The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, has just finished. I do worry that Greta Thunberg was right when she called the conference out as a “Global North greenwash festival.” In her protest, Greta referred to the richest and most industrialized parts of the world spreading misinformation and misrepresenting their green initiatives while expecting the rest of the world to pick up the slack.
In the article, COP26: What African climate experts want you to know, it states that the average African uses less electricity each year than one refrigerator consumes in the USA. Dr. Rose Mutiso, a Kenyan activist and Research Director of the Energy for Growth Hub is quoted as saying “Africa too must be allowed to develop and build up its infrastructure... we must simultaneously have more power for rapid economic growth and quickly find alternatives to fossil fuels to provide this energy. Yet African countries are being constrained by rich nations who make grand statements about their commitments while continuing to burn fossil fuels at home.”
In a similar vein, in the article COP26: Indonesia criticises 'unfair' deal to end deforestation, Indonesia’s Environment Minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, says that Indonesia wants to use its wealth of natural resources for development “and the benefit of its people.” She cited the need to cut down forests to make way for new roads. According to the World Bank website, approximately 50% of land area in Indonesia is still forested. This compares to a measly 13% in the UK, the worst in Europe.
As Greta says, it does seem to be a Global North greenwash, with the developed countries telling the developing countries to stay underdeveloped in order to meet the COP26 goals. Don’t get me wrong, I understand and agree that mass deforestation needs to stop. Important, critical, and urgent change needs to happen. What seems to be missing here is perspective; respectful, empathetic collaboration, global competence, and intercultural understanding.
I work in an international school, an IB World School. As with many international schools we have a focus on “international mindedness” and “global citizenship.” We are concerned with developing intercultural competencies in our students and in the whole community. This is not just a focus of international schools. The Australian Curriculum has “Intercultural Understanding” as one of its seven competencies along with literacy and numeracy, among others. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) developed the Global Competence assessment that they used “to measure students’ capacity to examine local, global and intercultural issues, to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with people from different cultures, and to act for collective well-being and sustainable development.” It would seem that some of the delegates of the COP26 need to develop their intercultural understanding and global competencies, “to act for collective well-being and sustainable development.”
All this has reminded me of a time, several years ago, when I was leading an international school in Indonesia. The forests in Indonesia were burning and cutting palm oil from our shopping lists was a hot issue with the students. Our student activists campaigned to cut palm oil use in school. The PTA joined the campaign, running bake sales to raise money for the local Orangutan sanctuaries (palm oil free, of course). It was important, however, to make sure that the discussion brought in perspective and engaged in respectful dialogue with the community to act, as PISA suggests, for the collective well-being. The school canteen was using palm oil for cooking school lunches. Palm oil is a much cheaper alternative to sunflower oil. A change from palm oil to a more expensive alternative would inevitably push up the price of our school lunches. This led to discussions, and an understanding that the local street food vendors could not just stop using palm oil. My Indonesian mother-in-law cannot afford to stop using palm oil. Being “green” is a luxury and often a privilege. Change can happen when affordable alternatives are made available to all, regardless of socioeconomic status.
Action is an important component of student education. It is the “so what” of their learning when they can apply what they have learned to real world situations. This action may lead to a change in lifestyle choices, for example not buying palm oil products, and it may lead to advocating lifestyle choices for others: persuading others not to buy palm oil products. This is where global and intercultural competencies are so important, where perspective and an empathetic lens move the action from a “Global North greenwash” to collective and sustainable development.
As international schools we also need to be mindful of our host country government, economies, and cultures. Palm oil is big business in Indonesia and Malaysia. I will admit that it had not really occurred to us to consider this until a fellow international school in Malaysia, whose students were similarly concerned about the orangutans, was asked by the government to “stop all actions that are sowing anti-palm oil sentiments among Malaysian students.” The minister also invited schools to speak to the government and the Palm Oil Council “to understand all efforts to improve the industry and to conserve the environment” (The Star, 2019). This brings us back to perspective, and the importance of understanding the multiple viewpoints of local and global issues.
If the world leaders at COP26 had developed global and intercultural competencies at school, had learned to “to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with people from different cultures, and to act for collective well-being and sustainable development” then the conference may have been less of a “Global North greenwash” and more of a global collective success.
Global competence - PISA
Beccy Fox works at KIS International School, Bangkok.