We need to protect climate diplomacy from discursive statecraft

The UK must use its influence to ensure the drive to net zero also catalyses progress towards national security goals, argues the Council of Geostrategy’s Will Young

At the 1992 Rio Summit on climate change, the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) was established. CBDR ensures that historically large emitters, typically countries that began industrializing earlier, bear more responsibility for environmental protection: they have benefited the most from emitting, and have reaped the benefits – logically, they can afford to do more. This was an elegant solution to the challenging reality that no country was going to forego economic growth to protect the climate.

As new economic powers such as China have risen on the back of carbon intensive industries however, this has shown the weaknesses of CBDR when played back to domestic audiences – when it comes to a crunch many do not accept responsibility for the greenhouse gas emissions of their ancestors and are aggrieved that countries such as China have colossal emissions – absolute and per capita – despite having known that this was causing climate change (a luxury – or burden – many people’s ancestors did not have). In turn this generals the traction of the climate mantra “global problem, global solution” and makes those pronouncing it seem blinkered at best and naive at worst.

Of course China’s surprise commitment to reach net zero by 2060 and heavy investment in wind, solar and electric vehicles puts it in a strong position to argue that it is playing its part to curb emissions. However, whilst per capita emissions are falling in the developed world, China’s continue to rise as it continues to pursue wealth and power. The World Bank estimates that China will classify as a developed nation in the next few years, perhaps as early as 2023. This will place additional emphasis on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s efforts to tackle climate change.

In this complex interplay of intention, strategy, policy and actions however CCP is not averse to using climate to drive a wedge between developed and developing nations. And despite HMG’s best efforts, it has become difficult to keep cooperation on climate policy from geopolitical concerns. The CCP knows that if it can successfully position developed nations as historically guilty and thus primarily responsible for climate change this serves its goal of revising the international system in its interests.

So, we know there are domestic tensions from blind adherence to mantras, and we know that the CCP is leveraging this against the developed world, so what to do? In truth, the UK is in a good position to lead on the intersection of climate and national security policy. It now produces just under one per cent of global emissions – a remarkable feature for the world’s fifth largest economy. It has consistently lead and supported the development of international norms and institutions which are trying to address the issue – from the UNFCCC to the Paris Agreement and more recently the Glasgow Pact.

With this track record of multilateral effort it is now time for it to take a more active approach to bi- and plurilateral approaches, building relations with old friends and new to enable developing countries such as South Africa, Vietnam, India and Indonesia to reap the Benefits of technological advances from the last twenty years – whether this is two- and three-wheeler electric vehicles or electric buses, or offshore wind and green hydrogen production. It should also build relations with those countries for whom adaptation will be an even greater challenge than mitigation including Commonwealth nations such as Sri Lanka or Bangladesh.

In short it’s important for HMG to develop an approach to climate change that goes beyond the sole emphasis on ‘global problems’ requiring ‘global solutions’.

The Integrated Review, released in March 2021, made tackling climate change and biodiversity loss a priority for ‘Global Britain’. Developing a principled geostrategic approach, backed by sustainable policy actions and a clear narrative, enabling UK climate leadership to be consolidated and minimising China’s divisive efforts should begin now.

The good news is that this has already begun. Indeed, at COP26 the UK and a network of democracies launched the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) that mobilized approximately £6.25bn to support South Africa’s move away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner energy sources. This partnership could serve as a blueprint for the counter-offer and effectively address both climate and national security goals and by doing so address the accusations of naivety often levelled at climate leadership.


William Young is director of BloombergNEF and associate fellow in environmental security at the Council on Geostrategy


Leave a Comment