UK views on Georgia climate, business, connected coastlines

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Southeast British Consul General Andrew Staunton visited Savannah this week to meet with Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, World Trade Center Savannah and other local groups to discuss Brexit, economic development, climate change and more. He spoke Tuesday, June 15, 2021, to the Savannah Council of World Affairs and The Learning Center at Senior Citizens Inc. 

Kayla Guilliams, reporting fellow at The Current, sat down with Staunton to discuss climate change ahead of the November United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, which will bring together world leaders to accelerate action towards the goals laid out in the 2016 Paris Agreement.

The interview has been edited slightly for clarity. 

Guilliams: Thanks again for sitting down and speaking with me. How would you describe your role here in the Southeast for readers who may be unfamiliar?

Staunton: I’m the British Parliament representative based in Atlanta responsible for relations with the states of Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. I’m appointed by Her Majesty on the recommendation of the British Prime Minister, so I’m a public servant and a diplomat. Ultimately, I’m the source of transmission of the UK’s government’s policy, but I’m also the receiver of the policies of the states with which I cover. And a big part of the agenda with the Southeast is about economic prosperity through business, cultural cooperation, public policy and just generally bringing people together. 

KG: There are four goals laid out for the upcoming COP26 conference, the first being securing global net zero emissions by mid-century and keeping the 1.5 degree warming target within reach. Do you think those goals are possible given the current path we’re on, and what kind of changes need to be made to keep them in reach? 

AS: It’s an ambitious goal. Our view is we need to be ambitious now so that we can deliver by 2050. Obviously industrialized nations such as the UK and the US probably have more of the economic leverage that we can use to make that transition. But, I think some of the messaging at the G7 conference, for example, is that the international community has to make available the right financing structures. The UK has already announced that we’re about to move towards green sovereign bonds, which will provide some sort of public financing towards projects that have sustainability at their core, but we will also try and leverage private sector finance.

At the COP26 conference this November, there will be big demand from developing countries saying ‘OK developed world, you need to put your money where your mouth is and help us on this path.’ So there are certain things we can do over time mostly through the financial strand, but we also need governments to be prioritizing this action. We need, in some respects, to set that vision and set that ambition, but also help others with the tools at our disposal to achieve as much as we can by 2050. We think it’s the right time to be taking these actions, because that increases the chances of matching those ambitions. 

KG: The second goal of the conference is adapting to protect communities and natural habitats. A lot of climate policy and discussions about climate change are focused on preventative measures like reducing emissions. Do you think it’s important to start having more conversations about resiliency and helping communities, from the UK to coastal cities like Savannah, adapt to the impacts they’re already facing from climate change?

AS: A big preoccupation for us is how do we help small island states that are facing this. For example, how do we help them build their sea defense, how do we help them understand some of the structural changes and the difficult decisions about the functioning of their economy that may have to be made, and what are the tried and tested solutions that have worked in other countries that we can export to them to help. Even in countries such as the UK, we’re already seeing major issues around sea defenses and flooding in both coastal and inland areas. So we’ve developed quite a lot of expertise and project management to ensure that we’re protecting people’s livelihoods, and we think it’s important to bring that expertise to others and to work with different partners and governments. I think also there will be an expectation that in order to achieve this we’ll need to monitor finances in both the public and private sector, and I think that’s the aspect where we need to show leadership.

We can’t just be setting visions, we actually need to be helping those countries and helping them grow those industries of the future. You know, are they suitable for offshore wind generation, are they suitable for biomass generation, we have to understand what the renewable energy sources are of the future that can suit the needs of these countries. And I think the experience of the global pandemic showed that we are all in this together. 

KG: You mentioned climate finance, and the third goal of the COP26 conference is to mobilize finance. After the G7 conference this past weekend, we saw some criticism arise due to leaders not setting out very specific plans to reach the goal they affirmed in 2015, which was to spend $100 billion a year for climate finance abroad starting in 2020. Why do you think these specific goals weren’t set and do you foresee any plans to start developing more concrete action items?

AS: I think there’s a negotiation process out there, and a lot of those processes have been impacted by everybody doing things mostly virtually. Quite a lot of our negotiating partners are saying that they’re unwilling to strive towards a consensus until there are in-person negotiations in place. I think what you’re seeing is a pathway, and this has been an opportunity for face to face engagement of the leaders of the industrialized nations. But, it is a negotiation, and we’re moving toward turning points. So I think you will start to see much more focus on how we get from where we are in June to where we need to be in November, so that we’re giving that level of assurance and identifying those sources of finance that make that target achievable. I think we’ll see a quite serious movement towards that $100 billion target, it’s a big community government objective. 

KG: The last goal of the conference is for countries to work together to deliver. To what extent do you think we’ll see tensions at the COP26 conference due to these industrialized nations not having set concrete steps towards their financing target?

AS: At this moment I wouldn’t say tensions but I think there are points of divergence with people wanting to be reassured that those financing schemes will be there. There’s no point in making false promises and I think we want to show that there are financial mechanisms and strong support. So I would say there are divergences in perspective, and in any negotiation there are always tensions. People have different national interests and what the UK is trying to achieve at this moment in time is to say, let’s bring those national interests together.

At the G7 conference you really got a sense of vibrancy and verbosity because the G7 leaders were together for the first time, they’ve been doing so much work virtually, and I think there’s that sense of togetherness, a unity of purpose, a sense of wanting to achieve because we are all trying to learn the lessons of nation state approaches for these global challengers that aren’t sufficient. 

KG: We’ve been talking a lot about climate policy and action at a larger, international level. What role do you think cities like Savannah have when it comes to climate change and climate policy? 

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson presented Consul General Andrew Staunton the Key to the City during a gathering Tuesday at Senior Citizens Inc. where Staunton addressed members of The Learning Center and Savannah Council of World Affairs.

AS: When we were at lunch with Mayor Johnson today, we were talking about the work that’s done by Savannah’s Chief Resiliency Office. He’s really looking at all models and challenges, and this is a low-lying area faced with the threat of hurricanes, weather events and coastal erosion. So we’re working with the City of Savannah and chief resilience officers from southeast states and the UK to stimulate policy exchange because we’re facing similar challenges. And we’re doing this either through developing legislation, developing technology, and communicating to residents the importance of this work.

I would say that in the UK there’s a greater public acceptance of the requirement to take this action now, but if you live in a city like Savannah or Charleston, going about your daily business can really be affected by these weather events. So these coastal cities that face these acute challenges should be leading these discussions. They should be saying to the people in London, ‘We face different threats than you, so when we hear that the UK is talking about trying to avoid global warming of 1.5 degrees, that really matters to us.’ And it must matter in the state of Georgia because the Georgia Ports Authority is one of your windows to the world, so the city of Savannah needs to be prosperous and we need coastal areas to be protected.

We also need the right resources to be involved, and I think the pandemic has shown us that contingency spending on public health systems is really important, so we need that contingency spending on preparing for the really rainiest of days. 

KG: Why do you think this policy collaboration at a local, state, national and international level is important?

AS: The UK acting on its own is not going to solve the world’s climate issues. The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world but we’re responsible for maybe less than 2 percent of global CO2 emissions, so we need to work together because it’s about transforming how we are producing within our economy. So the UK cannot risk being seen as being ultra green and ultra secure while letting everything go to hell in a handbasket. There’s a big agenda about ensuring that we protect our global citizens. But there’s also an economic development play, let’s be honest.

The UK is very active in the offshore wind industry, we have a very healthy automotive sector, so we want to support British jobs, we want to support British competitiveness and we want to support British growth. But in this area, when Britain grows, the UK grows, and the US grows. So we see it as mutually beneficial. But what we want to do is ensure that over the next 100 years, we’re using the limited natural resources at our disposal, in the way that’s best aligned with our stewardship of the planet. 

KG: One last question – why do you think our readers should pay attention to the upcoming COP26 conference, as well as other discussions around international climate policy and collaboration? 

AS: The short answer is that it matters. This is not talking heads talking about abstract concepts. This is about people looking to address the challenges that we can all see when we walk out of our front doors. There’s a huge youth and civic engagement part of this conference, young people who are interested in the environment traditionally come, but that could be more challenging this year because of COVID. So we’re looking for ways that we can maintain that electricity of building partnerships so that the future generations who are entering the working environment will be interested and excited about things like, over the next 100 years, how do we help Africa prosper, how do we help the United States prosper, how do we preserve jobs here, how do we build the jobs in the future. The time to engage is now. 

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