Research, Writing

‘Global Britain’: G7, COP26, Indo-Pacific and the Commonwealth

This commentary originally appeared in Journal of Governance Security & Development.

The rise of the European Union (EU) witnessed continental Europe’s gradual disengagement from the non-Atlantic world. A post-colonial ‘Little England’ struggled to maintain its relevance even while retreating from lands across oceans and seas. Pax Britannica, once global, ceded place to a trans-Atlantic compact in which Britain was one of many voices, often drowned out by the voices of others.

The Maastricht Treaty ensured Britain was just another member-state of the EU whose sovereignty, to some extent, rested not in London but Brussels. Brexit was aimed at reclaiming that bartered sovereignty and regaining the power—within and beyond Europe—Britain had surrendered between 1946 and 2016; it took four years to formalise the separation, and for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to re-hoist the banner of ‘Global Britain’. This coincides with the ongoing post-pandemic rearrangement of the international order, Britain’s stewardship of the G7 and the COP26, and its enduring role as the premier financial centre of the world through all the trials and tribulations.

Admittedly, Mr Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ faces challenges because Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ too faces challenges. If the former’s ‘Global Britain’—leaving the “safe harbour of the EU … at a time of heightened global risk”—is set to sail into previously avoided turbulent seas, so is Mr Modi’s ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ negotiating a new passage.

For both Britain and India, it is not about changing partners and allies but stating new purpose and intent in a profoundly changed world where pre-pandemic truisms and certitudes have been rendered meaningless. It is about rationalising international engagement. Furthermore, it is about seizing the moment to emerge as a major player in crafting the new order necessitated, in large measure, by a declining America and a rising China. Britain and India must define their role in refashioning the global landscape in which a new continent, Eurasia, and a new water body, the Indo-Pacific, dominate. India has made its move; Britain, too, must.

The Strategic Rise of the Indo-Pacific  

The possible blueprint for a future whose geo-political, geo-economic and geo-strategic landscape is not dominated by the Middle Kingdom is obvious to all, even to those in Europe discomfited by Beijing’s seemingly inexorable continued rise and yet who are unwilling to stand up and be counted. The prospects for a future unburdened by one overwhelming power would appear brighter if nations were to forge partnerships—bilateral, minilateral, plurilateral—within and across geographies. This is already happening: The Indo-Pacific theatre offers the best and, perhaps, most dramatic example.

The political churn in the Indo-Pacific region began even before the pandemic. It gathered speed and gained purpose after the virus disrupted what were perceived to be settled global arrangements and brought to the fore the unfillable cracks that had, till then, been papered over. This churn has thrown up an indisputable fact: India is pivotal to the Indo-Pacific geography and, along with partners, will be defining the future Quad-centric ecosystem. This need not mean adding more members to the Quad comprising the US, Australia, India and Japan. As in the case of building resilient supply chains, it may only amount to specific conversations and initiatives with specific outreach partners. On issues such as climate finance, the UK is a natural Quad cousin.

Having set sail from the ‘safe harbour’ of the EU, Britain must now navigate its way to this geography where it is neither a stranger nor an intruder. Historically, the UK has been present in the Indo-Pacific region, and Britain has a sense of the nations there. Colonialism waned, but Britain’s partnerships waxed—some of its most important partnerships are in these waters; most notably, Britain has strong partnerships with individual members of the Quad, including India.

Historically, the UK has been present in the Indo-Pacific region, and Britain has a sense of the nations there. Colonialism waned, but Britain’s partnerships waxed—some of its most important partnerships are in these waters; most notably, Britain has strong partnerships with individual members of the Quad, including India

Now is the time for the UK to leverage those partnerships and demonstrate that it did not meander its way out of the EU maze directionless, but did so with firm purpose. The forces that shaped Brexit are a powerful wind in Britain’s sails, no longer constrained by either Brussels or Berlin. Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ can and must disprove those who believe it has set itself adrift with neither shore in sight nor destination in mind, by navigating towards the Indo-Pacific region, which accounts for 50 percent of global economic growth—a share that can only increase in the coming times.

Refashioning and Reviving Existing Partnerships 

Besides the Quad, Britain and others have a useful and dynamic collective that could be refashioned—the Commonwealth. It is time to reimagine this grouping and give it purpose and new energy. One possibility would be to create a group of eight within the Commonwealth comprising Britain, India, Bangladesh, Kenya, South Africa, Australia, Canada and Singapore. These eight countries have an influence on and are implicated by the developments in the Indo-Pacific. These countries are crucial for the SDG and Climate agenda, and all of these nations are regional trade hubs and technology centers. These eight can put together a vision for growth, sustainability, technology, and global norms and rules for our future and give teeth to a grouping that has been adrift and make it contemporaneous. Global Britain needs new clubs, but, first, it must explore the opportunities that reside in old partnerships.

Indeed, this provides the perfect fit for the central core strengths of ‘Global Britain’ and the legacies of Great Britain: From finance to the green economy, from technology to knowledge, from education to creative urban design—London leads the race by miles. The British economy is structured in such a manner that other economies stand to benefit from it; there is a mutuality of commercial interest and commonality of political purpose. Unlike the EU, ‘Global Britain’ does not need to offshore its economy.

The strategic importance of ‘Global Britain’—for the UK and the world—cannot be overstressed. That importance will gain traction and draw attention as Glasgow prepares to host COP26, perhaps, the most important event on the global calendar in the post-pandemic year. Britain has the capability to finance a rising nation’s transition to a green future; India and South Asia have the capacity to absorb green investments by Britain as it prepares to transit from the old to the new. Climate partnerships will prove to be the most resilient partnerships of the future, and Britain must know this and act accordingly. The City of London is a natural fit for this endeavour, but it is by no means the only candidate. An enlightened approach, including technology and access to it, can work to mutual and planetary benefit. It is for Britain to demonstrate that its approach is strategic rather than tactical. Released earlier this year, the ‘UK Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’ is an excellent document. It needs to be put into action quickly.

The strategic importance of ‘Global Britain’—for the UK and the world—cannot be overstressed. That importance will gain traction and draw attention as Glasgow prepares to host COP26, perhaps, the most important event on the global calendar in the post-pandemic year

‘Global Britain’ should not mean Britain’s World. It should rather signify Britain with the world. Through effective engagement, backed by its very own Indo-Pacific strategy based on the twin principles of prosperity and security, it can help reinforce a “sustainable rules-based order in the region that is resilient but adaptable to the great power realities of the 21stcentury”. In all this, the centrality of India is beyond debate or doubt, which only serves to underscore that Britain should naturally invest in and with India. Yet, Britain comes into the contemporary Indo-Pacific as a latecomer, its historical role notwithstanding. It has to add value to the Quad template and India’s own evangelising of the Indo-Pacific; it cannot presume to be a leader by default or based on the past.

Standard
Research, Uncategorized, Writing

Enough Sermons on Climate, It’s Time for ‘Just’ Action

As Britain readies to host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November this year, there is a concerted effort to push countries towards publicly endorsing and adopting ‘Net Zero’—a carbon neutral emission norm—as policy. This is a demand for an inflexible, near-impossible, time-bound agenda to achieve what is no doubt a noble goal. And, as is often the case with climate-related issues, the nobility of intent is at risk of being overwhelmed by sanctimonious hectoring that raises hackles instead of ensuring meaningful participation.

On 3rd March, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres took to Twitter to call on governments, private companies and local authorities to immediately initiate three measures to mitigate climate change: Cancel all coal projects in the pipeline; end coal plant financing and invest only in renewable energy; and, jumpstart a global effort to a ‘just transition’ from carbon to non-carbon energy sources.

On the face of it, this was an unexceptionable call from the high priest of the UN to the global laity to rise in support of an important cause. But if we were to scratch the surface of the Secretary-General’s words, we would see that his call was little more than virtue-signalling.

For, there is nothing ‘just’ about the transition that he has sought without delay. Implicit in his call is the immoral proposition to disregard poverty, despair and the yawning development deficit between nations as he places them all on the same plane. Inherent in this approach is the unedifying complicity of global institutions in foisting an arrangement founded in the belief that the poor in the developing world should underwrite the climate mitigation strategy of the developed world. The climate high priests need to realise that depriving the world’s poorest of their aspirations can never be ‘just’ climate action. It can be convenient and, hence, it has much appeal in many quarters.

The climate high priests need to realise that depriving the world’s poorest of their aspirations can never be ‘just’ climate action. It can be convenient and, hence, it has much appeal in many quarters

An Alternative Script

A waffle-free alternative script for those given to sermonising to the world would focus on three other aspects that may actually lead to faster transitions and more justice. First, an impassioned call to those who control capital—managers of pension, insurance and other funds—to ensure larger amounts of money leave the country of origin and flow to countries of deficit for building sustainable, climate resilient infrastructure of the future. The Climate Policy Initiative has calculated that less than a quarter of climate finance flows across national boundaries; in other words, the overwhelming majority of climate finance is raised for domestic projects. The states expected to disproportionately do more to battle climate change are located in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Yet, they are inadequately funded and financed and cost of capital in these places dampens the scope of action. It would be stressing the obvious to say that the frontline states cannot be expected to engage in this battle without adequate inflow of climate capital at the right price for climate action.

Second, the assessors of risk—the intractable credit rating agencies, the cash-rich central banks and the big boys of New York, London and Paris—who decide how much capital should flow in which direction, should be called upon to recalibrate their risk assessment mechanism. Let it be said, and said bluntly, that objective ‘climate risk’ outweighs subjective ‘political risk’ which prevents the flow of capital to key climate action geographies. Risk must be reassessed objectively. Till then, the highfalutin sermons of the Pontiffs of Climate would be mere lip service, which none among the Climate Laity would bother to take seriously.

Third, and, perhaps, the most ‘just’ proposition the Secretary-General could make, would be a moral directive to all Western nations to shut down coal plants and fossil fuel- based enterprises immediately and entirely abandon carbon-fuelled energy for any purpose. After all, green energy sources need room to grow and space to mature and the OECD nations must allow this at warp speed. It is farcical to deny coal plants to countries that are still struggling to claw their way up the development ladder and demand that they turn carbon neutral while thousands of units and homes belch and blow climate emissions every day in rich economies. What is good for the rich cannot be bad for the poor.

Rich countries have failed to reduce their share of fossil fuel emissions. CSEP’s Rahul Tongia has calculated that the top emitting countries in terms of per capita emissions (nations above the global average emissions) still account for about 80 per cent of global Fossil CO2.  He further explains that the absolute emissions of these countries are rising even when measured in 2019. The rich took more than their fair share historically, and are still doing so. Any ‘Just Transition’ must involve evicting the squatters occupying carbon space to the detriment of others. Buying this space from the poorer is not ‘just’; it is another perverse business model based on extraction and mercantilism of centuries past.

Any ‘Just Transition’ must involve evicting the squatters occupying carbon space to the detriment of others. Buying this space from the poorer is not ‘just’; it is another perverse business model based on extraction and mercantilism of centuries past

In the run-up to COP26 at Glasgow, we are witnessing a new passion play of countries making a dramatic show of embracing the idea of Net Zero economies in the coming decades. The script of this passion play draws on starkly evocative narratives that seek to catalyse action through theatrical terms such as ‘climate emergency’. From appropriating the voice of the powerless to acquire legitimacy and crafting compelling narratives through a new cohort of well-funded ambassadors to push the envelope on climate change policy approaches, we are seeing varied actors engaging with climate issues in different ways. These different efforts have a common design, the economic objective of socialising the cost of climate action and making the poor carry the can for the rich.

That said, some facts are irrefutable. The last decade has been the warmest in recorded human history and its effects are visible to all. In February this year, an iceberg larger than New York City broke off the frozen Antarctic  and my just be a prelude to what lies ahead. Indeed, the possibility of the Arctic turning into a benign waterway in the near future can no longer be ruled out. It would require extraordinary un-intelligence to argue that global warming and its fallout can be mitigated by business-as-usual decision-making. But even as there is trans-world consensus on climate change and its impact, many would and must disagree on the proposed burden-sharing and distribution of responsibilities as we respond as a collective.

The India Imperative

India will be significantly affected by climate change in the coming decades. It is already feeling the heat and is combatting challenges from its mountains to its coasts due to shifting weather cycles and changing climate. It needs clearheaded policies, backed by political will, on this single most important issue that will impact its growth, its stability and the very integrity of its geography comprising a multitude of topographies.

This is happening at a moment when India is poised to exit the low-income orbit and take off on a trajectory towards becoming a middle-income country. Its journey from a US $3 trillion economy to a US $10 trillion economy coincides with ongoing climate action, polarising climate debate and climate-impacted economics. India can neither isolate itself from this reality, nor can it be reticent or timid in making its choices known to the world. India cannot be a receiver of decisions made elsewhere; it has to be on the high table, co-authoring decisions implicating its future.

For India, the moment offers three opportunities in these challenging times. First, India has to prepare itself through its policies, politics and internal rearrangements to seize and realise the single biggest global opportunity of leading a global effort to mitigate emissions of the future. The IEA, in its India Energy Outlook 2021 Report, estimates that India’s emissions could rise as much as 50 percent by 2040—the largest of any country, in which case India would trail behind only China in terms carbon dioxide emissions. This need not happen and is an opportunity for India and the World.

India must grab this chance to lower its future emissions through the right investments, technologies and global partnerships. The developed world, too, must make a matching response: Just like the Marshall Plan invested billions to rebuild post-War Europe with Germany at its heart, a new age Climate Marshall Plan must see India at its core. India must prepare and offer itself as the single biggest climate mitigation opportunity for the world and the most important green investment destination.

The developed world, too, must make a matching response: Just like the Marshall Plan invested billions to rebuild post-War Europe with Germany at its heart, a new age Climate Marshall Plan must see India at its core

Second, neither the world nor India should forget the dictum that on climate, India solves for the world. The solutions that India experiments with and implements successfully will be fit to be repurposed for other developing countries with similar geo-topographical conditions and economic sensitivities. Many of them are frontline countries in the climate battle.

India can and must become the hub of climate action for this decade and beyond, offering services, technology and infrastructure through climate supply chains that span the developing world. The International Solar Alliance is just a modest beginning. The future holds multiple opportunities. The country must lead the charge through building financial institutions that will support and sustain green transitions and helping create green workforces fit for purpose for the coming decades, amongst others.

Third, as India celebrates 75 years of its independence in 2022 and leads the G20 in 2023, it has the chance to make its most significant identity shift. India moved from being a British colonial state to a free nation in 1947, and then moved from being perceived as a land of snake-charmers to becoming an internationally acknowledged technology hub at the turn of the century. This decade offers the chance for it to emerge first as aUS $5 trillion and then as aUS $10 trillion economy that will be green and low carbon in its evolution – the first large green economy of the fourth industrial revolution.

India’s expectations from Glasgow COP26 should be uncluttered—its single purpose must be to catalyse global flows and investments to India and other emerging economies. If India fails to attract investments, the markets will clearly have not signed on to the climate agenda. In this effort, India needs a leg-up from the Climate Pontiffs.

Perpetuation of global poverty and low incomes cannot be the rich world’s climate mitigation strategy. ‘Net Zero’ should not seek this end state. On the contrary, investing in the emerging world’s green transition is the only way to build a ‘just’ world. The UN Secretary-General could help ensure that the largest pool of new money flows to where the climate battle will be fought—in India and in the emerging world. That would be a just transition and an efficient one.

Standard