There can be no Empire 2.0 – but there can be a new Commonwealth

Shashi Tharoor
Theresa May speaks at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting conference

As 53 world leaders prepare to gather in London for this year’s edition of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM, 2018), it would be all too easy for some to dismiss the biennial event as a byproduct of an acute colonial hangover.

On the contrary, however, I strongly believe that this year’s summit presents a historic opportunity for the UK to address its twin, and often complex legacies: empire and industrialisation. How?

It can do this by using the week-long gathering as a launch pad for renewing, reaffirming and restructuring its global leadership on climate change.

Under the slogan of “Towards a common future,” the stated aim of the meeting is “to reaffirm our common values, address the shared global challenges we face and agree how to work to create a better future for all our citizens, particularly young people.”

Perhaps unwittingly this provides the perfect, galvanising context for discussing climate change, the greatest of all our challenges, and what is at stake – the future for those who have the most to gain, and indeed lose, from our actions, the next generation.

Let me be clear. The threat we face is ultimately an existential one and countries like India are on the front line. In 2016 India reported the highest number of deaths worldwide from extreme weather – heatwaves followed by, ironically, intense monsoon – as well as $21bn of property damage.

The Global Risk Index 2018, released at Cop 23, also identified India as the 6th most vulnerable nation on earth when it comes to climate change and the International Monetary Fund has pointed to a similar level of exposure. Meanwhile, millions of people have had their health blighted and their lives cut short by India’s world-beating levels of air pollution, with the country home to half the Earth’s worst-polluted cities. That is a distinction that we cannot afford to be complacent about.

Despite this, we can’t escape the fact that 240 million Indians cannot take for granted what every Irishman or Icelander can – the simple joy of flicking a switch on a wall and being bathed with light. With 240 million of our 1.3 billion strong population still without electricity, India cannot simply forego the fruits of economic development enjoyed by the west.

It is equally clear that, not withstanding its current reliance on coal, it cannot achieve this in the same way that the UK has, without imperilling the wellbeing of millions if not billions of people. With Indian energy consumption predicted to double by 2030, it is universally acknowledged that whether or not the world succeeds in keeping warming under 2C may ultimately be determined by the path that India takes.

But the fate of India – and perhaps the world – does not rest in its own hands. And that is where the UK (and the Commonwealth at large) comes in. Given US President Trump’s well-publicised denunciation of the Paris Agreement and his refusal to engage with the reality of climate change (or worse, to dismiss it as a work of fiction), there is a global leadership vacuum on climate change. Europe has sought to fill that, especially under Merkel and Macron, but is handicapped by the fact that it belongs entirely to the global North.

The Commonwealth is different. The UK began to show the way almost 10 years ago by passing the world’s first Climate Change Act and has since become a world leader in offshore wind power. Its voice resonates in a Commonwealth full of potential contributors to, and victims of, climate change.

A new, even bolder vision and set of commitments is now required to meet the ambitions of the Paris Agreement. It has also become increasingly clear that growth, trade and climate mitigation can walk hand in hand.

After leaving the European Union, Britain, to mint a phrase, has lost a continent and is looking for a role. Theresa May‘s government has identified a comprehensive free-trade deal with India as key to making a new global role for Britain a reality – and, in May’s words, rediscovering “its role as a great, global trading nation.”

The basis for seeking this is self-evident. India is already the world’s third-largest economy in PPP (purchasing power parity) terms, and will become the world’s fifth largest economy in actual dollar terms this year (overtaking the UK). In 2015, UK-India bilateral trade in goods and services was valued at £16.33bn, while Britain has been the largest G20 investor in India in the 21st century. But absolute figures belie the fact that trade between the two has stalled since the turn of the century while trade with the EU has tripled.

To reverse that trend, the UK must seek to strike a new kind of partnership with India to the mutual benefit of both. The shared opportunities and challenges in tackling climate change and pursuing clean growth offer a way forward. A misguided weakening of environmental standards in order to strike a trade deal with the US is not compatible with these aims.

Moreover, both Britain and India are hubs for research and development. This will be vital in developing electric vehicles and other low-carbon transport to tackle climate change and clean up our filthy air – in London as in Delhi. Indeed now Indian-owned Jaguar LandRover is at the vanguard and has just struck a deal to supply tens of thousands of electric vehicles to Google. India is also heavily invested in British steel-making, another industry which needs to innovate to deal with its substantial emissions.

Just as important in tackling climate change will be scaling up investment to the levels required, from billions to trillions of pounds. The City of London as a world financial centre will continue to have a key role in developing green finance and moving it into the mainstream.

These are all reasons for cautious optimism. There can be no Empire 2.0: Empire 1.0 was too disastrous to be replicated. But there can be a new Commonwealth. The UK must seize the moment.

Shashi Tharoor is an Indian Congress Party MP, former United Nations Under-Secretary General and author