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Will CHOGM unveil a new role for the Commonwealth?


As the UK hosts government leaders at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) the Prime Minister Theresa May announced a £61.4 million package of funding to drive a fight against plastic pollution choking our seas. The matter of ocean health and vitality is high on the agenda building the Commonwealth’s status as tackling the biggest environmental issues facing our planet.

Throughout the 20th century the Commonwealth helped shape the modern world – politically, socially and culturally. With a backdrop of wars and civil unrest it became a leader on human rights, free speech and democracy. The opening decades of this century have brought a host of new issues that threaten our livelihoods and wellbeing. None more so than humankind’s continued devastation of our planet.

If we are to protect people’s health, wealth and security in future, urgent action is needed to halt and reverse the level of greenhouse gas pollution, degradation of wild places and the depletion of natural resources, such as soils, freshwater and fish stocks.

An Oak woodland in spring in Ambleside, UK. As climate change kicks in temperatures are warming and trees are responding by coming in to leaf ever earlier in the season © Global Warming Images / WWFAn Oak woodland in spring in Ambleside, UK. As climate change kicks in temperatures are warming and trees are responding by coming in to leaf ever earlier in the season © Global Warming Images / WWF

The Commonwealth has already been influential on the global environmental agenda. At the last CHOGM in Malta in 2015, immediately ahead of the Paris Climate Change Summit, a strong call for action was issued by leaders from the Commonwealth’s 53 countries. This timely intervention – from countries ranging from vulnerable small Caribbean island nations to major historic polluters, like the UK, Canada and Australia, to large emerging economies, including India and Pakistan –  added political momentum to the Paris Agreement.

It is clear that the Commonwealth could and should face today’s biggest challenges head-on and play a critical and more significant role by building on its emerging prominence as an informed ecological voice. A series of meetings that will take place on a global scale during 2020 provides a prime opportunity to do just that.

In that pivotal year the world can take important steps on global agreements made on climate change, sustainable development and the restoration of the Earth’s natural diversity. That last challenge, in particular, will be addressed at a meeting hosted by China under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.

Earth’s “sixth mass extinction” event is underway. It’s happening now. As WWF’s Living Planet Report showed, global populations of wild animals have more than halved in the last 40 years.  It is hoped that this 2020 summit will make history by agreeing a new global plan to stop the human-driven devastation. If we are to do this, and avoid a scale of species loss not seen on this planet since the dinosaurs went extinct, new targets will be needed and for these to be reflected not only in rules to protect and restore wildlife and habitats, but also all the other global agreements on the agenda in 2020, including on climate change and sustainable development.

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2015, Malta. © Matt Cardy / Getty ImagesCommonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2015, Malta. © Matt Cardy / Getty Images

The Commonwealth is uniquely placed to do this, not only because it includes a diversity of countries, but also because it embraces nations with a huge diversity of wildlife and environments – from tropical rainforests in places like Borneo, polar ecosystems in Canada, coral reefs in Belize and  grasslands in Kenya. The name of the game is to achieve development and poverty reduction that does not cost the Earth, and the countries meeting in the UK this month should commit to leading the way.

They should have the confidence to step forward not least because the members of the Commonwealth have already risen to the challenges at hand. They’ve already shown leadership in cutting greenhouse gas emissions, protecting forests, sustainably managing fish stocks and the phasing out of substances depleting the ozone layer. Commonwealth countries have taken action to protect their rare wildlife, to conserve coral reefs and to more effectively manage waste, so that less of it escapes into the environment. All that demonstrates the possibilities, but what is needed now is a the kind of collective step up we’ve seen this week with the UK and Vanuatu-led announcement of a Commonwealth alliance (the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance) to tackle plastic in our oceans. The Commonwealth can play a crucial role in building collective action that leads to a joint call for new global agreements commensurate with the scale of the problem our planet faces. If Commonwealth countries got organised this month, they could have a major impact in 2020.

There are many things that have bound the countries of the Commonwealth together – history, culture and shared values among them. Increasingly it is clear that our collective future will be determined not only by social norms but the natural systems that sustain us – including forests, atmosphere and ocean.

While we tend to be preoccupied with bridging the borders that define the nations of the world, it is the shared global ecosystems that lie between and around us that are literally the “common wealth”. If leaders fail to cooperate in protecting that, then everything else will become detail.

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