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The EU is embarking on a historic first: a plan to transform a large, industrialized economy into a sustainable low-carbon, circular one. Its ambition is laudable—and overdue—given the short ten years that climate scientists say humanity has left to make all its activity sustainable and within planetary boundaries.

However, the European Green Deal is designed for the EU’s internal transition, not the rest of the world. As such, external factors are still being treated as add-ons to the EU’s core climate policy, and this is causing problems in how it is being implemented and communicated globally.

The analyses in this compilation fill important gaps in policymaking that are preventing the EU from developing an effective and holistic climate security agenda. The authors explained how the EU got to this point—by primarily acting as a regulatory power that generates policy solutions as problems arise—and how its climate measures and energy policies have been too narrow so far. They then explained why setting a much wider agenda of ecological diplomacy to achieve environmental sustainability and regeneration is so vital. The authors shed light on the links between security and conflict, ecosystems and decarbonization, and the current economy and future systemic change.

Heather Grabbe
Heather Grabbe is director of the Open Society European Policy Institute.

The message to policymakers is very clear: climate security is essential for the EU to achieve its fundamental goals, both internal and external, but it will require the EU to transform its deeply embedded policy paradigms and institutional structures. There are four important lessons for those responsible for the European Green Deal and those involved in formulating foreign, security, and defense policies:

  1. Policy incoherence is a strategic problem for the EU.

To create interlinked policies that will deliver climate security, the EU will need to build much deeper connections between the institutional silos that set policies on energy to trade to conflict intervention. Each part of the policy machine has its own logic and culture, underpinned by assumptions about how the world works and what role the EU should have—and these assumptions are often not aligned.

In regard to the EU’s environmental and climate policies, this incoherence has created two major blind spots: one is the direct external effects that the European Green Deal will have in the rest of the world and the other is how the EU’s economic model and policies generate conflict drivers in other regions. This inability to join up policy issues and institutions puts the EU at a strategic disadvantage in preparing for a future role in a climate-changed world.

With respect to its external policies, the EU has progressively moved climate risks to the center, evidenced by the noticeable shift of focus in its successive security strategies. But as several authors noted, policymakers have been treating climate and environmental problems as exogenous risks, not taking into account how the EU itself is increasing climate risks through over-consumption and a market-centered approach to trade and development. The EU needs to pay attention to the drivers of conflict from environmental degradation, which have effects way beyond carbon emissions. Even if carbon emissions stopped today and there were no rise in global temperatures, the disruptions to hydrological cycles that are already happening in many regions because of deforestation will cause suffering, conflict, and massive displacement of people.

In regard to conflict interventions, the EU is still focused on physical resource scarcity. Its development cooperation aims to increase the supply of physical environmental goods (for example, food and water)—without much attention to the politics and governance around this supply in various regions. Policy thinking needs to go beyond the technical, physical side to understand how interventions themselves can create the potential for conflict (for example, because the value of land goes up when water supply infrastructure is built).

Meanwhile, if the aim is to be a geopolitical Europe—the ambitious goal that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen set for her term—the EU needs to integrate climate into its core approaches to geopolitics and geoeconomics. That means, for example, working with China on climate (even if the United States remains reluctant to do so), addressing climate justice across the Global North and South, and moving toward a regenerative economy. To achieve all these objectives, the EU needs to expand its technical and internal focus on environmental policy and adopt a holistic view of the global ecosystem.

  1. The EU has to become more than a regulatory power and refrain from trying to retrofit geopolitics and security agendas.

The limitations of EU policy thinking on climate are unsurprising given the nature of the beast. The EU is fundamentally a regulatory power whose core policies and competences grew around the goals of market creation and regulation. External policies have been retrofitted into this regulatory machine, often creating an incoherent mix of mindsets and policy logics.

Climate policies have also been retrofitted, and some policies—related to development, for instance—are more resistant than others to change in response to its rise in salience. The EU’s development aid and international partnerships need to evolve fast in response to changing situations, especially in Africa.

EU leaders have presented the European Green Deal as a global public good as well as a means of maintaining the competitiveness of European firms in the growing markets for green products and services. To an extent, the Green Deal is indeed a global public good because it will more than halve Europe’s carbon emissions, but that will only amount to around 5 percent of global emissions. Ultimately, the EU may have a greater global impact through setting international regulations and norms; Europe is the first mover toward repricing economic activities and accounting for its environmental impact.

If the EU’s efforts are successful, other regions may follow suit, most importantly the other giant carbon emitters, the United States and China. Other regions may adopt parts of the European model for their own transitions, as well as the union’s norms and standards, similar to what is occurring in area of digital protection. But if the EU fails, leaders in other countries will be reluctant to make bold moves. Thus, the overall philosophy of the Green Deal matters for the global transition, not only the specific measures that the EU adopts.

Climate security is the kind of long-term meta-issue that the EU should be good at addressing. The pandemic has revealed once again the EU’s failings in short-term crisis management, as it requires agreement between multiple institutions and governments. But the EU is better than national governments at long-term planning and large-scale, multiyear projects, as evidenced by the Single Market Programme. The question is whether the union can achieve the same scale of success beyond its own continent by setting the pace for the global climate transition.

  1. While implementing the Green Deal at home, the EU needs to promote systemic change globally.

Given humanity’s need to transition to a fully sustainable economy within the next decade, the European Green Deal is just a stepping-stone to broader system change. To pursue a holistic approach that provides long-term climate security, the EU will need to embrace economic regeneration as a means of creating system resilience.

For example, a focus on the taxonomy of investments and design of the EU’s proposed Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism will be important for measuring the environmental impact of investments in Europe and preventing carbon leakage to other regions, but ultimately, it needs to lead to a global valuation system for all investments and every part of the global supply chain. There is only one planet, so Europe’s green transition also depends on changing how goods are produced and traded across the world.

The EU needs to find ways to apply the protection of habitats in its external policies. The European Green Deal has started repricing the European economy, and now it needs to change the economic model that fails to value nature outside the EU as well.

  1. In pursuing international climate diplomacy, the EU should be modest and recognize its historical responsibility.

Better communication of the EU’s ambitions for climate is vital to getting other regions on board. After a year of vaccine debacles and massive disruption of life in every region, there is repair work to be done before agreed-upon collective action on climate can begin. At the forthcoming climate summits, it will be hard to ask for bigger commitments from countries that are still in the midst of battling the pandemic and dealing with insufficient vaccine doses even for their essential workers, overwhelmed healthcare systems, and rising levels of sovereign debt.

Viewed from outside, it would be easy to see the Green Deal as a plan to create a beautiful green island of clean cities in Europe while exporting dirty production and waste to poorer regions. And the EU’s attempts to prevent such export of dirty production, notably through the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, are seen in many parts of the world as protectionism in a green wrapper.

The world is watching the European Green Deal and assessing whether it is a good model and whether the transition to net zero can be fair and inclusive (which is the only way to achieve the behavioral change that is needed to make human activity on this planet sustainable). If Europe wants the rest of the world to follow its example, it needs to address the economic, social, and ecological gaps between the Global North and South that have widened during the pandemic. As the source of a significant share of the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere after centuries of industrialization, Europe has a responsibility not only to lead the change in its own economies but also to support other regions in making the transition and to reset the global architecture for international cooperation.

The systemic change has to be global because of the deep ecological interdependence of all parts of the Earth. There is also only one climate, so emissions cannot be “exported” and then not count. Similarly, an ecosystem collapse in one region has serious consequences for other regions. It is time for the EU to strive for a broader ecological security, which requires coherent, linked policies, both internal and external, and a comprehensive strategy to promote the global systemic change necessary for lasting security.



Heather Grabbe is director of the Open Society European Policy Institute. She has worked on EU external policies in the European Commission and published research at think tanks (the Centre for European Reform, Chatham House, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) and universities (Oxford, Birmingham, and the European University Institute). She is a visiting professor at University College London and KU Leuven.