How can the UK lead on climate diplomacy?

This January, our screens have been saturated with devastating images and stories from Australia’s bush fires, which have claimed the lives of 26 and up to one billion animals. Largely absent from the headlines, however, was a parallel crisis in Jakarta, as the worst floods in over a decade submerged entire districts, caused enormous landslides, and killed more than 67 people. They have fueled the urgency of a joined-up plan for climate diplomacy.

Whilst the outpouring of aid for disaster relief, and anger at the crisis in Australia is heartening for those of us that want urgent climate action, we need to see this level of response for every major climate crisis if we are to build a strong consensus behind climate action. 

One of the key, overlooked aspects of the fight against climate change, is how disproportionately developing countries are affected. Problems such as an underdeveloped sewage system in Jakarta, and the limited availability of tap water, have exacerbated the disaster. 

The hypocrisy in the climate diplomacy debate

There is certainly hypocrisy at the heart of the climate debate which must be addressed. India, and other countries in South Asia, have called for Britain and the West to sacrifice some luxuries before asking developing countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, Indonesia is one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases primarily because of the way it manages its land. Farmers are making way for palm oil plantations by burning forests, in order to keep up with rising global demand.

According to the Phillipines’ President Rodrigo Duterte, climate change is the fault of major, developed economies such as the United States, Britain and China. In 2016, he argued: ‘You can pay poor countries (like the Philippines) to forego cheap, dirty fossil fuels. Or, he says, our politicians will chuck your United Nations-brokered climate change treaty in the trash.’

The comment was crude, but the point made is not ridiculous. There are plenty of examples of climate change becoming an integral aspect of foreign policy in this way – through climate diplomacy and targeted climate aid. Norway, for example, paid Guyana to reduce its rate of deforestation over the course of a decade; and reports at the end of 2019 suggested the move had been a success. Similar moves were made by Germany and Norway in Brazil, before they were halted due to a dispute with Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro. 

How the UK can lead the way on climate diplomacy

The UK can similarly make climate diplomacy a key aspect of its foreign policy, as we move into the new decade with serious questions on our international strategy. Taking a lead on the pressing issues of the day can give Britain an important role as a convener on foreign policy debates, and help us establish a position as a link between different parts of the world – from Europe to the United States and the Commonwealth. By making climate diplomacy, and climate aid, a defining feature of a forward-looking foreign policy, the UK can not only tone down the hypocrisy that has marred the debate, but carve out important relationships as it moves beyond Brexit.

2020 has been labelled by climate experts as a pivotal year in avoiding the worst effects of climate change. Chris Stark, of the Committee on Climate Change, the group behind the government’s adoption of the ‘net zero by 2050’ target, says ‘2020 must be the year of action’. He marks COP26, to be held in Glasgow this November, as the time by which the UK ‘must have its house in order’, by preparing for the changing climate, making priorities for cutting UK emissions to Net Zero, and taking climate leadership. Having the UK’s ‘house in order’ too, will give Britain legitimacy to act as a climate leader on the world stage. 

You can sign up to our Newsletter here.

Katarina Kosmala-Dahlbeck