouse effect. The reason we kept on banging this drum so loudly in the international community is that we have those 32 small, vulnerable countries which are on the frontline of climate change.

What role does India play in meeting the Commonwealth’s climate ambitions?

India is 50% of the Commonwealth. You also have two islands. So, within India itself, you have coastal areas, tropical areas, desert, cold desert and river island systems.

These multiple ecosystems mean that India is living with the reality of having to manage a multiplicity of factors and develop a holistic response to the climate challenge that is omnipresent. So you’ve got to look at what’s happening in the Ganges, but at the same time, you have to manage what is happening in the Himalayas, because those two are going to influence whether India will be able to adequately feed herself. So these challenges of how you keep the whole of the Indian population together, I think is really fascinating but it’s of pivotal importance to the rest of our Commonwealth.

Which are the countries that you see as the key players and why?

There are some really ambitious countries in our Commonwealth. India is one of those leading the way, but New Zealand and the UK are leading because they just successfully announced a net-zero target (of carbon emissions) by 2050.

I feel that adoption of the decarbonisation goal as a way of translating temperature goals into more tangible targets is important and I think a very realistic way forward.

The UN has postponed the COP26 climate summit. What impact will this have in the progress made by different countries to meet their climate goals?

I think COP26 has a real opportunity for us. But the challenge will be that the negotiations are not happening; it will curtail the momentum and action.

We should think about hosting such events virtually using the digital technologies and platforms and achieving the same-level result, following virtual negotiations. We have already seen that virtual meetings are leaving no carbon footprint. Also, we need to be more coordinated and realistic while setting targets for climate action.

What is the Commonwealth’s contribution to meeting the Paris goals?

We are really supporting our member countries in enhancing their climate ambitions. We have created the mechanisms which will help our member states fulfil those Paris goals. So, for example, we’ve created the Blue Charter which deals with oceans because sea level rise has been a huge issue. Our projects are focussing on how we adapt and how we mitigate climate change. And they’re making material contributions to the climate country-level commitments that have been made by all our member states.

71% of the work we do on climate finance access is on adaptation. I think that’s a pretty impressive contribution to make sure that Paris isn’t just a dream, it is going to be a reality. Multilateral action is really needed by governments around the world to meet the Paris Climate Agreement. Now, as part of this, I think scaling up and the broader use of tools such as debt swap and blended finance, would help quickly overcome the gaps in financing that is needed for climate change adaptation.

And at a time when other international, multilateral groupings seem to be falling apart, I’m so proud and grateful that the 54 countries of our Commonwealth are sticking together.

This story was written by Manka Behl for The Times of India. Read the original here.

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