Recalling his seven years as Special Advisor on Economic Affairs to the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Vince Cable speaks to Global about his involvement in the Brundtland Commission and the formulation of the Langkawi Declaration, detailing their pioneering effect on climate change awareness and international environmental policy
Global: You took up your post as a special adviser in 1983. What attracted you to working for the Commonwealth?
Vince Cable: Before joining the Secretariat, I had spent a decade and a half working on trade and development issues related to Africa, South Asia and Latin America. The offer of a post in the Secretariat gave me an opportunity to be more closely involved in policy. And the Secretariat had a good reputation under Sonny Ramphal’s leadership for creative thinking at a time when the international economy was being hit by multiple problems – an oil shock, a debt crisis in many developing countries and rising protectionism.
You supported the Commonwealth Secretary General, Sonny Ramphal, during his membership of the Brundtland Commission. How did you find that experience and what was the significance of its report?
The Brundtland Commission report has had immense influence, far more than seemed likely at the time when it was seen as following in the slipstream of the weightier Brandt and Palme commissions. The concept of ‘sustainable development’, first set out in ‘Our Common Future’, has become central to current thinking about the environment and the economy. Sonny Ramphal and Mrs Brundtland [former prime minister of Norway and chair of the commission] steered the commission away from its initial flirtation with the anti growth agenda of Western ‘greens’ towards a recognition that economic growth is essential to overcome mass poverty; growth which needs to respect and accommodate environmental limits. The Brundtland Commission was also the first major multilateral initiative which dealt with global warming and climate change.
At the Vancouver Commonwealth summit of 1987, an expert group on climate change was commissioned, chaired by Sir Martin Holdgate. How important were its findings?
The work of the expert group on climate change and sea level rise was genuinely pioneering. When we started work, the subject was not taken seriously: rather on a par with research into UFOs! But we were able to capture the emerging scientific consensus that there was a real problem and came up with proposals for preventive strategies backed by detailed analysis of the potential impact of sea level rises on Pacific atolls, the Maldives, Guyana and Bangladesh. The work of the expert group led directly to the establishment of AOSIS – the negotiating group of small island states on climate change. The report was an important building block for the first big UN conference on climate change, which led in due course to Kyoto.
What were your recollections of the drafting and adoption of the Langkawi Declaration, and of the Kuala Lumpur meeting in general?
I recall the Kuala Lumpur meeting less for the exotic scenery than for long hours in communiqué drafting sessions. But I saw two major outcomes. The first was the translation of the work of the Brundtland Commission on sustainable development into inter-government agreement – and this led in turn to the work on climate change and my involvement in the early stages of establishing a Guyana tropical forestry project. The second was the launching of the Hibiscus Fund, a private fund managing equities from a variety of Commonwealth emerging market stock exchanges. I had spent a long time working with Vishnu Persaud and my colleague Bishakha Mukherjee (and the International Finance Corporation in Washington) to catalyse this fund and it was a great source of satisfaction when it became operative: one of the early emerging market funds.
What was the lasting impact of the Langkawi Declaration on the climate change debate?
Climate change has become one of the handful of issues which now dominate global policy-making. Except for a small heterodox minority, no one now seriously questions the broad scientific consensus and the need for action, led initially by the richer countries, to reduce carbon emissions to sustainable levels. I am proud of the fact that the work I did with Secretariat colleagues and experts, and with the Brundtland Commission, helped to lay the foundations for a quarter of a century of work on climate change policy.
As preparations are made for Rio+20, what are the prospects for achieving a greater international commitment to addressing climate change? And what part can the Commonwealth play in this process?
At present, the climate change debate has reached something of an impasse. Major emerging economies like China, Brazil and India broadly accept that they have a role in curbing carbon emissions but have a domestic, anti-poverty imperative to maximise economic growth. In major developed countries like the US and Canada, there is strong political resistance to abatement measures. Resource-rich oil producers like Russia are not engaging. The main political victims of climate change – in African countries, where rain-fed subsistence farming is the norm, and in small states – are not powerful players. There is a powerful global self-interest in survival, but there is, at present, a worrying lack of urgency.
Interview by Stuart Mole