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UK needs to walk the talk on climate action

By Mohamed Adow | November 23rd 2020 at 03:00:00 GMT +0300

Britain yet to use its huge influence to tackle global warming

Even the proudest British citizen cannot deny that the UK and Kenya have a deeply-troubled history. Three-quarters of a century of British rule, brutality and ruthless extraction of resources left its mark. Now, Kenya and the UK are bound by the Commonwealth.

That is why today, as the UK prepares to host the COP26 climate change summit a little more than a year away, it is time for Kenya to speak to Britain as an equal and tell the truth: Britain is failing on climate leadership, and the world needs you to step up to the challenge. 

The impact of climate change on Kenya is clear to see - whether you live in Kibera or, like Jane Marriot, in the British Embassy, Nairobi. Droughts and floods are becoming more common. Coral bleaching and loss of biodiversity in mangroves risk compromising income from tourism - the loss of coral has already lost between $12 million and $18 million. And it is predicted that a further rise in global temperatures could cause malaria to flourish in the highlands, with deadly consequences.  

So, why is Kenya looking to the UK for answers? It is partly a question of arithmetic: While the UK is one of the big emitters in history, Kenya has emitted just 0.03 per cent of global historic emissions, yet our country is already suffering catastrophic consequences.

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This is partly because after a successful bid to lead and host next year’s grand UN convention on climate change, Britain has put itself in the spotlight of a planet that is finally beginning to see the reality of our collapsing ecosystem.

Droughts and conflict

But more than anything, countries like ours are growing nervous because Britain is simply not doing enough. Not even the most silky-tongued ambassadors, jolly Prime Minister, or regal Queen can spin their way out of our reality of floods, droughts and conflict caused by climate change.  

Right now, the UK is failing to rise to the challenge of climate breakdown - and is making some very public missteps. First, there are the bizarre investment decisions, like the controversial judgment to issue an enormous loan guarantee to a gas pipeline project in Mozambique.

Next, as countries around the world proudly unveil investment in renewable technologies, the UK is choosing to open a new coal mine - the dirtiest fossil fuel of them all. Most bizarrely of all, it is far from clear that Britain will meet its own deadline to submit its plan to cut carbon emissions. 

As the world’s balance of power slowly continues to recover from colonialism, Britain needs to hang on to its soft influence as its economic dominance continues to diminish. The UK has much to be proud of - a global reputation for innovation, culture and diplomacy, the mother of all parliaments, and a proudly free press. 

But Britain has not yet shown the world that it is willing to use this global influence to tackle climate change. The UK has the ear of global corporations - so why isn’t it doing a better job of getting them to cut their sky-high carbon emissions? The UK has major influence in the G20 and UN - so why isn’t it pushing these bodies to go further and faster in protecting the world from climate change?

The UK has significant influence over countries like the US and Australia, notorious for their weak and slow response to climate change. So why hasn’t it confronted their inaction - and why has it instead appointed former Australian PM, and climate change denier, Tony Abbot, to the UK’s Board of Trade? It will never be easy or comfortable to stand up to big business or a global superpower. But if its leaders and ambassadors want to protect its image as a global Britain, they must.

The UK continues to be one of the most-generous aid donors to less-developed countries. But its hard-won political commitment to giving 0.7 per cent of its income away in aid won’t be enough to help countries recover from the catastrophic droughts, floods, crop failures and fires that will result from climate breakdown.

Instead, Britain needs to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with less-developed countries by driving forward funding to help them become more resilient to the impact of climate change. And it needs to do everything it can to drive financing towards projects that help poorer countries transition to renewable energy - and prevent them from being trapped into permanent reliance on fossil fuels. 

Kenyans can proudly proclaim its climate leadership - the fact that renewable energy makes up 85 per cent of our installed electricity and our goal to provide all our energy from non-polluting sources by the end of this year. It is decisions like these that allow a country to stand tall and face the world at next year’s climate summit. Will the UK be able to do the same?

Next year, Britain will take on the Presidency of the COP26 summit in its first year out of the European Union. Its leaders say they can prove it is still a global powerhouse - and they will be relying on strong trading and diplomatic relationships around the world, including here in Kenya. 

If the UK is to have any hope of maintaining those links, its leaders and ambassadors cannot just talk about climate change. They must actually lead.

Mr Adow is the founder and director of Power Shift Africa, a climate and energy think tank. @mohadow


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