A Miracle of Unity at COP21

climate change, climate justice, current affairs, foreign policy, integral ecology, international development, Uncategorized

Something important happened in Paris this weekend which could change the course of history. For the first time, the entire world, all 195 countries – literally everyone – came together to agree to take united action on climate change. They agreed to make this legally binding and took a step together to save our planet. It was the result of many years’ negotiations, tireless campaigning, many prayers and many false starts. But they finally did it.
This sense of history was evident in the speeches made and in the emotion that pervaded the normally reserved conference halls. On Saturday, there were extraordinary scenes of big smiles, warm hugs, kisses, tears, singing, cheering. It was a triumph of unity over division, global solidarity over national interests, hope over despair. Witnessing those scenes of euphoria, you could not fail to get swept up in the emotion and believe in the power of what was happening. History weighed heavily in the air and the spirit of Nelson Mandela in particular seemed to hover: “Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great – you can be that generation.” He urged us all, “Let your greatness blossom”. It was a rare, sweet moment of global celebration and he would have been smiling.
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Some will call me naïve for lauding the Paris Agreement. Many are already decrying its failure to deliver, saying it is a fraud and that any attempts to talk it up are propaganda. I disagree. The world desperately needed this moment. It goes beyond the fine detail of the agreement itself. The agreement is nowhere near perfect. In fact, it falls down on many key aspects which would ensure that the world is saved from the worst impacts of climate change, especially the poorest countries. But those dismissing it as hype miss the bigger picture: its very existence is little short of a miracle. In fact, just last week I was deeply doubtful myself whether a meaningful agreement could be reached. And yet we now have a universal, equitable (of sorts) and legally binding agreement which is the outcome of a peaceful, negotiated political process. It is the result of the most complex and protracted negotiation in history.
www_delegfrance-unesco_org_Just imagine the alternative. Imagine we woke up on Sunday to a repeat of Copenhagen in 2009, where the talks collapsed amid bitter rancour, back room deals and profound mis-trust. Who would have been the victors? The only victors would have been those who deny climate change  and use their mischief to manipulate the media. Those who have most to benefit by delaying action would have been delighted. It may have spelt the death knell for multilateralism with UN at its’ heart. It would have set back any climate action momentum by years, perhaps indefinitely. Given the turbulent global context moreover, the long shadow of political failure would have deepened divisions and conflicts. It would have spelt disaster, or in Pope Francis words “collective suicide”.
The Agreement has many flaws. It is long on vision and ambition –  stating the need to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees – but it is short on action. The words “fossil fuels” don’t even appear once! Human rights are absent in the legal text. Many things are still pushed into the long grass. Mechanisms for financing are still to be worked out. However, it sets in train a transparent process of raising ambition. This requires all countries, even the oil producers, to make increasing commitments to reduce emissions over the coming years.

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La Seine Hall where the Paris Agreement was agreed


Tackling climate change is going to be a long road and will require global collaboration – a commodity which has been sorely lacking in multilateralism in recent years. National self-interest has dominated. Overcoming this short-sighted, narrow-minded political world view has been the biggest obstacle and led the world to the cliff. Like a person trying to wean themselves off a lifetime of addiction, shifting this has required a determination and a commitment to change direction, to see the bigger picture. The COP experience of forging collaboration and unity, which required immense skill and patience, has a value in itself. Nothing is more infectious than the taste of success. The fact that Paris sends a signal to the world that success = caring for our planet can only be a good thing. It has the power to change the global zeitgeist: the terms of the debate will never be the same.
 
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Some of the Irish NGOs waiting for the final session to start


There is absolutely no doubt that the hard work really starts now. No stroke of a pen, no single agreement, no one action can get us out of the hole of climate change which we have dug for ourselves. At least now we have a ladder. As Pope Francis reminds us, the change we need will not come from only one direction. It requires the convergence of many different perspectives and different viewpoints. It requires us to see that the “whole is bigger than the sum of the parts” and believe in our collective action. In Paris, we glimpsed that whole. The signal has been sent out that the world is determined to tackle climate change – now the challenge is to implement it and build on the momentum in the coming years. In a world so dogged by sadness, division and conflict, in many ways it is a miracle.
 

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TAX: A dirty three letter word?

current affairs, ethics, finance, foreign policy, international politics

For many ‘tax’ is a dirty three letter word. It is something to be endured under duress. We all know what it means to get that crested letter from the revenue. The Financing for Development Conference in Addis this week has revolved around tax. The loud call by the G77 for the establishment of a global tax body where all can have an equal say in global tax rules has been the pivotal issue in the negotiations, which are coming to a head as I write. Despite the many new initiatives launched during the FFD summit, this single issue has become critical – and emblematic of the deeper struggle going on within global politics, as I wrote here. Don’t be fooled by the gloss and spin!
The reason for this is quite straight forward. It comes down to a growing realisation that there are only a limited number of available sources to finance development in poor countries – and not all of them are equal.
Let’s take the main financial flows very briefly in turn. First there is overseas aid. Whilst aid remains an important source of finance, especially for the poorest countries, it has some serious down sides. The biggest weakness of aid is that it leaves countries vulnerable to the whim of international actors, who themselves are responding to their own political constituencies. This constituency, in recent years, by and large, in the OECD, has tended to question the value of aid as a legitimate public expenditure. Aid also comes with many strings, not all of which match the desires of national governments around their peoples’ futures. Irish Aid, thankfully, bucks the trend in being untied, grant-based and poverty focused. It sets a ‘gold standard’ I personally am proud of, but still, it is vulnerable to the same downsides.
The second major private flow is foreign direct investment. For sure, this is an important source of finance and it has been the focus of many discussions this week, but again it comes at a cost as a main source of finance. Large external investors are prepared to exert significant on national governments to restructure their economies in their favour as a condition of investment. Importantly, one such condition is pressure to reduce taxes.
The third flow is international trade. Again, it is an important source of foreign currency but history has shown that countries which are heavily dependent on this for development are vulnerable to currency fluctuations, making it a very risky source of core budget finance. A similar argument could be made for remittances from overseas. Again, nice to have – but hardly a sustainable way to finance a country!
Other flows such as raising public debt are becoming increasingly important. The structural adjustment programmes from the 80s onwards, and the recent Greek crisis, however, are testament to how unsustainable debt – whether public or private/public blends– can result in the most serious crises, including state collapse and conflict. That is why the proposals at the FFD conference around ‘blended finance’ and PPPs, which effectively increase public debt levels are so disturbing. In the absence of sovereign debt work out mechanisms or adequate safeguards, there could be many more Greece crises in the future. Bankrupt countries which are bailed out and then run by private finance institutions and technicians, who then literally ‘buy up’ countries are a very possible future.
The overwhelming impact of all of these external sources is to narrow the space that national governments have to implement policies on behalf of their people. With each of the above, countries are beholden to masters beyond their control. Inevitably, the pressure this brings to bear corrupts. It results in a crisis of accountability.
So the attention of many northern governments has turned to forms of domestic resource mobilisation, i.e. resources countries can raise ‘in house’. Unable to provide adequate ODA, they point to Southern government to raise their own resources. Tax is the essential, sine non qua – the unavoidable missing element in the discussion which is now taking centre stage.
Tax has a number of qualities other sources don’t have. It is an obligation, backed by law; it is predictable and long-term; by definition, it is a contribution to the financing of the public good which goes beyond the benefit received in return. As a source of revenue it is raised locally and largely spent locally, it is not bound by the same external conditionalities. Progressive tax has the added benefit of increasing social cohesion through institutionalised solidarity.
What the wealthy countries didn’t foresee on this week was the powerful counter argument to their call for greater domestic resource mobilisation. This was epitomised in a report by former South African PM Thabo Mbeki: African countries have lost the same about in illicit flows as they have received in aid in the last 50 years. Multinationals based in rich countries, who set the tax rules, are by and large responsible for this through tax avoidance schemes such as transfer mis-pricing. Annually, Africa looses $50 billion dollars to illicit flows. In an era of globalisation, if you want to raise domestic resources, you need to stop the bleeding from illicit flows. To do that, all countries need an equal say in setting the rules of global taxation.
Who, how and what is taxed says something deep about the communal values in a given society and how those are aligned to political power. Unfortunately in our world today, there is a profound mis-alignment between our societal values and the forces which determine taxation globally. The large corporations, and their powerful leaders who set the rules, are largely unaccountable. They are able to make the rules to their own advantage in the cracks between inadequate national and international laws. Reversing this through a global tax body which reflects better the shared values of justice and human rights is the key message from Addis, and now a top priority. Tax for me is no longer a dirty word – but a symbol of commitment to a just world.

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"Credibility Costs" – Coherence and Ireland's New Foreign Policy

agriculture, climate change, current affairs, foreign policy

Last week in Dublin, leading academics, policy makers and NGOs gathered at Iveagh House at an event hosted by the Royal Irish Academy to examine how Ireland’s new foreign policy ‘Global Island’ can be translated into practice.
There is a lot good about the new policy. On first glance, many NGOs will be very happy. The themes of inequality, poverty and climate change figure prominently. The values expressed in the first half of the policy are ones which any human rights advocate would welcome, particularly against an international context where human rights are increasingly under attack. Ireland remains committed to core values of fairness, justice, security and sustainability. It commits to standing up for human rights, civil society space and promoting greater gender equality. The country’s enduring commitment to multilateralism, particularly to the UN is re-stated, as is its’ intention to stand for the UN Security Council for 2021-22. Reference is made to the Government’s commitment to the UN target of giving 0.7% of GNI in overseas aid, but unfortunately no timeframe for achieving this forty year old target is included.
On closer reading, however, the striking thing about this new policy is the disconnect between the sections on ‘our values’ and ‘our prosperity’. The sections might well have been written by different people. Whilst the re-statement of values is essential – as it states how we want to be seen in the world – there is a chasm with the main thrust of the document, which relates to economic growth, investment, trade and exports. There is an assumption that these areas somehow stand outside the values framework elaborated previously. The entire focus of the second part of the policy is focused on how invigorated economic diplomacy, including through marketing our national day, can generate prosperity for Ireland.
Within this entire section, there is a complete absence of any reference to values and to the need for policy coherence if we are to address that fact that much of our prosperity is still built on the backs of the poor – and the planet. The section, for example, talks about more integrated and skilled economic diplomacy – but has no mention of human rights and the importance of not compromising principles outlined in the ‘our values’ section in the quest for greater trade and investment.
Three flagship policy areas come into sharp relief in that respect: how Ireland’s corporation tax regime squares with our fairness values; how our expansionist agriculturalist policies around beef and dairy square with our sustainability values; how our trade missions square with our long-standing commitment to engage on human rights issues. Given the increasing influence of transnational finance over international governance structures, the chapter on the removal of barriers to trade, and the absence of values to govern this is extremely concerning. The reference to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership in the policy is very worrying indeed. It is pitched as simply a positive thing, with no reference to serious concerns from civil society, in particular regarding the inclusion of an ISDS mechanism, and implications for human rights and climate change mitigation.
The conclusion one has to draw is that there is perhaps an implicit acceptance of the view expressed by Minister Richard Bruton in his Irish Times article (23rd January 2014) in which he stated that ‘trade missions are not the place to raise human rights’ and that we do human rights in certain multilateral fora such as the UN Human Rights Council. Bilateral trade missions, even with unsavoury regimes, are not the place to argue about human rights. Irish jobs trump every other concern and value.
Values underpinning policy are critical – and the values at the core of this policy are the right ones. However, the litmus test of values, as was said at the President’s ethics initiative, is how they are integrated across policy and applied in the tough choices between policies. Credibility and coherence costs – but there can also be many co-benefits. There need to be clear accountability mechanisms to assess that process of translation. The commitments made on policy coherence for development laid out in the ‘One World, One Future’ development policy in 2013, which would increase transparency and accountability on such issues, have still not been acted on. The OECD highlighted this gap in its review of Irish Aid last year. There are two glimmers of hope in in terms of coherence commitments in the policy. The first is a cross-departmental committee on human rights. This committee has already met once – how the agenda of the committee is shaped and acted on remains to be seen. The second is a consultation around a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. Hopefully these initiatives will deliver.

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