Can CHOGM save the world? | Zac Goldsmith

Not according to UK MP Zac Goldsmith, who addressed the Commonwealth Business Forum earlier this month. But it can at least help point us in the right direction

British Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith interviewed

The starting pistol for this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM), to take place in Malta next November, was fired at a business forum at the Chamber of Commerce earlier this month. The timing alone seemed to underscore a certain urgency that has come to characterise such events these days. In the same week, stability and security levels in the Mediterranean seemed to take a sudden nosedive: with the Islamic State threatening to invade Italy from Libya, sandwiching little Malta precisely in the middle of the danger zone.

Admittedly, the Commonwealth does not exist to solve the world’s problems. But it does bring together over 50 heads of state or government under a single roof… which, apart from all the security headaches, also provides an excellent opportunity to exchange ideas and promote dialogue. And ideas are needed, it seems. Not only is there instability, war and terrorism to contend with on various global fronts; there are also epochal challenges to the environment, and the seemingly ever-present threat of yet another economic collapse.

Faced with all this, the declared aims of this year’s CHOGM – ‘to Add Global Value’ – might seem a little ambitious, given the state the world seems to be in right now. Yet on paper, if there is any global organisation on a large enough scale (outside the United Nations) to actually make a difference, surely that would be the Commonwealth… which brings together all 53 countries, comprising around 2.2 billion people, that were once territories within the former British Empire.

So what difference can CHOGM effectively make in today’s world? Has the sun finally set on the British Empire? And … what is the Commonwealth exactly, anyway? 

Zac Goldsmith, an MP for the British Conservative government and a recent guest speaker at the Business Forum, seems confident that the Commonwealth’s long year in history has not come to an end just yet. 

“I think the Commonwealth is an amazing club,” he begins in answer to my last question. “It’s unique: 53 countries comprising around 2.2 billon people. And the range of members is truly extraordinary: from giants like Canada and India, all the way to Samoa, Tuvalu and so on. You’ve got the full range of countries covering the whole earth, effectively. I can’t think of a comparable club…”

Nonetheless he concedes that – in international politics, at least – size isn’t everything. No matter how large, a community of countries has to have some kind of role to play, if it is not to be dismissed as a quaint historical anachronism. Zac Goldsmith, an environmentalist campaigner at home, reasons that the strength and purpose of the Commonwealth is rooted in its unparalleled collective experience of little and large countries that have faced common problems.

“But it needs to remain relevant. The main reason I’m excited that ‘sustainability’ is part of the core [CHOGM] agenda for the first time, is that it’s the defining issue of our age. Of course we need to talk about growth, about investing in infrastructure, tourism and all these different component parts that make up the agenda; but each of those priorities, each of those challenges has to have sustainability at its heart. Otherwise we’d be building an infrastructure which will be obsolete in the near future.”

Here to address a business forum, it is perhaps understandable that Goldsmith would give economic reasons to pursue a more environmentalist agenda. But he argues that it is impossible to separate trade and commerce from environmental concerns.

“If you’re a small island state and you’re building an energy infrastructure, it makes no sense to build something that will be out of date, and very expensive in the short term. It makes sense to start thinking of alternatives and new opportunities, and creating an infrastructure that has a chance of lasting, at costs which are more likely to go down than up. The fact that the Prime Minister here has chosen to make sustainability a common thread that runs through all these component parts, I think it’s inspired. I’m excited at the prospects of this event. It’s not going to solve the world’s problems, but it will contribute…”

Talk of ‘defining challenges’ calls to mind climate change – a global issue that cannot, in fact, be addressed except through agreement between all countries. With its 53 member countries (including major industrial giants in their own right), the Commonwealth could achieve significant progress merely by agreeing among itself. Yet as things stand, it is also a significant contributor to the problem in terms of global emissions. By placing ‘sustainability’ on the CHOGM agenda, has the emphasis become precisely to reach this kind of agreement? Does Zac Goldsmith expect CHOGM to end in a common strategy to address this issue?  

“I don’t think the remit of the Commonwealth is to direct countries in that way. It’s not an international agreement that countries sign up to. But I think the value of the Commonwealth is that it brings together all the interested parties: the 53 heads of state or government, all the associated entourage of business representatives, big and small… it’s really a meeting place. One of the things I hope will come out of this is a shared understanding of the problem, an understanding of where the priorities should be in relation to sustainability. I don’t think we’re there yet. But I also think it should be a place where people can swap ideas. The reality is that each of the problems that needs solving – not just climate change; the environment is much broader than that – is already being solved somewhere on earth.”

Bringing this experience under the auspices of one event can only be beneficial, he reasons. 

“If you took the best practice in every sector from around the world, and put it all under one umbrella, you’d have your solution. I think that people banging heads together, swapping ideas and showcasing what they’re doing, is incredibly laudable. In the UK, for example, about a third of the waste we generate – and we produce a lot of waste: we spend a billion pounds every year just to get rid of things which are resources, not waste at all: food, timber, plastics, etc., – is generated by the construction sector.

“There is one company in London, the biggest one, that operates on a zero landfill policy. They don’t produce any waste for landfilling at all. And they’ve done that because they think that the cost of dealing with waste is going to go up. They think it’s a liability; they tried to get it out of the balance sheets, and they’ve done it. If every construction company did the same thing, we would theoretically produce a third less waste than we do at the moment.”

The same is true of almost every industrial sector and almost every country. 

“If we aspire for best practice today becoming the norm tomorrow, we will be well on our way towards living within our means as a people, as a species… which is a long way from where we are today.”

Perhaps we are still far from that, but Zac Goldsmith seems to exude optimism that such problems can, in fact, be solved. Is he really that optimistic? Are we actually moving towards a solution right now? 

He shakes his head. “We are losing the battle at the moment, there is no doubt in my mind. Whether you look at the growth in illegal wildlife trade, the rates of deforestation all across the world, from Brazil to Indonesia; whether you look at waste being tipped into the oceans, or declining fish stocks – of the world’s 17 largest fish stocks, 15 have either collapsed or are about to collapse… The trends are depressing. This is a humanitarian crisis. It’s not just a biodiversity issue…”

Still, he takes comfort in individual examples of success in an otherwise depressing canvas of global failure. “Last year, one of the world’s most destructive agents of deforestation – Asian Pulp and Paper, a giant Indonesian firm – signed up to a very radical Constitution, agreed to with all the key environmental groups. I was involved in the campaign: we mercilessly targeted the company until eventually it had to come to the table and do a deal. It’s now part of the solution, not the problem...”

Closer to home (well, our home, anyway) there have been encouraging indications of a reversal in overfishing patterns, too. “We know the impact of marine protected areas, when put in the right place. Spain is a good example. The country has a very bad record in relation to industrial fishing, both in its own waters and elsewhere.

“But if you look at the effect of the Tabarca reserve – the first marine reserve in Spain – within six years of being designated, the fishermen around the reserve are getting 100% more fish than they got before. This is an inexpensive solution, and it works. I could give you hundreds of other examples. Whatever the crisis or issue we are dealing with, some of the smallest countries in the Commonwealth region are moving in the right direction.

“On energy for instance: I believe Tuvalu, and certainly many of the islands north of Samoa and Fiji – have either reached a point where they’re getting 100% of the energy from solar power, or they’re on the brink of doing that. I think that’s very exciting. Lots of good things are happening, but unfortunately they are just examples at the moment. My optimism comes from the realisation that all those examples show the world that it is possible; that if we adopt the best practice from all countries we would have a much better chance than we have today. I am optimistic because I know it’s possible, not because I think it’s happening.”

Malta is, of course, one of the smaller Commonwealth countries (though still significantly larger than Tuvalu). How does he see this country contributing to the debate?

“I am certainly not an expert on Malta, but there are particular challenges here. It’s a densely populated island, one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. You don’t have lots of available land to experiment with some of these initiatives. But if you look at where solar power is going – the advances in technology, the prices coming down by significant percentage points year after year… we’re reaching a point where, if trends continue, within five years solar will be competitive with conventional energy, even without subsidies.

“Installations are getting smaller and smaller, and more efficient. I can anticipate a future where Malta will be saving a lot of money by investing in solar power. Energy costs could theoretically come down dramatically. I know there’s been a lot of talk about wind, both onshore and offshore… I’m a bit sceptical about offshore wind, because I think it will always require quite big subsidies; and I can’t imagine Malta embracing onshore wind farms on a large scale. I don’t see that as being politically possible, and it may not be technically possible either. Things like community energy, solar power, are more feasible…”

They can also be a shrewd economic investment, he adds.

“I saw an Overseas Development Index figure for the Caribbean, but I’m not sure I fully believe it. If the Caribbean were to move towards renewables and interconnected grids, they’d have a potential savings of 32 billion dollars. I haven’t drilled into those figures yet – I will do – but there’s no doubt there are savings to be made there.”

Elsewhere, we could also learn from the experience of Spain’s marine reserves. “Malta is an island with a vibrant fishing community. An area of focus for me, if I were a Maltese politician, would be to try and establish a network of marine protected areas to boost the fishing industry and also ensure a future for the fish. That’s something I know is already very much on the agenda…”

But while all this can be discussed, the CHOG meeting will take place against a stark backdrop of war and instability on all fronts. Security may be even less of a remit for the Commonwealth than climate change; but doesn’t CHOGM also represent an opportunity to debate the present (and possible future) threat of war and terrorism? 

Goldsmith points out how the sustainability thread runs right across security issues, too. 

“It’s very relevant to what we’re talking about. The two issues go hand in hand. For example, if you look at the poaching of elephants… we are facing a situation where, if trends continue, within 10, 15 years there’ll be no more wild African elephants. But it’s also a terrorism issue. Some of the worst organisations in the world are funded directly from the sale of ivory. Al Shabaab, which is responsible for the appalling atrocities in Nairobi; Boko Haram, an organisation which has unfortunately come to prominence recently; Sudan’s Janjaweed... all these organisations are funded, sometimes entirely, through the illegal wildlife trade.” 

Piracy in the Gulf of Aden is another example. “If you look at Somalia, which is a major concern from a terrorism point of view, and also in terms of trade. It is very expensive to pass by their waters. There is a direct, unarguable correlation between the collapse of their marine environment, and the rise of piracy. A direct line between the two: so we have to think very carefully about what we’re doing on the coast of Senegal.

“By ‘we’ I mean all of us – there are European as well as Japanese and Russian boats fishing off West Africa. In Senegal, there are 50,000 fishing families; they have boats, they understand the water, they have children to feed… but their fish are being plundered. They’ve lost 80% of their fish in 10 years, and it will be 100% unless someone intervenes. What are those 50,000 families going to do? They’ve made it very clear: they have told their representatives that they will go the way of Somalia. And that’s a massive trade and security issue. We’re creating a breeding ground for exactly the problems you’ve just described.”

Ultimately, he argues that the sustainability challenge affects all aspects of daily life, from business to health to ecology, all the way down to international peace.

“I think the environment and security are absolutely the same issue. Logically, if we fail to live within our means, if we don’t find a way to do that globally, then we’re going to see an increase in resource nationalism as well. We’re already seeing hints of that in Europe at the moment. And it’s something we can very much expect to increase, unless we somehow achieve a balance with the natural world around us.”