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Sunak is missing from the Paris summit. A Labour government will lead by example

The Times, 23rd June 2023

Today, dozens of world leaders meet at a Paris summit hosted by President Macron. Their aim is nothing less than starting to unlock the billions of additional finance needed to tackle climate change, poverty and global inequality in low and middle-income countries. With the UK once again missing in action, Rishi Sunak looks set not to even show up at the meeting. A Labour government would reconnect Britain with allies and partners to deliver fairer finance for countries on the front line of the climate crisis.

Labour will lead by example — not break our word or commitments. That goes for the treaties we sign with our closest partners or the promises we make to deliver climate finance to the developing world.

The world’s lowest-income countries have been battered since Covid-19, not just by the pandemic’s fallout but also by the combination of climate breakdown and rocketing food, fuel and fertiliser prices made worse by Russian’s invasion of Ukraine. In recent months, surging global interest rates have forced many to choose between servicing debt payments or maintaining essential health and education spending. It is little wonder that poverty rates are increasing. Last year, the United Nations development programme reported human development declining in a staggering 90 per cent of countries.

When the global financial crisis struck in 2008, Gordon Brown mobilised G20 leaders and richer countries to rapidly unlock global finance for countries bearing the greatest burden. This time around, the support has been derisory.

Under Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Sunak, the UK has surrendered much of its role on the international stage. But with influence at the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and among development finance institutions, Britain’s leadership and convening power can still matter enormously. Four principles must therefore guide the UK’s role at the Paris summit and beyond.

First, we should reset relationships with low and middle-income countries, moving away from patronising nations and people to seeking partnerships based on respect and mutual trust and taking advantage of our respective strengths to tackle shared challenges.

Second, countries need smarter help based on different needs. Scaling up assistance, both financial and beyond, through multilateral initiatives is important. But agencies also need to be faster, less bureaucratic and more responsive to what countries say they need. We should keep a keen eye on how and where money is spent and the results it achieves.

Third, countries with the greatest development challenges and least access to existing forms of finance should receive their fair share of support. Proposals for the World Bank to step up its support for green development are important and welcome. But pursuing these goals by channelling climate finance away from countries that are further behind in their green journey would not just be counterproductive in the long term, but also deeply unfair.

Fourth, we must act on the growing debt problem. This is only getting worse, leading to greater insecurity and instability as countries are forced to focus on repaying it rather than investing in tackling challenges such as the climate crisis. In contrast to 20 years ago, China is the world’s largest bilateral creditor to low and middle-income countries, while almost 20 cent of debt owed by 73 of the world’s poorest countries is owed to private creditors. The government should be trying to bring creditors together to each play their part in tackling the build-up of this unsustainable debt by actively exploring regulatory and legislative options to support with debt relief, including multilateral initiatives such as the Common Framework and action on private sector debt in UK law.

The UK must persuade the international community to stay the course, both in the global green transition and to address the consequences of climate in the here and now. Last year’s floods in Pakistan or the unprecedented drought in East Africa demonstrate what is at stake: more natural disasters, more food and water insecurity, more people pushed into poverty and more instability. But if we work together now then we can not only turn this around but also take advantage of the opportunities it presents.

Africa, for example, is at the sharp end of the climate crisis, but it will also be part of its cutting edge: holding 50 per cent of the world’s total wind power capacity; more than 70 per cent of the world’s platinum and cobalt. Here the incentives for transforming all of our economies are aligning, and the rewards are potentially great: Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo produce the components that are shipped to factories in the north of England to assemble electric vehicles, securing jobs for both regions. Wind turbines piloted off the coast of Scotland are installed off the coast of Tanzania.

This week, even as Sunak sits out Paris, Sir Keir Starmer set out plans for Britain to lead the fight against climate change in a way that will cut bills, create jobs and give us energy security with clean power by 2030 and establishing GB Energy, a new publicly owned renewable energy company. With ambitious international action on fairer greener finance, a Labour government is ready to walk the talk — at home and overseas.

Preet Gill is shadow international development secretary

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