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The Commonwealth & Climate Change - Youth Perspective

Written by Abhiir Bhalla |

The key to unlocking the (thus far untapped) vast power and potential of the Commonwealth entails resisting the temptation to define it solely in terms of common ideals and values… The lock to that key is what we’ve come to know as the climate crisis.

A concrete vision for the Commonwealth has been long required. The 2013 Charter of the Commonwealth was certainly a step in the right direction, but a long road remains to be traversed. Gabon and Togo – both of whom possess an imperfect record of human rights and democracy - have been admitted to the Commonwealth even as Zimbabwe's efforts to rejoin have been thwarted, in spite of the ZANU-PF government’s renewed claims towards equality for all, domestic reform and a commitment towards rights for minors, amongst other fundamental human rights. The world is divided, financial resources are dwindling and the planet is rapidly warming. The late Queen (may She rest in peace) was more than a mere figurehead of the Commonwealth, and as King Charles III ascends to the throne, there is uncertainty around the role he will assume as ceremonial head of the association. There is no better time than the present, then, to cast the desired vision for the Commonwealth. 

While the Queen took on her symbolic role at the helm of the Commonwealth at a young, zesty age and signalled a move towards a post-imperialist future, her successor comes to the throne at an older age and at a fraught time in international affairs. The grim reality is that the King is unlikely to have even half as long a tenure as his predecessor, and thus one must question the hereditary (even if ceremonial/notional) leadership of the Commonwealth. My contention is not with HM King Charles’ ceremonial leadership - by all means, he’s likely the best candidate for the role, having actively participated and contributed to the development of the Commonwealth over the years. The same, however, cannot necessarily be said for future generations.  

The Commonwealth continues to be seen as one of the late Queen’s greatest legacies, yet it must strive to provide definitive benefits to its populace in an era of geopolitical competition - increasingly so even between multilateral treaty organisations such as the G20, OECD, NATO & the EU, to name a few. Yet what sets us a class apart from these very organisations is our diversity - rarely is heterogeneity seen as a mechanism for strength. I fear that’s the case within the Commonwealth as well. We are comprised of member nations from the Global North & South, with vast populations of varied diversity amongst countries (and within themselves too). We now also have four member states who share no history with the UK, and thus instead of drawing on our shared colonial past, we must look towards our collective future. 

We must build and work towards this collective future. The world as we know it today, is a shattered, haphazardly pieced-together globe of competing states, driven by selfish national interests. The Covid pandemic (hopefully) seems to be dark clouds on the rear horizon, but rough seas lie ahead. The world is experiencing a rise in support for populist, right-wing leaders, the fall out of Russia-Ukraine conflict remains a reality even a year into the war, and the Türkiye/Syrian earthquake has devastated and displaced countless lives. The biggest challenge we face is the thread that runs through all aspects of our lives - climate change. While it might be unrealistic to expect nations to align selflessly their interests overnight, the reality is that we need to come together to fight climate change. At the forefront of that fight needs to be the Commonwealth.

The Secretary-General, Baroness Patricia Scotland argues that the Commonwealth has been at the centre of climate action since the Langkawi Declaration of 1989. Yet, the ‘credit’ for the implementation of the Loss and Damage Fund, announced at COP-27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, is attributed to the UNFCCC. The issue isn’t about credit nor about competition, but rather about positioning as an effective and efficient global organisation that ‘twalks’ (walks the talk). Having attended COPs and CHOGMs, I can say that a huge gap exists in the lip service that is paid at conferences, and in working with different stakeholders for implementation post-conference. What needs to set us apart from our counterpart multilateral development organisations is the ability to plan, commit, hold accountable and execute. 

In my experience working with non-profits and other stakeholders across the Commonwealth, there seems to be a fear among the developing economies that the increased focus on climate investments might lead to lower flows from Multinational Development Banks (MDBs) towards overall SDG financing. Indeed, there is a need for MDBs to catalyse climate finance (and not just SDG financing) for developing economies. This is an issue that I’m hoping that the Commonwealth, and by extension, the Indian G20 Presidency will address in the coming year. 

These might be bold points, but one must answer the question, “how?” - else this article would remain as futile as many of our global agreements which are signed and ratified without a clear framework for implementation. It is no secret that several of the largest members of the Commonwealth hardly take the institution seriously and reduce their participation to a mere formality. How then, can this be changed, given that our institution cannot be perceived as a global leader on climate action until our members themselves take the Commonwealth seriously?

The answer is simple - global leadership must have a global presence. While the Secretariat is based in London, a greater sense of participation and accountability can be created by establishing regional offices and decentralise different functions of the Secretariat.  The original decision to locating the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in India - the world’s largest democracy (albeit a backsliding one) - and Ghana was a step in the right direction. Ideals and values set out in the Commonwealth Charter need to be ‘enforced’ more seriously across member nations, India being crucial amongst them. To promote more and attach a sense of importance to the Commonwealth, wealthier member nations such as the UK, Canada and Australia, could continue their active role as financiers and redirect funds through Commonwealth channels rather than bilateral funding for fellow Commonwealth developmental states. Gradually expanding the staging of the Commonwealth Games outside of the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to the other 68 participant nations would not only promote sports development but also promote camaraderie and fraternity.

We must leverage our youth power. European, American and Chinese populations are ageing, while India, Nigeria and Bangladesh are home to some of the world’s largest young populations! The decisions that policymakers make today will have consequences 20 years down the line, at a time when our generation would not be able to hold the present leaders accountable since they likely wouldn’t remain in power till that time. The world has made considerable progress to provide young people with a platform at global forums. Yet, there is a long way to go. There need to be institutional mechanisms for giving youth a seat at the decision-making table from across state, national and regional levels, beyond just a mere ‘quota’/representational formality, as seen by the often opaquely appointed ‘National’ Youth Delegates at the Commonwealth Youth Forum. More importantly, young people must have not only a seat, but also a say at the table. It is often said that young people can pioneer solutions to the problems of tomorrow by thinking out of the box. That may well be true, but I believe that the youth of the Commonwealth are uniquely positioned to think outside the box, but along the lines. In other words, empowering our youth will allow them to find real solutions to real problems.

In summary, my proposition is simple: the Commonwealth must emerge as a global leader, and to do so, it must advance the climate agenda by leaps and bounds. A precursor for that, however, is to look inwards and rethink the ways in which the Commonwealth can be structured to promote collective responsibility and leadership.