Bangladesh has an opportunity to be a world leader in climate change

Children walk over the top of a sandbag embankment that was breached by high waters in Khulna on May 4, 2019, after Cyclone Fani reached Bangladesh. Photo: AFP

The current Covid-19 pandemic emergency is combining with the climate change emergency as we speak, and as we tackle the first, we also need to tackle the second at the same time. The next major opportunity to tackle the climate change emergency will be at the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) to be held in Glasgow, Scotland next year. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will attend not just to represent Bangladesh, but all the most vulnerable developing countries that are members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF).

The CVF was created in 2009 by then President Nasheed of Maldives prior to COP15 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), when he invited the heads of nations from the four groups of vulnerable countries—the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group, the Alliance to Small Island States (AOSIS), the African Group and the Latin America Group. Although the different countries negotiated inside their respective groups in the UNFCCC, he wanted to create a crosscutting group of leaders that joined all the vulnerable countries together at the leadership level, not for detailed negotiations but rather for high level advocacy on behalf of all the groups.

I had the privilege of being invited to attend that first meeting as a keynote speaker on vulnerability and adaptation to climate change, along with other international experts who spoke on mitigation as well as global politics. This group of international experts were later to be formalised as the Expert Advisory Group (EAG) of the CVF which I currently chair. At that first meeting, where Bangladesh was represented by then Foreign Minister Dr Dipu Moni and Environment Minister Dr Hasan Mahmud, we also became a founding member of the CVF. The main advocacy issue that the leaders decided on at that meeting, which is still being campaigned for, is to call for the global temperature goal to be changed from 2 degrees Centigrade to 1.5 degrees. The reason for this was that although that 2 degrees was then the global goal, it would still cause irreparable harm to tens of millions of vulnerable communities across the most vulnerable countries.

President Nasheed became the first chair of the CVF for two years and argued for the 1.5 degree long term temperature goal at COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark in December 2009. He was the only member of the CVF group who was invited to join the other heads of government on the last evening of the COP, where the Copenhagen Accord was agreed upon. He argued for the global goal to be changed from 2 to 1.5 degrees, but this was perhaps the only issue on which the Presidents of US and China agreed that they didn’t want. So we lost that battle then. However, Nasheed managed to get them to agree to have the UNFCCC do a scientific review of the long term temperature goal after a few years.

The UNFCCC then convened a scientific panel in 2013 to examine the difference between the two temperatures, and when their report came out in 2015, there was a very strong scientific argument for changing the global temperature goal. They were able to demonstrate the loss of both millions of human lives as well as key ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef Resort in Australia at 2 degrees, which could be saved at 1.5 degrees. This scientific report was then taken up by the CVF, which was by then under the leadership of President Aquino of the Philippines, who made a big political push at the COP21 in December 2015 and managed to get the 1.5 degree goal adopted as a part of the Paris Agreement when it was finally agreed. Thus, the CVF has been a critically important group of nearly fifty developing countries that has provided a voice on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable, and the chair of the group has changed over the years from Maldives to Tonga, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Philippines and then Marshall Islands.

Late last year at COP25 held in Madrid, the President of Marshall Islands Hilda Heine, whose term ends in mid 2020, offered Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh to become the next chair of the CVF, and she accepted. Due to current travel restrictions, the official handing over of the responsibility from Marshall Islands to Bangladesh could not be done by the leaders of the two countries in person, but it has just been done through a formal letter. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will now chair the CVF for the next two years, which will be a critical period for tackling climate change.

The next major global meeting for the CVF to prepare for is COP26, which has been postponed to 2021 and will be held in Glasgow, Scotland with the United Kingdom as the President. Hence, it is important that the Bangladesh government immediately reach out to the British government on behalf of the CVF to ensure that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the other leaders of the CVF who will be going to Glasgow are given a high level platform where they can make their case for the global temperature goal of 1.5 degrees, which seems to be slipping out of reach, without major emitting countries being held to account.

Another aspect of the CVF that took shape under the leadership of President Aquino of the Philippines was the creation of the group of Finance Ministers of CVF countries, which was chaired by the then Finance Minister of Philippines. He decided to call the group the V20 group of countries and since then, the V20 Group of Finance Ministers have been meeting every year during the meeting of all Finance Ministers at the Annual World Bank and IMF meetings in Washington DC. The V20 Finance Ministers have also initiated a very interesting set of programmes to tackle climate change on the ground, including looking at insurance. The Finance Minister of Bangladesh will now become the chair of the V20 group of Finance Ministers and will have an opportunity to show that the CVF countries are no longer just an advocacy group, but an action oriented group as well.

By taking over the leadership of the CVF for the next two years, Bangladesh has the opportunity to represent vulnerable countries at global forums like COP26, but even more importantly, to lead the South-South sharing of knowledge, experience and expertise in adaptation to climate change amongst the vulnerable developing countries. In the era of Covid-19, this provides Bangladesh with the opportunity to show both national and global leadership in tackling the public health emergency as well as the climate change emergency at the same time.

Originally this article was published on May 13, 2020 at Daily Star. The author Prof. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).