THE ongoing global debate on climate change should not focus on doom and gloom, but instead place emphasis on potentials to reverse this, experts working in conjunction with the Commonwealth Secretariat have suggested. Last October, the Commonwealth convened a meeting of more than 60 scientists, ecologists, activists, academics and funders who explored cutting-edge approaches to reducing carbon emissions and addressed global warming to boost development and economic growth.
A follow-up meeting took place in London early May where some of the world’s leading environmental experts looked at how they could take forward an innovative strategy to reverse the human impact of climate change. They are hoping their new approach will influence the debate among world leaders when they meet at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP23), chaired by Fiji in Bonn, Germany this November.
Since Patricia Scotland took over as Secretary General of the Commonwealth last year, she has pushed for a revolutionary approach to dealing with climate change. The initiative is known as the Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change (RDRCC) and it was under its aegis that the meeting took place.
Secretary-General Scotland noted: ‘A pronounced increase in violent storms, floods, drought, desertification and devastating sea level rises – extreme events such as these are the realities that many people across the Commonwealth wake up to every day. This is why, from the moment I took office, I have been working hard to address climate change.
‘It is truly a historic moment for the Commonwealth as the first intergovernmental organisation to take on the bold challenge of flipping the narrative on climate change. What we are saying is that climate change is not only our biggest challenge; it is also our biggest opportunity.
‘Regenerative development offers ways of tackling climate change on a scale and by means that can be adopted by the most vulnerable countries, and are appropriate to the day-to-day lives and livelihoods of their inhabitants,’ she added.
At the same RDRCC meeting, a former UN Human Rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson, warned that the headlong rush to develop renewable energy projects was leading to violations of human and land rights: ‘It’s important to remain cognisant that not all action that is good for the planet is automatically good for people and I really want to emphasise that point because I didn’t appreciate it until relatively recently,’ she cautioned.
‘We require a just transition for human rights to inform all climate actions. Recent experience shows that renewal and energy installations can result in human rights being undermined if local communities are not consulted.’
Last November, the UK-based Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, of which Robinson has strong connections, said it had received 115 allegations of human rights abuse regarding renewable companies since 2005 – 94 of these having taken place since 2010.
‘Our analysis of company responses revealed that 34 out of 50 companies have some commitment to consult with local communities.
‘However these commitments vary significantly and the majority are weak or non-existent,’ the Centre said. ‘Only five out of 50 refer to respecting indigenous peoples’ internationally recognised right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). Failing to undertake these consultations in a rigorous manner can cause project delays as well as financial, legal and reputational costs to companies.’
Since the Paris Agreement on climate change came into effect last year and the advent of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the number of new renewable energy installations has overtaken the number of new fossil fuel installations globally for the first time, according to the Centre. ‘Despite the increasing investment [in renewables] we’ve been seeing, we didn’t see a real conversation around the human rights impacts that these companies are having,’ said Eniko Horvath, a senior researcher at the Centre.
For instance, the World Bank conceded that its 2010 geothermal energy project in Kenya, which it financed in conjunction with the European Investment Bank, failed to communicate in the local language with the Masai community in the Rift Valley. The Bank also admitted that the people were not adequately compensated for the loss of their land and livelihood.
Addressing the RDRCC conference, Robinson, a former President of Ireland, said clean energy projects were being undertaken the wrong way by big companies. ‘They’re doing it through big projects and they’re doing it without consultation. They’re taking away land rights from local communities [and] they’re not respecting the indigenous people’s right to informed consent, and so on,’ she added.
‘This is a problem we will face and we can only avoid that problem by having safeguards, by ensuring that human rights and gender issues are to the front and centre of activity. And that land rights, labour rights, indigenous rights can all be undermined in the absence of checks and balances on renewable energy projects.’
Robinson went on: “On the other hand, engaging people in climate decision making creates more buy-in and support for a plan of action, and governments can’t achieve the SDGs or implement the Paris Agreement goals without the actions of their citizens or the support of civil society. At times of change and anxiety, such as people around the world are experiencing now, there’s a risk that people and states will withdraw and attempt to go it alone.
‘But these are precisely the time that countries should come together and forge new friendships and relationships, and I believe the Commonwealth has a very significant role in forging those friendships and relationships.’
It is expected that the Commonwealth will have a programme on regenerative development in place by April 2018, when the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting takes place in London.
The Commonwealth represents nearly a third of the world’s population and one-fifth of the Earth’s landmass. Consequently, its actions are highly influential because its population lives in every region of the planet and contains a rich diversity of cultures, economies, and ecosystems, climate change experts point out.