With CHOGM further postponed, to whom do small Commonwealth States turn for support at COP26?

article by David Wardrop

Preparations for COP26, now only six months ahead, are well underway but what form will it take? Siren voices warn that COVID19’s ravage will still roam a world still too sparsely vaccinated to dare to travel to Glasgow. However, if the conference is to avoid a second postponement, its host, the UK should prepare for a virtual event. That would be a disaster for smaller countries, argues Damian Carrington, writing in The Guardian. “Because the UNFCCC requires consensus, a handful of wrecking nations can wreak havoc. At the last Cop, in Madrid in 2019, Brazil held the rest of the world to ransom, refusing to sign up to new carbon rules.”

Carrington recalls that it was on the floor of the Durban conference, the pathway to the successful Paris Summit of 2015, that the EU outfaced both India and China, securing promises of emissions reduction. Nobody likes being humiliated with the entire world watching on but that would not have worked in a virtual environment.

COP26 Glasgow 2021 - Iberdrola

But the Summit is not only for large states, those charged with emitting the greenhouse gasses blamed for our crisis. Also present, in-person or virtual, will be a host of others, the smallest one hundred of which between them contribute only one percent of those damaging emissions but who suffer most from the impact of climate change. Their fate depends on recognition of their plight by the large countries. In a virtual community, as Carrington points out, they can be easily ignored. Not so in-person.

“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”. To prevent this old African proverb putting its signature on COP26, we must ensure that the voices of Less Developed Countries (LDC) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are properly heard. It is important that joint strategies are agreed, and binding alliances formed.

The challenges and dangers caused by climate change facing LDC and SIDS, especially those in the Commonwealth, were tackled in a recent conference in London co-hosted by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICwS) and Westminster UNA. Speakers urged Commonwealth members to ensure that their biennial meeting (CHOGM) scheduled to be held in Kigali in June would lead to a strong and united message addressing the climate change crisis. They and the conference organisers left the event hopeful that at CHOGM, the ‘elephants’ of the Commonwealth and their smaller partners in the forest could thrash out a win-win shared policy to be advanced in Glasgow with confidence and with a sense of equity. But now those hopes are dashed as we learn that CHOGM will not now take place in Kigali in June.

So, without CHOGM to generate that needed sense of focus and strategy for member states, large and small, which they could deploy at COP26, where now do the LDC and SIDS turn for support as they prepare to enter the COP26 arena? Two speakers at the recent London conference, both experienced diplomats representing SIDS, shared their fears that large Commonwealth members, prolific greenhouse gas emitters like India, Australia, Canada and the UK would discount the fears of their smaller cousins when arriving at deals in Glasgow. And if they did not meet up in Glasgow but online instead, then their fears of being discounted altogether would be only strengthened. Either way, the Commonwealth must act now to allay the fears of its smaller members.

So, what should be its plan, one that can allay those fears and also to prepare for COP26 with the confidence worthy of an alliance of fifty-four countries, however loosely linked, and with a total population of 2.4 billion? The Commonwealth must prepare at the soonest moment its policy, one that is radical, inclusive and self-confident. Its commitment to all its members must honour the powerful leitmotif of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – ‘leave no-one behind’.  

What should be the Commonwealth’s next steps? Justin Mundy, its recently appointed Special Envoy on Climate Change, must set up a platform for an online event which sets out the necessary parameters to satisfy small and large member alike. The balance between mitigation (for large members) and funding for resilience and adaptation (for small ones) must satisfy both groups. Only if this is achieved will the Commonwealth be recognised in Glasgow as exercising the power it should and to best effect. Those next steps should be taken now.     

[The House of Lords has debated this issue on Monday 17 May]

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