Global Issues, Local Solutions

International cooperation will play a key part in our approach to tackling rising global emissions. ROSL Central Council member Paul Arkwright CMG, former UK High Commissioner to Nigeria and the UK’s former COP26 Regional Ambassador for Sub-Saharan Africa, tells Mark Brierley what the challenges facing the region are when it comes to climate change

With COP26 taking place later this year, how far do you think targets need to go beyond current agreements if we are to succeed in keeping global warming below 1.5-2 degrees?

We need to go quite some distance beyond the current efforts that are being made internationally. If we continue on the trajectory from the Paris climate change agreement of five years ago, then we would miss the 1.5-2 degree target by a considerable margin. So, we need to make additional efforts both in terms of NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions), which are set by governments, and through new commitments from business, industry, and civil society. It’s a whole of society effort to make sure that we make even more ambitious plans.

As you say, it’s not only governments, it’s the whole of society’s responsibility. Do you think the weight of public opinion is swinging in the right direction?

Yes, it’s moving in the right direction, I’m just not sure it has moved far enough quite yet. A lot of businesses are now realising they have a responsibility to do more and so, a lot of them are signing up to ‘Race to Zero’; an initiative for the private sector to go carbon neutral by 2050. We’re seeing more businesses sign up, from SMEs to large multinationals. So, there’s a lot of momentum building, but the challenge is that it’s easy to say we will be carbon neutral by 2050, but implementing that commitment involves taking very difficult decisions that are needed to make it a reality.

In the run up to COP26 and after it, we’re going to need to see some very hard-headed plans on how these targets are going to be reached in terms of the practical action they are going to take to decarbonise their activities.

In terms of civil society, you have the very active NGOs and people like Greta Thunberg, but what it needs is even more of a realisation amongst the wider public, the consumer, especially in the West and places like China, of the need to change personal behaviour. Again, we are seeing that, but it needs to accelerate. People’s lifestyles will need to change, but just how much is the question. People are waiting for the silver bullet of technology to help get us out of this, but I think people’s approach and attitudes need to change radically pretty early on in order for consumers to make a difference. You can do that by going to the supermarket and looking at the labels, and working out for yourself what is harmful and what might benefit the planet. Spending power is one of those really big factors in moving things in the right direction.

COP26 had been planned as the largest ever international gathering hosted by the UK with 30,000 attendees. How appropriate do you think this is given the subject of the summit and can the summit still work effectively remotely in a post-Covid environment?

There’s a valid criticism about flying in all of these participants and that’s something that needs to be looked at in terms of carbon offsets, for example. But it’s not just 30,000 gathering to have a chat, it’s about the working groups, the negotiators, the heads of government, coming together physically to come up with an agreement on a way forward. That’s much more difficult to do in a virtual world. The other downside to an entirely virtual event is that it penalises the smaller countries that might not have the resources, perhaps not even the internet access, and fear that they may be frozen out of the negotiations.

I can see some kind of hybrid event, where you would have a smaller number of delegates, perhaps two or three negotiators per country and ministerial-level representation meeting physically. The political decisions and trade offs that are needed are much easier to achieve if people are physically present. So, perhaps a high-level segment of leaders together towards the end of the summit, and then some kind of virtual conference for the majority.

What will be the specifics discussed and agreements that will be thrashed out at the summit to ensure global warming remains below 1.5-2 degrees? Can we afford to wait another five years for international agreement if nothing is decided at COP26?

The bulk of the negotiation over what should happen was completed five years ago in Paris. There are a few small quite technical things that have not yet been agreed, such as the carbon trading mechanism that needs to be established, and a few other areas where COP26 should bring about agreement. This COP is not about renegotiating the treaty, it’s about moving forward with implementation with what has already been agreed. That will be the key to the success. It’s both a chance to take stock; to see where we are, with each country coming forward with more ambitious NDCs; and also to come to an agreement on a way forward in order to speed up the momentum. That will need some kind of roadmap where we can hold ourselves to account for progress that is made over the next five years. If a country says it will halve emissions by 2030, that should of course be applauded, but the question remains: how will you achieve that?

And if agreement couldn’t be reached, could we afford to wait another five years?

Scientists say we are at a crossroads every year in terms of climate change, but I really do think, having looked at the way the graphs are going, we need to move emissions downwards on a fairly steep trajectory. That needed to have started several years ago. There are signs that emissions are levelling off, but now we really need to start reducing emissions significantly. If we were to wait another five years, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to bend that curve down.

What are the specific challenges facing Sub-Saharan Africa when it comes to climate change? The next COP27 is also scheduled to be hosted in Africa. Is this the perfect opportunity for the needs of the continent to be put forward?

Africa is one of the regions that is most affected by climate change but which is least responsible for causing climate change. They are directly affected by droughts, floods, desertification, and agricultural disasters such as the locust infestation that devastated East Africa last year. They are also impacted by lack of access to energy, so the question of how you get the energy to the vast number of people in Africa who don’t have access is a tricky one. A number of countries are producers of fossil fuels and are dependent on their export to keep their economies going. African countries need a lot of support in terms of adaptation and resilience, climate financing, energy transition, and so on. The potential for renewable energy is massive, in solar, wind and hydro, but they can’t just flick a switch and turn from fossil fuels to renewables. You have to have an energy transition. So, there are complexities to the situation in Africa that need to be addressed in the COP discussions. And in my view, we in the West have a responsibility to support Africa – after all, it’s in our interest to ensure Africa thrives in the decades ahead.

Many countries in Africa are very ambitious when it comes to their climate change targets and are not denying the consequences of climate change. They understand the impact that it is having on their citizens and their livelihoods. They do have many of the answers themselves, we just have to make sure they are properly supported and financed to achieve those.

The combination of COP27 in Africa next year and CHOGM in Rwanda later this year will throw a spotlight on Africa. It will mean that the world is forced to face up to and address these issues that are arising in the region. The Commonwealth can be a force for good in this respect, given that it represents something like a third of the global population and that there are 19 African countries as members. One of the key strengths of the Commonwealth is the networks that it builds, the way that it spreads best practice. It’s vital that the Commonwealth has a voice and uses that voice when it comes to issues like climate change. I’m sure the outcomes we will see from CHOGM in Kigali will reflect the importance of the issue: the meeting will be a key milestone on the road to Glasgow in November.

It’s also worth mentioning the role of the Prince of Wales in this context. At the last CHOGM, it was agreed that he would be the Head of the Commonwealth when the time came, and as we know, he is very focused and passionate about the environment, so he could really help to galvanise action.

With the G7 also taking place this year, what is their role in tackling climate change? Are the world’s leading economies leading by example? And should they dictate the way in which other countries develop when it comes to climate change policies?

I think they have to take responsibility for being among the top emitters in the world. This G7 in Cornwall will also see India, South Korea, Australia, and South Africa invited, who are also large emitters. So the G7 needs to reflect global climate change ambition as they discuss the overarching themes of the global economic recovery from Covid. We now have the new US administration, President Biden, providing global leadership on climate change that has been missing in the last four years. It’s a coincidence, but a happy one, that the UK is hosting both COP and the G7: it’s a golden opportunity for the UK to take the lead in bringing us back from the brink.

But crucially, the G7 can’t dictate to smaller countries what they need to do. The G7 must set the right example by setting very ambitious targets for themselves. They can also lead the way when it comes to innovation and technology – and sharing the benefits of that research – to allow the energy transition to become a reality. It’s a very strongly held view in Africa that we in the West developed and industrialised on the back of fossil fuels, so who are we to tell developing nations that they can’t use the same methods to improve the lives of their people and help lift them out of poverty? So, it’s a matter of supporting and encouraging them to move in the direction of renewable energy without dictating or lecturing, providing the example ourselves in terms of policy and implementation that shows we are serious about tackling the most pressing global issue of our time.