Paul Johnston: Britain’s priorities for UN Security Council align with Irish interests too

Tackling climate change and Covid-19, and trying to prevent conflicts, are key goals

Paul Johnston, the UK ambassador to Ireland. Picture: Paul Sherwood

On the last day of 2005, I lay, exhausted, in the bathtub of my Manhattan apartment, nursing a large glass of whisky. I’d just completed one of the busiest months of my working life.

In December 2005, the UK had chaired the UN Security Council, G7 and European Union simultaneously. As political counsellor in our mission to the UN, I’d been at the heart of this uniquely heavy workload.

This month, my colleagues in New York are once more combining G7 chairmanship and the UN Security Council presidency. And this year a third element will follow in November in Glasgow, when we chair the hugely important COP26, the UN climate change conference.

With new US leadership and commitment, this meeting offers us a chance to reset global efforts to alter the course of global warming.

Ireland, like us, regards climate change and climate security as key priorities, so Ireland’s security council presidency in September is another vital step on the road to Glasgow.

Britain has set three priorities for the security council this month, all of them close, I know, to the hearts of our Irish partners: climate, Covid-19 and conflict.

The UN Secretary General has rightly said that “making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century”. In 2007, the UK chaired the first debate on climate change at the Security Council. I was there at the time, and it was a controversial proposal.

However, it is now clear that uncontrolled climate change presents risks for international security, including through exacerbating drivers of conflict such as lost livelihoods or pressure on natural resources in already fragile countries and regions.

It follows that countries affected by conflict are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that more than half of the 15 countries most susceptible to climate risks are host to a UN peacekeeping operation.

That is why we are using our security council presidency, including a meeting on February 23 chaired by our prime minister and with the participation of the Taoiseach, to ensure the world hears the voices of those countries most vulnerable to climate change.

And that is why why we want to see all countries in Glasgow in November making commitments to deliver the Paris Agreement goal: to keep the increase in global temperatures below 2 degrees from pre-industrial levels.

That is not easy for any country, and it’s hardest for those with the fewest resources, so it‘s critical that we provide financial and wider support so that countries can adapt and become more resilient.

We are doubling our own international spending on climate finance to almost £12 billion over the next four years as a contribution to the global goal of $100 billion a year.

The world’s most vulnerable countries and people are also at great risk of damage from Covid-19. Vaccines are the only sustainable route out of this pandemic, and that must be the answer for everyone, not just for rich countries.

This month brought an important step in ensuring equitable international access to vaccines with the announcement by the COVAX Global Facility of its plan to deliver over 330 million doses in 145 countries.

The UK has contributed £548 milion to the COVAX advance market commitment, which will contribute up to 1.3 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses for 92 developing countries this year alone. We are committed to transparency, inclusiveness and openness, and will use our G7 leadership to resist vaccine nationalism.

Even once vaccines are available, however, we face the challenge of getting them to some of the most difficult to reach parts of the globe – where wars are being fought or roads and rail don’t exist.

We will use our presidency of the security council to address barriers to vaccine access, including through work on logistics, funding and conflict resolution.

More widely, we will make strengthening the global health system a central plank of our leadership of the G7 this year, so that we act more quickly in future to stop pandemics emerging.

We also want to stop crises emerging, so we are using our security council presidency to address the range of underlying factors that drive conflict, not least hunger.

Our special envoy for famine prevention and humanitarian affairs is hosting a meeting to build support for the UK’s Famine Initiative objectives. Our forthcoming review of diplomacy, defence, security and development will confirm our investment in conflict prevention, resolution, peacekeeping and peacebuilding.

Last year was not the year any of us wanted; it was a memorable 12 months for all the wrong reasons. But if we act together, through the G7 and UN, 2021 can be a better year, bringing hope and progress, most importantly and especially for the most vulnerable among us.

Paul Johnston is the UK ambassador to Ireland