The Modern Commonwealth: Opportunities and Challenges

Part of International Women’S Day – in the House of Commons at 4:16 pm on 7th March 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East 4:16 pm, 7th March 2019

I want to focus today on a matter that has already been mentioned: the adoption at CHOGM last year of the Commonwealth blue charter. Some Commonwealth countries are among those most affected by our failure to tackle what we should now call the climate emergency. We have heard of droughts in the Caribbean, Australia and many parts of Africa, sea level rises in Bangladesh causing flooding, loss of livelihoods, and what could become the climate migration of more than 20 million displaced people.

In 2013 it was reported that in Tanzania, Mount Kilimanjaro’s shrinking northern glaciers, which are thought to be 10,000 years old, could disappear by 2030. In fact forecasts show that both Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro could be without ice within a decade. But I want to talk today mostly about the Commonwealth’s small island states, many of which are already vulnerable on a number of fronts—their size, their remoteness, and their narrow resource and export base. They are now increasingly being affected by climate change and extreme weather events.

In the Caribbean, islands are experiencing more intense hurricanes, coastal erosion and rising sea levels, and their fisheries are also highly vulnerable to climate change. In Kiribati in the Pacific the shorelines are being pounded away by high tides: whole villages are having to be relocated, food crops are being destroyed, and freshwater supplies are contaminated by sea water.

In the Indian ocean, around the Seychelles and Mauritius much of the coral reef has been lost to bleaching. If sea levels rise by 1 metre, the Maldives, which was in the Commonwealth until a few years ago and may yet return, will disappear entirely.

Climate change is not the only environmental threat. There has been a very welcome rise in public and political awareness of plastic pollution in recent years. Richard Branson recently led a dive expedition to the bottom of the beautiful Blue Hole in Belize, which is 400 feet deep, and found plastic bottles. In his blog he wrote that

“the real monsters facing the ocean are climate change—and plastic. Sadly, we saw plastic bottles at the bottom of the hole, which is a real scourge of the ocean. We’ve all got to get rid of single-use plastic.”

I have dived in Belize and it remains the most beautiful place that I have dived. I have not been to the bottom of the Blue Hole but I can pay testament to just how upsetting it is to see man-made pollution wrecking the marine environment.

Other threats the oceans face include ocean acidification, which has been described as the “evil twin” of global warming, and unsustainable fishing, whether over-fishing or environmentally damaging pulse fishing and bottom trawling. There is also a real issue with waste disposal in small island states. They do not have space for landfill, so where do they put the rubbish? With the ban from China, and with Malaysia now refusing to take waste, including that from the UK, that issue has become an ever more pressing problem.

For many of these small island states, there is a conflict between immediate economic needs and environmental protection. In the Seychelles, for example, the fisheries sector is the second largest industry after tourism, and 95% of its exports are fish products such as canned tuna. The Seychelles also have amazing biodiversity, especially round Aldabra, the world’s second largest coral atoll. Six plant studies students from Oxford University have just gone out there, along with six Seychellois students, to do a three to five-week plastic clean-up project, and I am looking forward to hearing what they report back.

In a recent debt-for-nature deal with a US conservation group, $21 million of Seychelles debt was written off in return for the island nation committing to designating 30% of its waters as marine protected areas. That sounds like a great initiative. With the help of the World Bank, the Seychelles have also raised $15 million through the world’s first sovereign blue bond, which is designed to support sustainable marine and fisheries initiatives. Again, these are examples of the positive things that are happening to help the small island states, but we need to move faster.

It is quite depressing to look back at past efforts to address these issues. In 1994, the first meeting of the small island developing states on sustainable development was held in Barbados, and it resulted in a 14-point programme of action. The first listed priority area was climate change and sea level rise, followed by natural and environmental disasters, management of waste, coastal and marine resources, freshwater resources and more, but that was 25 years ago, and it does not feel as though much progress has been made since then—certainly not enough.

It was 10 years ago, before the Copenhagen climate summit, that the then President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, held an underwater Cabinet meeting to highlight the impact of rising sea levels. He warned that with a 2° rise in temperatures, his country would be “on death row”, yet it is only in the past year or so that it is becoming accepted that limiting temperature rises to 2° would not be sufficient to address the climate emergency, and that 1.5° should be the target.

I hope that the discussions at CHOGM 2018 will represent a much greater step forward. It was acknowledged at CHOGM that temperature and sea level rises, and other aspects of climate change, posed a significant risk to many of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable member countries, and that climate change could push an additional 100 million people into poverty by 2030. There was renewed support for a target well below 2°, along with support for innovative financing solutions including disaster risk insurance, which is important for farmers affected by climate change. It was agreed to establish action groups on ocean issues led by Commonwealth member countries, and for the secretariat to take forward the Commonwealth blue charter. The UK is the chair of CHOGM until Rwanda takes over in two years’ time, and I really hope that we will be in the forefront of pushing this forward.