Debt relief for climate action


   Op-Ed by Kamalesh Sharma,

   Commonwealth Secretary-General

Global warming is emerging as one of the greatest injustices of our time.
Small island states in the Pacific, for example, have done little to cause climate change, yet may soon disappear into a rising ocean.  Barely above sea level, their people could soon pay the ultimate price and be displaced from their homelands.
Such countries have little opportunity to plan, manage or mitigate the risks of global warming because they must prioritise debt repayment over action to save their drowning islands. A further obstacle is the high cost of island life due to remote locations and small-scale economies.
That’s not all: natural disasters can destroy island livelihoods, as Cyclone Pam did recently in Vanuatu and Tropical Storm Erika in Dominica.
Reconstruction will be slow and tenuous—possibly taking decades—as these countries pick up the pieces of their decimated economies.
As the United Nations continues its search for exceptional ideas to mobilise countries into climate action, what can the rest of the world do to help?
Game changer
One idea comes from the Commonwealth, an organisation of 53 countries that is passionate about democracy, development and diversity. Its Secretariat has a proposal that could be a game-changer: reduce a country’s debt in direct relation to its commitment to invest in fresh climate change action. 
Think of what could happen – developing countries could expand marine protected areas, strengthen coastal defences, reform fisheries policies, promote water conservation, manage coastal zones, invest in renewable energy and create institutions to advance their plans—all while paying off their national debt.
In other words, a small island state can have its economic investment in climate-resilient programmes become part of its debt write-off.
The world’s developed countries have already promised to raise US$100 billion for climate action by 2020.  This money will go further and achieve more if it’s tied to “debt relief for climate action swaps”. These swaps would help the countries that need it most and use the money that has already been set aside for tackling climate change. They would also help to achieve the twin objectives of debt sustainability and long-term climate resilience in developing countries. The Commonwealth stands ready to help countries implement the projects that are funded through the swaps.
This is what we will be talking about next week in Malta at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, the organisation’s flagship summit of 53 leaders from all parts of the world. The following week we will take this idea to COP21 in Paris, where we would like all the world’s leaders to make it part of the global solution to climate change.
Small island nations’ contribution to the global carbon footprint is negligible, but they are the first to experience global warming’s impact. Yet as the waters rise they are floundering in debt.
The Commonwealth’s idea about swapping debt relief for climate action is precisely the kind of thing we need for COP21. The idea gives small countries the opportunity to take the offensive against climate change, leading to a more climate-active and resilient world.
Commonwealth Secretary-General
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting takes place in Malta between 27-28 November.