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The Geopolitics of Climate Change

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Photo by Lena Bell on Unsplash

The role of climate change in geopolitics has changed markedly in the last decade. Climate has shifted from being a taker of the prevailing geopolitical winds, driven by other issues like security and trade, to be a shaper of geopolitics as a whole. The Special Summit called by the United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) in some ways marks the culmination of this shift. Climate is now a central fixture of the G7, G20, UN agencies and the international financial institutions. In 2009 the headwinds of the global financial crisis contributed to the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit. In 2019 climate is now a major driver reshaping the financial system as a whole.

At the centre of this geopolitical shift has been the perception of climate impacts. Eighteen of the hottest years ever recorded have happened in the last nineteen years, and the recent force of hurricanes, droughts and wildfires have impacted communities around the world. The Global Commission on Adaptation has shown that there can be no security or prosperity for any of worlds nearly eight billion people if we do not act now.

The Special Summit has been an attempt to respond to this need, but these actions should be viewed as a beginning, not an end. There is a clear gap between what the science says is necessary, what the people taking to the streets are asking for, and the actions global leaders are currently prepared to commit too. Between now and COP 26 in the UK at the end of 2020 this gap has to be closed.

The dramatic falls in the price of low carbon technology are demonstrating that cost is not the biggest barrier to ambition. However, technology alone is not enough. Just because there will be economic winners from shifting to net-zero emissions does not prevent the economic losers from blocking action. Without tackling the political and institutional implications of the transformation the sectors, regions and entire nations that depend on high carbon for their current prosperity will continue to resist. The tools of diplomacy must therefore utilise changes in the real economy to shape perceptions around the national interest and unlock greater ambition.

Success will also require efforts to defend a global rules-based system. Climate safety requires cooperation across all countries. The trust needed to deliver this can only be achieved through mechanisms with strong governance. This requires not only investing in the existing UN systems but strengthening elsewhere across trade, finance and security cooperation. The alternative of a power-based world, as championed by autocracies and strongmen, would make keeping global temperature increases below 1.5oC impossible. Climate being at the top table of geopolitics helps in this regard, but it will also mean that it is subject to the traditional horse-trading between nations that has been a feature of trade and security for so long.

Climate change ambition also rests on the ability to link success with other complimentary processes. Next year will also include critical opportunities to agree a new framework under the Convention on Biological Diversity and the review of the Sustainable Development Goals. Nature based solutions provide a vital opportunity to increase climate ambition while also protecting the world’s most critical habitats. Similarly delivering on core development goals, such as improved health through reduced air pollution, can provide massive carbon savings. However, securing these win-win opportunities will not be automatic. Diplomatic leadership will be critical to link potential outcomes across different processes and maximise the opportunity presented by the 2020 super year.

To explore the potential to shape geopolitical trends for increased climate ambition we will review efforts across the three global super-powers (China, US and EU) as well as action in the co-hosts of COP 26, the UK and Italy. 

China

China, alongside New Zealand, comes into the UNSG summit as a leader of one of the more successful workstreams: Nature-based Solutions. The exact outcomes of the workstream have been held close to the chest by Beijing and the coalition but insiders expect the summit to see the announcement of a number of initiatives. While this bodes well for further work at the intersection of climate and nature, including during next year’s China-hosted UN meeting of the Convention on Biodiversity, it has also had an unintended consequence. For all that the UN Secretary General formulated clear expectations of China - as he did for all G20 countries - more broadly China has not been feeling the pressure on the world stage. Instead of being in the spotlight as the world’s largest emitter, China has been able to engage in the summit as a workstream co-lead, ensuring it will not show up empty handed come September despite a lack of domestic announcements.

China is not expected to deliver either a mid-century strategy, an update of its 2030 targets (NDC) or any announcements about ending its significant domestic or international coal habits. Internally, technical preparations for the long-term strategy and NDC are ongoing, with the Ministry of Environment holding the pen. However, political decisions, particularly around the NDC, are unlikely to be solidified until there’s greater clarity on the 14th 5 year plan (2021-2025). China's “plan to plan all plans” will set the limits of the possible for the final NDC, as well as define China’s coal pathway for the coming decade, and development of the upcoming edition has only just started.

At the same time, the economic fallout of continued trade tensions with the US is exacerbating China’s natural inclination to only commit to goals it is confident of (over-)delivering, chilling enthusiasm for ambition discussions. Nevertheless, for a country already burdened with rampant over-capacities in high- carbon industries (including coal, steel and cement) the political economy argument for investing in a greener development pathway still holds weight. This is especially true in times of economic slowdown, and the economic stimulus packages they entail. China’s planners are cautious of overcommitting themselves but they’re also aware that the next 5 year plan and the economic stimulus it channels will either reinforce an unsustainable and increasingly unprofitable reliance on high carbon industry - or put China (and by proxy the world) on a cleaner, greener pathway.

The domestic variables for Chinese ambition are likely to continue to shift over the next year - but as long as China continues to feel pressure only from rich nations the landing ground for ambition will remain limited. As the single largest emitter in the world, China may not share the Global North’s historic responsibility, but it’s actions in the present and the future can make or break a pathway that keeps 1.5 in reach.  China has increasingly positioned Itself as a champion of those most vulnerable in the UN climate talks. And it should not be underestimated how much those small island developing states (SIDS) and least developed countries (LDCs) will need to play a role in turning up the pressure on China to walk the talk as we head into 2020.

United States

Don’t expect the United States to make a big splash at the SG’s Climate Summit. But there are plenty of signs that despite the White House’s efforts to derail U.S. climate action, there’s been a dramatic shift in the political landscape over the past two years and climate is finally a top tier issue and a force to be reckoned with.

Trump’s Paris withdrawal announcement in 2017 was quickly rebuffed by pledges from state, city and local governments alongside businesses, investors and civil society organizations. If you go by hard numbers, America still supports Paris. Governors that are part of the U.S. Climate Alliance represent 55% of the U.S. population and an $11.7 trillion economy.

Civil society groups in the US are to be commended since America’s Pledge and the ‘We Are Still In’ movement contained the political fallout long enough until the Democratic takeover of the House last year. Since, there has also been a burst of activity in Congress:  Both legislative chambers have formed Committees on the Climate Crisis and dozens of hearings have been held. The House of Representatives passed H.R. 9 which effectively requires the U.S. to remain in the Paris Agreement. Climate has been a dominant issue in the Democratic presidential campaigns, including as the focus of a seven straight-hour town hall debate on CNN between 10 of the leading candidates. Republicans in Congress are feeling the heat and starting to table their own legislation and are issuing warnings to their colleagues of the electoral risks of inaction. Even within the White House, an effort to undercut climate science was shelved following a backlash from other officials including top military brass, leading to the departure of the chief architect of the policy from the National Security Council.

The bombardment of climate impacts like the recent California wildfires, extreme temperatures in Alaska and Hurricanes like Harvey and Irma in 2017 have had a noticeable impact on American public opinion. Almost three-quarters of registered voters think global warming is happening, and most (63%) are worried about it. A majority also say corporations and industry should do more to address the issue, including over half of Republicans.

None of this is likely to make a difference to the U.S. official position on climate change in the short term. But sooner or later the progress being made at the subnational level and in the real economy, and the public demands for more action, will become overwhelming. Democratic candidates for the Presidential elections next year have already begun to put forward detailed climate action plans. It is too soon to tell whether this increased attention will translate to a positive political outcome in 2020 and pathway for increased action and ambition from 2021. The rest of the world should at least prepare to work with a very different U.S. in the near future.

European Union

The European Union will not be able to deliver leadership at the scale required by the Secretary General, but there are big things brewing in Europe.

The European Commission published a Communication highlighting the continent’s “offer” at the UN Secretary-General Summit. President Tusk, speaking on behalf of the 28 Member States, will highlight the objective of “climate neutrality”, which should be achieved by 2050 for “a large majority of member states”. A final agreement is expected before the end of the year. He will also point out that the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 will likely be overachieved thanks to the policies already adopted. But the European Union is not in a position yet to announce the enhancement of its 2030 nationally determined contribution.

European authorities will focus on the sustainable finance agenda, a European success story in the making. It has the same transformative potential for finance as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) had on privacy matters. The EU will introduce an International Platform on Sustainable Finance, a forum aiming at coordinating financial markets regulation.

The UN Summit takes place a little more than a month before the end of the current Commission – and it restricts what the EU can show.

There is a strong momentum behind climate action in Europe. The most recent EU-wide poll shows that 93% of Europeans see climate change as a serious problem and 92% agree that we should build a climate-neutral economy by 2050 at the latest.

Climate neutrality is almost a done deal, and it will impact policies across the board. President-elect von der Leyen has promised a European Green Deal in the first 100 days. She announced a revision of the European Union’s 2030 climate target to 50% and then 55% “in a responsible manner”. Climate neutrality is becoming a leitmotiv in trade, industrial and possibility competition policies.

Member states of course can make announcements about domestic ambition, or even their intention at European-level. Chancellor Merkel for instance came out in support of a Dutch proposal to increase the EU 2030 target to 55% while Sweden will be climate neutral by 2045.

The issue is not one of ideas, ambition or support, but one of timing for the EU.

United Kingdom

The UK is currently dominated by uncertainty over Brexit. New Prime Minister Boris Johnson has lost an unprecedented number of votes in the House of Parliament to start his leadership. Against the wishes of the Prime Minister legislation designed to prevent the UK from exiting the EU without a deal has now been passed; although it remains to be seen whether or not this will ultimately prove to be binding. The Prime Minister has also attempted, but so far failed, to call a new general election in order to resolve the current Parliamentary deadlock. However, an election at some point in the coming months now feels like a near certainty and its outcome could radically alter the UKs political future.

The UK is expected to come to the UNSG summit with promises on nature-based solutions and new money for climate action. In June earlier this year the UK became the first major economy to pass a net-zero emissions law. This has the potential to shape a new UK nationally determined contribution, if it were to leave the EU in the coming months. The UK, in partnership with Canada, also continues to drive forward global initiatives such as the Powering Past Coal Alliance.

Having now secured the presidency for COP 26 next year, the UK knows that the eyes of the world will be watching. However, there is currently a significant gap between the UKs long-term net-zero commitments and its short-term delivery. International credibility will depend on being able to demonstrate domestic delivery and so it will be critical to take concrete steps in the coming months to enhance delivery on the ground.

However, the shadow of Brexit looms large over the COP 26 presidency. If the UK either secures a deal with the EU to enter a transition period, or decides to remain in the EU, the UK is likely to be a stable force for climate diplomacy. However, if the UK crashes out in a no deal Brexit at the end of October, the chaos that will ensue could see climate priorities subsumed beneath an urgent need to manage its borders and secure trade deals around the world.

Italy and Europe’s Southern shores

A new pro-Europe, pro-green Government has been installed in Italy marking a significant U-turn from the previous Salvini-shaped Government. The Programme for Government put a Green New Deal at the heart of the Government’s economic policy and as a top priority for Europe. Italy will find itself in the driver's seat on major international processes and geopolitical decisions over the next two years. In partnership with the UK, it will host COP26 in 2020 and then hold the G20 Presidency in 2021. The latter will be particularly important in the scenario of a US re-engagement after Trump and a more assertive, geopolitical Europe. Relaunching effective multilateralism through a new wave of global reforms and shared rules will be key to accelerate climate action around the globe.

But international credibility begins at home. The UNSG Summit becomes the first opportunity for Italy to show the world that it means what it says. One major announcement we might expect is for the country’s long-term climate strategy to aim for net-zero by 2050. This would be a first decisive step in line with the Paris Agreement goal of 1.5°C. Following from this, Italy could decide to join the Carbon Neutral Coalition, a group of pioneering countries that have agreed to develop ambitious climate strategies to meet the long-term objectives of the Paris Agreement. Finally, Italy will likely present its intention to legislate to stop new licences for offshore oil and gas drilling and support Mediterranean countries to follow suit.

These announcements would give a big boost to Italy’s leadership credentials and spur actions in other countries that face similar challenges. But to accomplish this, Italy needs to go further and support a review of the European Nationally Determined Contribution of at least 55% to present at COP26 next year, approve the new European Investment Bank’s energy lending policy that bans fossil fuels investment from 2021 onwards, and join the Call for Action on Adaptation and Resilience prepared by the UK and Egypt. The latter is a must to protect national security as Italy is the most exposed country to climate impacts in Europe, with 80% of farmland at risk of disappearing by 2100. Italy is also one of Europe’s gate keepers for potentially millions of new climate migrants.

These plans will have huge geopolitical consequences. Firstly, they will accelerate policies to wean Europe off fossil fuels, and in particular gas. Where existing energy security policies have failed – Europe has spent years unsuccessfully trying to reduce its dependency on Russian gas which remains at record highs – climate policy is finally making a difference through cutting gas demand. And secondly, they will offer Europe’s southern neighbourhood and the broader Middle East and North Africa region a new clean and resilient development model for long term stability.