Climate Change and the Commonwealth: building global resilience

Henry Bellingham: "The Commonwealth is a network that represents the full spectrum of countries affected by climate change"

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Henry Bellingham

Ladies and Gentleman, I’m delighted to be here at the RCS. I’m grateful for that introduction and to be joined on the panel by Neil, Vivien and Amanda to talk today about climate change and how we must build global resilience to face it.

Climate change is one of the greatest common challenges facing the modern world. This is well known and widely acknowledged. But, at the same time, discussing the challenge of climate change can sometimes leave one feeling distant or removed from the terrible human cost that is being incurred.

As the Minister for Africa and the Overseas Territories in the Foreign Office, climate change is simply not an issue that I consider in the abstract.

My role in Government enables me to get close to the people and places that are being put in danger by this grave threat.

In Tanzania in May this year I was given a book put together by local photojournalists, whose pictures illustrated powerfully the changes to people’s lives that climate change had wrought: elderly women in Namakongoro Village in Lindi, for example, having to descend a precarious 30m home-made bamboo ladder to fetch water from caves because the waterholes have dried up. And talking of Tanzania, we’ve all seen, over the years, those extraordinary pictures of Kilimanjaro with the snow on top. That snow is now receding up the summit.

I want to understand more about the challenges ahead for Africa. So I will invite all heads of African missions in London to accompany me in the coming weeks on a fact-finding visit to the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, to see their world-leading work on climate science.

As Minister responsible for the Overseas Territories, I know that for many islands climate change presents an existential threat. One that cannot be undone. Many Pacific islands are becoming uninhabitable as changing rainfall patterns and rising sea levels combine to reduce supplies of drinking water and food.
This is terrifying reality is brought home to me by the meetings I have with my counterparts from those parts of the world.

And, of course, developed countries are not immune from the effects of climate change. In my own constituency I can see the consequences of extreme weather, with more floods, sea defences coming under intense pressure and more and more instances of high, gale force winds. While no one weather event can ever be linked with certainty to climate change, the impacts we are seeing provide a vivid illustration of the future. The UK floods in the summer of 2007 damaged more than 55,000 homes and businesses, with insured losses estimated at nearly £3 billion.

In Australia earlier this year we saw floods and a cyclone that devastated communities, farms and mines; indeed coal production from the region may not return to normal until next year. And we’re currently witnessing Pakistan’s second successive year of devastating floods and these floods have tragically claimed the lives of 200 people and an estimated 5 million people have been affected.

And in the US at the moment, we have another vivid illustration of the impacts we are likely to see if heat waves become more extreme. The costs of the current drought will ripple through the entire economy.

But climate change will, and is already, hitting the poorest hardest. And thirty two of the smallest and most vulnerable states belong to the Commonwealth. So this is why I want to talk today about Climate Change and the Commonwealth - because the Commonwealth is a network that represents the full spectrum of countries affected by climate change and covers every continent across the globe. But also because the Commonwealth countries are anchored by a shared set of values and a commitment to promoting global peace and stability.

A measure of how far the international community has come in recognising the threat of climate change - and our collective responsibility to face it - was clear at the UN Security climate change debate in July - only the second of its kind. And when Admiral Neil Morisetti and I engaged with critical partners beforehand to secure a substantive outcome from the debate - this was undoubtedly one of our top priorities in New York at the time. Because for the very first time, the Council issued a Presidential Statement recognising the role of climate change as a risk multiplier, exacerbating threats to international peace and security.

A remarkable 62 countries spoke in the debate. Sudan said that drought and desertification brought on by climate change had played a crucial role as a threat multiplier in the conflict in Darfur, and in that conflict $3 billion has been spent on peacekeeping operations. Kenya spoke about how many people had entered Kenya just in the preceding month, and tragically they are still coming into the refugee camps. I am delighted to be joined today by His Excellency, the Kenyan High Commissioner. They have joined those Somalis who had already sought refuge in the country, driven by the lack of food, water and security. I spent a day in July visiting the Somali region of Ethiopia and had a chance to see for myself the effects of the current drought.

The UN Environment Programme said that 10 UN Security Council-mandated peacekeeping operations costing $35 billion had been deployed to countries where natural resources had played a key role in conflict. That represents half of the total peacekeeping budget ever spent. And if people say, ‘does it affect Britain, why is Britain concerned?’ we pay roughly 8% of every UN mission and are a major contributor and therefore have a huge stake in what happens.

As the Foreign Secretary laid out in a speech last year, “you cannot have food, water, or energy security without climate security… and as the world becomes more networked, the impacts of climate change in one country or region will affect the prosperity and security of others around the world.”

But despite this, some countries felt that climate change was not an appropriate subject for discussion in the Security Council. I will not name names because I am a diplomat. But we strongly disagree.

While the lead organisation is the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change (the UNFCCC), it is now impossible to ignore that climate change is a threat to international peace and security and therefore, we believe, it must come under consideration at the Security Council.

I’m delighted that Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, the Government’s Climate and Energy Security Special Envoy, is here on the panel, as he can tell you more about the work this government is doing to address the links between climate and resource security - both here in the UK and with partners overseas.

So this is where we find ourselves; with an emerging understanding of the problem we face, but not yet a consensus on how best to tackle it.

So what do we need to do

We have made some progress. In Cancun last year, we agreed a goal of limiting average global temperature rise to within 2 degrees of pre-industrial levels - indeed, many developing countries have understandably called for an even stricter target. Beyond that limit, climate change poses a catastrophic threat.

But we are not on track to meet the 2 degree goal and time is running out. So we must increase our efforts in line not with what seems possible, but with what we know is necessary.

The core goals of our foreign policy are to guarantee security and prosperity. Robust action on climate change is essential to that. We must summon collective will among nations in order to protect national and global interests.


We need to summon the will not just to avert disaster, but also to seize the opportunities of low carbon growth in trade, investment and new industries. I believe that the discussion so far has been dominated by costs. Too many are scared that moving too quickly away from the high carbon economy would mean unbearable short term cost in growth, jobs, and competitiveness. At the same time, the economic crisis has opened up a period of urgent reflection about the conditions for growth. Where will future growth come from? What systemic risks do we face?

I believe, very strongly, that hhigh carbon growth will fail, as it will undermine the food, water, energy and climate stability on which growth depends. Any low growth attempt to solve the climate problem will also fail, because that won’t bring prosperity. Low carbon, climate resilient development can and must be high growth. It is also the only sustainable option.

Yes, there will be transactional costs in moving to a low carbon economy, but they are manageable. It is governments’ role to minimise these costs and ensure they are shared fairly.

But what we understand much better now - and why the Prime Minister has committed the UK to leading by example as the greenest government ever - are the opportunities. We shall use the opportunity of the low carbon transition to mobilise capital for upgrading Britain’s infrastructure and boost high value manufacturing.

Our innovative policies, such as the Green Deal and the Green Investment Bank are designed to offer the policy stability that businesses need to invest. This will help UK business become market leaders in the low carbon transition.

It is through these policies that we have built a global reputation as leaders on this issue - I’ve seen that in my travels. It is our domestic plans that give us the credibility to encourage others to act. We do need all countries to do their part, and we are saying “follow us” rather than “after you”.

Climate change is a threat multiplier. But we can make low carbon, climate resilient growth a security multiplier: by using resources more efficiently we will ease resource stresses and reduce our vulnerability to food and oil price shocks.

It is in developing countries that the challenge is most acute. The low-income countries of the Commonwealth are desperate for more and cheaper power. Some 1.4 billion people worldwide have no electricity: their first priority is to get power - to pump water, raise agricultural output and, in short, survive. Finding low carbon ways of meeting their essential needs is crucial. And there are options. India, with an estimated 450 million people without access to energy and rising consumption, is leading the way with huge efforts in solar power - both small scale off-grid options, and to add grid capacity.
With UK climate finance we are helping Bangladesh to make full use of low-carbon options in its plan to provide electricity to its entire rural population by 2020.

Trade will play a major role in enabling the rapid diffusion of technology for the transition to a low carbon, climate resilient economy to be done in the most cost efficient and fastest manner. Through trade, developing countries will be able to leap-frog old, carbon inefficient technologies and move straight to clean technologies. Just as farmers in rural Africa haven’t bothered with land-lines, but moved straight to mobile phones - which they are now using to access information about climate and weather, pest management and sources of capital. And indeed, catching up on the latest coffee prices on the Ethiopian commodity exchange.

This is why at the FCO we are making green growth an integral part of our Prosperity Agenda - maximising opportunities in low carbon trade and investment, mainstreaming climate resilience into development work and working with business. From sustainable construction expertise, to wind and wave technologies, to financial markets, British businesses are well placed to be market leaders in this new global economy.

The unique role the Commonwealth can play

While the breadth of Commonwealth countries reflects the full spectrum of countries who stand to suffer the most serious impacts of climate change, the diversity of our economies means that we hold a wide pool of solutions: from governance structures and policies - such as Australia’s proposals for putting a price on carbon - to innovative technologies and world leading capacity in engineering and carbon finance.

The UK government fully supports the Eminent Persons Group’s emerging recommendations that the Commonwealth should continue to take a collective interest in issues such as climate change. I see the Commonwealth’s three major strengths as follows:

First is the power that comes from our sheer diversity and breadth. From business level waste and energy management techniques, through to large scale energy efficient infrastructure planning. Creative entrepreneurs are leading change and businesses as diverse as Fosters and Vodafone and they for example have adopted voluntary emissions targets.

Strong intra-commonwealth business groupings look to promote action, with the UK-India business leaders group on climate change providing an example of how this work can go forward. We can show that climate compatible development is possible for a whole range of economies: from smart metering in the UK to solar projects in Nigeria.

Secondly, the Commonwealth network carries weight when it speaks together. We showed this at the 2009 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Port of Spain when we called for a “Copenhagen Launch Fund.” This set the terms of debate for the Copenhagen climate change conference, where developed countries agreed to deliver $30bn in ‘fast start’ financing. This money is essential to help developing countries adapt and build their resilience to the impacts of climate change.

And we urgently need to ensure capital flows of both public and private finance are scaled up to a sufficient level.

I’ve seen on my travels the real appetite for this money among developing countries. In the run up to Durban it will be important to show how commitments are being turned into tangible projects. The UK is meeting our ‘fast start’ contribution with a £2.9bn International Climate Fund: helping 40 communities in Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique and Niger, for example, to protect incomes from floods and droughts; in North Africa, helping build 12 new concentrated solar power plants- providing clean electricity and thousands of jobs; and in the Congo for example, we have the Congo Basin Forest Fund developing the capacity of people and institutions to preserve and manage their forests.

But let’s be clear: beyond a certain point building resilience becomes impossible. You can no longer adapt when your land becomes submerged under water. An injection of money won’t be enough if this applies to 30 to 50 million people from Bangladesh’s coastal belt. So in major economies we need to go much faster to decarbonise our growth to make resilience a real possibility for the most vulnerable.

The Commonwealth has a longstanding commitment to supporting the poorest members of our family. The Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell will be speaking here next month, and I am sure he will have more to say on how the Commonwealth can further the international development agenda. But climate change threatens to undermine all the progress we have made. The Millennium Development Goals will not be achievable in a world that is failing to respond to climate change.

And I believe our final strength is the power of our collective imagination and will. In the Commonwealth we are a microcosm of broader global politics. And through the Commonwealth we have built trust in one another. That stands us in good stead for moving beyond the zero sum discussion of the UN negotiations that says “you do more, so that we can do less”.

We need to be more creative to understand climate change as a shared dilemma and to build new low carbon economies. We need to nurture new ideas and dialogue between our citizens. And our Commonwealth brand of democracy makes us well placed to build such imaginative solutions for the future. Above all, solutions that aren’t just manifestly sensible, but that also carry public support.

Next steps - Durban

That is why the UN climate conference in Durban at the end of this year matters. The global politics of climate change are currently at a low ebb - political leaders are understandably distracted by the immediacy of economic crisis. Negotiations got back on track at Cancun last year, but the process remains fragile.
Only a legally binding approach will send a strong enough signal to give business investors confidence to move rapidly low carbon. The EU has signalled our willingness to agree a second commitment of the Kyoto Protocol, but this must be part of a wider outcome with legally binding commitments for all - Kyoto alone is not sufficient to keep us within two degrees.

As the Foreign Secretary has said, to give up on a binding UN deal now would “be a strategic error. It mistakes the nature of the task, which is to expand the realm of the possible, not to lower our ambition by accepting its current limits.”

But we will not get agreement on a global, binding deal at the negotiations this year. We have to be realistic. Countries will only sign up to ambitious international commitments once they feel confident that low carbon growth can be high growth. That is why the Foreign Office will continue to play an important role complementing DECC’s lead in the negotiations. Through our extraordinary world-wide network we have the understanding of diplomacy and politics, and the alliances and the statecraft. We must build the global political conditions so that negotiators are given the mandate to find agreement.

Progress at Durban is essential to maintain investor confidence in the low carbon transition. I, and other UK Ministers, will be engaging with our international counterparts throughout the autumn to make this case. My message will be blunt: failure at Durban would be not just a severe blow to the climate change project but also to multilateralism more broadly.

South Africa has said they want to make Durban an “African COP” and the UK fully supports this goal. This means ensuring African voices are heard loud and clear. African countries are asking for greater ambition and urgency from major economies, and support to help them develop a low carbon, climate resilient way forward. That means making substantial progress on the issues that matter to Africans, such as delivery of climate finance. But most fundamentally it means pushing forward for a legally binding deal in line with the 2 degree limit.

CHOGM, Conclusions

CHOGM is coming up and CHOGM is where we must continue the Commonwealth conversation on Climate Change. This opportunity must be grasped with both hands.

You have heard me talk of the catastrophic impacts that will unfold if our collective strengths are not harnessed to guide the way to a low carbon future. For many Commonwealth members this is truly an existential threat. This is clear to the millions of people who live on vulnerable coasts and in low-lying Islands across the world.

And this is why this conference that is coming up is so incredibly important. It’s a conference where I believe the Commonwealth is going to have to come together and work together like never before for. And I do believe very strongly that the Commonwealth in the past has on so many occasions seized opportunities. The Commonwealth when it has been working together has been at its very best. I think that we’re seeing a challenge in the world maybe on a scale that we have never seen before. And I believe very strongly indeed, as does the Government, that we can’t just face the challenge as individual countries - we must face it together. Indeed, all these negotiations require unanimity. That is one of the strengths, but it is also one of the flaws. So we are facing a huge challenge. I think the Commonwealth is one of the organisations in the world that is best suited to not just rise to this challenge, but to seize the opportunity and to go forward. If we do that then we really will have achieved something that is greater than the Commonwealth has achieved before.

Thank you for your time.

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Published 15 September 2011