The EU considers itself the “most advanced multilateral project in history” and seeks to be the “center of gravity of work that promotes and protects multilateralism globally.”1 The pursuit of multilateralism has long been the union’s calling card. But in the changed geopolitical landscape, Europe’s position now stands out in contrast to a realist narrative centered on bipolar competition between the United States and China. The EU’s multilateral approach to climate security is of particular significance given the United States’ competitive bipolar framing, which endangers global efforts to address the climate crisis because it pushes geopolitical rivalry beyond planetary boundaries.
The EU now has an unprecedented opportunity to spearhead ecological geopolitics in the twenty-first century. The groundwork has already been laid. The EU supports the reform of global institutions so that they are more inclusive and thereby more relevant in a changed world. It emphasizes “variable geometry multilateralism” in recognition that there are no longer fixed sets of like-minded countries that see eye to eye on all issues. Although the EU has been willing to work with a range of stakeholders and supports regional multilateralism, it needs to do more to define its geopolitical position as it seeks to mediate and bridge differences, temper contention, and define a solid blueprint to navigate the Anthropocene.
The EU, China, and Ecological Stewardship
Now is an opportune moment for the EU to expand its rather narrow approaches to climate security and adopt a more ambitious notion of ecological stewardship. As previous chapters detail, the single-minded emphasis on decarbonization has eclipsed the necessary political focus on action in other important areas relating to ecosystem degradation. It is clear today that this narrow approach has run its course. Not only is climate change worsening, but the planet’s ecological balance is now on the brink of collapse. In Paris, the die was finally cast; the climate crisis became the central challenge for the global commons. The goal of ecological stewardship will therefore no longer be an achievement to strive for after all other crises are solved, but instead be the core prerequisite for securing the global future. As such, efforts in support of the goal will fundamentally change the nature and scope of EU partnerships with other powers.
Even while prioritizing decarbonization, the EU has been developing a frame of ecological stewardship under the rubric of “living well within the limits of our planet.”2 China too is increasingly seeking to frame a vision and a pathway for dealing with the climate crisis and environmental degradation. Given China’s size, carbon footprint, and global reach, the EU will need to work with it in pushing for more responsible ecological stewardship. The Chinese government now projects the term of “ecological civilization” that it defines as the “ultimate amalgamation of socialism, harmonious society, welfare, development, and a sustainable approach to environmental resources.”3 What began as a narrative for internal consumption is increasingly projected globally. China has woven its domestic and global decarbonization and digitalization strategies into wider institutional frameworks.4 For instance, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been subsumed under the UN Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway.5
For all the tensions that have surfaced between the two powers, this presents at least some degree of opportunity for the union. The EU and China could work together to expand their respective climate policies and take the lead on coordinating ecological security efforts at the global level. Today, their policies mostly focus on operational plans to green their economies. In working together, they could transform them into full action plans that reflect a wider and deeper understanding of what ecological stewardship entails. Together Europe and China are home to over 2 billion people.6 Their joint efforts could help streamline decarbonization policies, build resilience, and protect remaining ecosystems in both the developing and developed world, thus having major spillover effects for the geopolitical elements of climate action.
The EU could play an especially valuable role in influencing the climate security implications of China’s BRI. To date, 140 countries have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with China to participate in the BRI, which unites Eurasia and Africa (to include South America) through trade, infrastructure, and digital connectivity.7 Transparency mechanisms, clear standards, best practices, and equitable regulations will be required to ensure that the project builds sustainable infrastructure, promotes inclusive economic development, and champions norms and values of ecological stewardship. The EU’s cooperation with China might provide a platform for supporting such aims and even offer an opening to introduce a new economic paradigm of regeneration (outlined in chapter 6). Moreover, such cooperation spotlights another reason why EU institutions must urgently adjust in light of the geoeconomic implications that the shift to a low-carbon global economy entails, as detailed in chapter 4. Even if influencing China’s development and climate-related goals will be extremely difficult, working with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) should be a central priority.
The suggestion that the EU might work closely with China will raise eyebrows given the growing suspicion over China’s rise, its newfound projection of power, mounting economic and technological competition, and the substantial normative differences between the EU and the PRC. But while the EU has tried to apply critical pressure on issues such as human rights, it has not turned squarely against China and has sought avenues of collaboration and exchange in line with its own wider strategic goals and views of the world order. Strengthening coordination on climate, sustainability, and related UN Sustainable Development Goals—for example, through the China-EU Comprehensive Strategic Partnership—would provide a constructive way to enhance both of their broad networks and relations in the developing world. It could open a pathway to further address the geopolitical elements of climate action.
The timing for such an EU effort is fortuitous: the urgency to decarbonize the global economy is no longer in question, there is political will to see it through, and the economics are making more and more sense every day. Political tensions, however, may hamper efforts for a return to growth (post-pandemic) that is both green and sustainable, even while the pace toward decarbonization and the digitalization of the global economy has rapidly accelerated.
Expanding cooperation with China will self-evidently not be straightforward, as the production of the technologies necessary to decarbonize and digitalize the global economy has unfortunately already been drawn into the battlefield of geopolitics. Inevitably, because the path to decarbonization (and digitalization) has already transcended the realm of run-of-the-mill economic competition, attention has squarely turned to the indispensable inputs required for the transitions. As mentioned in chapter 2, both the decarbonization of the global economy and the fourth industrial revolution will rely on rare earths and a growing number of other critical raw minerals, such as lithium and cobalt, that are all highly geographically concentrated and vulnerable to disruption.8 Moreover, the amounts needed will skyrocket moving forward. According to a 2020 World Bank report, the production of lithium and cobalt may increase by 500 percent by 2050 to meet clean energy demand alone.9 In terms of access to these resources, China retains a dominant position. It also maintains its grip on the production and supply chains of rare earths and key technology applications. Recognizing early on the strategic importance of critical minerals, China has been consolidating its strong relationships with developing countries where the minerals mostly originate.
In light of the PRC’s advantage, major industrial nations are updating their critical minerals lists, attempting to build resilience against possible disruptions, and seeking to bring supply chains closer to home. Unfortunately, in the race to capture these resources, little attention is being paid to “planet mining” and the overall environmental and socioeconomic footprint that the extraction and processing of these minerals will have around the globe. In the United States, there is a political call to “de-Sinicize” supply chains in order to thwart China’s ability to control the market for these minerals as they are vital inputs for high tech, renewables, and defense applications. Under former president Donald Trump, the United States sought to reduce its dependence on supply networks involving China. While adopting a new tone on climate cooperation with China, President Joe Biden’s new infrastructure plan has turned the decarbonization campaign into a nationalistic call to lead in the production of new green technologies.10
The EU has so far chosen a different tack. It eschews open confrontation while broadening its supply networks. Despite acknowledging that China has become a systemic rival, the EU signed a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with the PRC in December 2020.11 Moreover, in addition to unveiling a detailed plan for decarbonization, the EU has strategically chosen to cultivate networks of interdependence. In 2017, the European Battery Alliance (EBA) was formed to address the need for efficient batteries essential in transport, power, and industrial applications. The EBA brought together 400 industrial and innovation actors from the fields of mining to recycling to build a strong and competitive European battery industry. The EBA has demonstrated how it is possible for the EU to strengthen its position as a producer of technology in the new low-carbon economy, without severing networks of interdependence. In fact, Chinese and other Asian companies are already investing in Europe, finding the opportunities for collaboration attractive from a business standpoint.12 In the fall of 2020, the European Raw Materials Alliance (ERMA) was launched. ERMA constitutes the largest consortium in the raw materials sector worldwide and is designed to support a multisourcing strategy for rare earth elements, ensure resilient supply chains, and increase European industrial competitiveness.13 Also to keep pace with China and the United States, the union drafted a Coordinated Plan on Artificial Intelligence in 2018.14
These critical networks offer opportunities to enhance the EU-China relationship and to raise more politically fraught climate questions without demonizing China. The EU and China have been cooperating on climate for many years. In 2005, they launched the EU-China Partnership on Climate Change and drafted a climate change action plan. By 2007, green growth and clean energy had become a new frontier for collaboration. Of course, things have not always gone smoothly. Early optimism was tempered by the disappointment that followed the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009. There was a worry that in the end, the technological exchanges and close coordination on tackling the climate crisis had failed to alter China’s position on multilateral climate change talks. In Copenhagen, China firmly upheld the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” in defense of the development rights and interests of the vast number of developing countries.15 Bilateral cooperation continued, nonetheless, in a number of policy areas related to domestic emissions, low-carbon cities, carbon capture and storage, greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation and maritime industries, and hydrofluorocarbons. There has also been extensive and successful collaboration on emissions trading that led to the launch of China’s national carbon market in 2021.16
The long history of climate engagement thus offers a solid base for Europe and China to work together to avoid sacrificing global decarbonization and digitalization initiatives on the altar of geopolitical competition and nationalistic narratives. But a few important conditions need to be met for this partnership to bear fruit. First, China must cease to actively feed into the logic of a bipolar narrative. Second, it needs to put more effort into its relationship with the EU.17 Thus far, China has underestimated the importance of the European Union as an actor beyond the economic arena and has been disappointed in the union’s unwillingness to break with the United States in key moments of contention. Beijing expends far more energy trying to manage its relationship with Washington. For its part, Europe must come to terms with the fact that it takes a significant amount of risk and exposure to demonstrate resolve and agency on the world stage. The EU must closely manage its relations with the United States, avoid being drawn into the geopolitics of bipolar competition, and compartmentalize areas of distrust in its dealings with the PRC so that it can do what it does best: bring the parties to the negotiating table and keep the work flowing. Specifically, the EU should more rigorously pursue climate security cooperation with China and gain a deeper political understanding of ecological diplomacy.
EU efforts with China will likely run up against opposition from the United States, given its more confrontational positions toward China. The EU has proposed a new transatlantic agenda for global cooperation and specifically for a comprehensive transatlantic green agenda lining up with commitments for carbon neutrality by 2050. This agenda includes “a joint trade and climate initiative, measures to avoid carbon leakage, a green technology alliance, a global regulatory framework for sustainable finance, joint leadership in the fight against deforestation, and stepping up ocean protection.”18 Even though the EU will rightly prioritize climate cooperation with the Biden administration, it should not let the United States stand in the way of a climate-oriented partnership with China—however difficult it will be to work with the PRC on climate security and, in time, a comprehensive ecological diplomacy.
The EU, Africa, and China
Since 2000, EU relations with Africa have been undergoing both dynamic institutional and organizational changes. Periodic EU-Africa summits have offered an opportunity for their leaders to gather in a more political forum.19 The Joint Africa-EU Strategy, launched in 2007, aims to address the power imbalance so that the partnership is more equal and reflects increasing African agency. Today, the EU-Africa partnership spans a wide variety of fields, notably development, peace and security, migration, climate, energy, trade, sustainable investment and employment, education, youth, democracy, and human rights. Through the African Union, the EU is also building up its partnership with regional economic communities like the Intergovernmental Authority on Development in the Horn of Africa.
Although the EU has created multiple pathways for engagement in Africa, it confronts China at every turn because the PRC’s influence has skyrocketed across the continent. Through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the PRC has created a new parallel regional architecture for independent and direct dialogue with its African partners.20 These developments have worried the EU. Nonetheless, joint EU-China engagement with African partners could help reduce growing tensions over access, as well as influence and solidify the goals of ecological diplomacy. The EU and China have already initiated a sectoral dialogue on Africa as part of their own collaborative efforts. EU-China coordination on Africa is a core part of the first of the three-pronged EU-China Summit topics of engagement under the High-Level Strategic dialogue.21 Moreover, the 2006 European Commission document EU-China: Closer Partners, Growing Responsibilities highlights sustainable development and aid coordination in Africa as areas for collaboration, as well as the desired outcomes for the continent.
The structured format of the dialogue allows for flexibility and pragmatism and should be harnessed to emphasize practical climate cooperation in partnership with African states. Joint engagement should be expanded to focus more on peace and security, support for African infrastructure, sustainable management of the environment and natural resources, and agriculture and food security.22 Existing commitments at different multilateral forums could serve as the base upon which to extend and deepen collaborative efforts.
While Europe has actively pursued engagement, the PRC has been more hesitant. China worries that full-fledged involvement within this framework might adversely impact its national interests or increase pressure to accept Western frameworks that it is not a party to. Moreover, the PRC is reluctant to risk souring relations with its African partners, who remain wary of widening Sino-European consultation and the potential for a donor cartel that would diminish their negotiating power. Still, many in civil society welcome the tripartite dialogue because it is perceived as a way to secure greater stakeholder involvement in decisionmaking.
For Africans, development remains the focus of this dialogue. Both China and other major industrial nations have endorsed the creation of the African Union Development Agency, which represents a concrete manifestation of African political will. China and countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have also committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Moreover, climate change has quickly become an area of focus for dialogue and increased collaboration.
However, the tripartite dialogue has so far proven ineffective. Suspicions and conflicting agendas constitute important obstacles that block tangible progress.23 In the development area, for instance, Europe and China espouse different models. The EU designs horizontal programs focused on poverty alleviation and increasingly climate adaptation. It relies on grants and direct budgetary support. For its part, the PRC does not subscribe to the OECD’s Official Development Assistance criteria. Its aid is more project-based and features a mixture of concessionary and market-based lending and has leaned more toward critical sectors of economic growth without much focus on climate change. The question is whether the EU and China can dovetail their different aid modalities, especially in the area of climate change, and do so in a way that gives African actors prime agency in social and political adjustments to climate stresses. UN initiatives may provide the best avenues for EU-China-Africa collaboration, since they include standards and norms that all parties have adhered to.24
For all its shortcomings, the tripartite dialogue at the very least offers a clear opportunity for Europe to reposition itself, especially in light of China’s BRI, which promotes the country’s conceptualization of the developing world and is a core part of Beijing’s geostrategic formulations.25 Strengthening tripartite cooperation will be key to serving Europe’s wider interests. So far, the tripartite dialogue has not tangibly broached the climate-security nexus that is so vivid in Africa. The EU needs to correct this omission.
The Horn of Africa offers a salient case study for a comprehensive approach to climate security and ecological diplomacy with tripartite cooperation. Events in the Horn show that climate-related instability is mounting and threatens to derail Africa’s progress, dash the hopes of young people, trigger massive waves of migration because of outbreaks of violence and food insecurity, and result in a growing number of failed or illiberal states. Of course, coordination with other new, more energetic regional powers engaged in Africa will be important as well to further mitigate risks to the complex but delicate landscape. Gulf states (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar), India, Iran, Russia, and Turkey are shaping the cartography, drawing maps of conflict that involve the Middle East and North Africa region, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Gulf, and the Indian Ocean. No other region is in more urgent need of a wider concept of climate security and an injection of ecological diplomacy into foreign policy.
The changing international landscape, the raging climate crisis, and Europe’s growing resolve to ensure that multilateralism remains the key organizing principle of the international order offers the union an important opportunity to put its ideas into practice. Much work has already been done, and Europe’s global strategy reflects its changing and growing ambitions to defuse increasingly fraught relations and reimagine them. Still, to advance a broader concept of climate security and ecological stewardship, the EU needs to expand and deepen its key partnerships, particularly with China and Africa. It must counterbalance the threat of bipolarity as expressed through U.S.-China hyper competition, especially in light of the immense work that needs to be done to address the climate crisis.
Sophia Kalantzakos is the Global Distinguished Professor in Environmental Studies and Public Policy at New York University/NYU Abu Dhabi. Her books include China and the Geopolitics of Rare Earths (Oxford University Press, 2018, revised 2021) and The EU, US, and China Tackling Climate Change: Policies and Alliances for the Anthropocene (Routledge, 2017). In the academic year 2020–2021, she was a senior fellow at the Research Institute for the History of Science and Technology at Caltech and the Huntington.
1 EEAS, “The European Union’s Global Strategy: Three Years On, Looking Forward.
2 DG Environment, “Living Well, Within the Limits of Our Planet: 7th EAP—The New General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020,” European Commission, accessed October 13, 2018, http://ec.europa.eu/environment/pubs/pdf/factsheets/7eap/en.pdf.
3 Mette Halskov Hansen and Zhaohui Liu, “Air Pollution and Grassroots Echoes of ‘Ecological Civilization’ in Rural China,” China Quarterly 234 (2018): 320–39.
4 Rosemary Foot, China, the UN, and Human Protection: Beliefs, Power, Image (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).
5 “The Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway (AP-IS) Platform,” ESCAP, accessed May 29, 2021, https://www.unescap.org/our-work/ict-and-disaster-risk-reduction/asia-pacific-information-superhighway-ap.
6 “Europe Population,” Worldometer, accessed June 15, 2021, https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/europe-population/; and “China Population,” Worldometer, accessed June 15, 2021, https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/china-population/.
7 Christoph Nedopil, “Countries of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI),” Green Belt and Road Initiative Center, accessed February 17, 2021, https://green-bri.org/countries-of-the-belt-and-road-initiative-bri/.
8 Sophia Kalantzakos, “The Race for Critical Minerals in an Era of Geopolitical Realignments,” International Spectator, July 22, 2020, 1–16, https://doi.org/10.1080/03932729.2020.1786926.
9 Kirsten Hund et al., “Minerals for Climate Action: The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition,” International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/ The World Bank, 2020, http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/961711588875536384/Minerals-for-Climate-Action-The-Mineral-Intensity-of-the-Clean-Energy-Transition.pdf.
10 Cara Korte, “President Biden Talks Tough About Winning on Green Energy. But China Is Already Ahead in One Critical Area,” cbsnews.com, May 19, 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/biden-green-energy-china-competition/; “Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future,” Joe Biden for President: Official Campaign Website, accessed May 29, 2021, https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/; and “A Look at What’s Inside Biden’s $6 Trillion Budget Request,” New York Times, May 28, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/28/us/politics/trillion-budget-plan-joe-biden.html.
11 The trade agreement is pending ratification by the European Parliament. At the moment of this writing, the process is stalled due to “tit-for-tat sanctions imposed over China’s treatment of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang province.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that “the trade deal should not be abandoned” because it “opens up greater reciprocity in access” to the EU’s reciprocal markets; see“EU Suspends China Trade Deal as Tensions Grow Over Xinjiang, Hong Kong,” Voice of America, May 10, 2021, https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/voa-news-china/eu-suspends-china-trade-deal-tensions-grow-over-xinjiang-hong-kong.
12 Reuters Staff, “BMW Signs Batter Order With China’s CATL,” Reuters, June 29, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bmw-batteries-catl-idUSKBN1JO2VT; and Carole Mathieu, “The European Battery Alliance Is Moving Up a Gear,” May 2019, https://www.ifri.org/en/publications/editoriaux-de-lifri/european-battery-alliance-moving-gear.
13 “European Raw Materials Alliance (ERMA),” accessed February 22, 2021, https://erma.eu/; and “European Raw Materials Alliance Kicks Off the First Cluster to Strengthen the Domestic Supply Chain of Rare Earth Magnets and Motors,” EIT Raw Materials, accessed February 22, 2021, "a href="https://eitrawmaterials.eu/european-raw-materials-alliance-kicks-off-the-first-cluster-to-strengthen-the-domestic-supply-chain-of-rare-earth-magnets-and-motors/" target="_blank">https://eitrawmaterials.eu/european-raw-materials-alliance-kicks-off-the-first-cluster-to-strengthen-the-domestic-supply-chain-of-rare-earth-magnets-and-motors/.
14 European Commission, “Coordinated Plan on Artificial Intelligence,” European Commission, 2018, https://ec.europa.eu/transparency/regdoc/rep/1/2018/EN/COM-2018-795-F1-EN-MAIN-PART-1.PDF; and “Coordinated Plan on Artificial Intelligence 2021 Review,” Shaping Europe’s Digital Future, accessed May 25, 2021, https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/library/coordinated-plan-artificial-intelligence-2021-review.
15 “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC),” Climate Nexus (blog), July 30, 2015, https://climatenexus.org/climate-change-news/common-but-differentiated-responsibilities-and-respective-capabilities-cbdr-rc/.
16 Sophia Kalantzakos, EU, US and China Tackling Climate Change: Policies and Alliances for the Anthropocene (New York: Routledge, 2017), 131; “China Launches World’s Largest Carbon Market for Power Sector,” Climate Home News, January 7, 2021, https://www.climatechangenews.com/2021/01/07/china-launches-worlds-largest-carbon-market-power-sector/; and Huw Slater, Wang Shu, and Dimitri De Boer, “China’s National Carbon Market Is About to Launch,” China Dialogue (blog), January 29, 2021, https://chinadialogue.net/en/climate/chinas-national-carbon-market-is-about-to-launch/.
17 “Full Text of China’s Policy Paper on the European Union,” XinhuaNet, December 18, 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-12/18/c_137681829.htm.
18 European Commission, “EU-US: A New Transatlantic Agenda for Global Change,” European Commission, December 2, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_2279.
19 Toni Haastrup, Luís Mah, and Niall Duggan, eds., The Routledge Handbook of EU-Africa Relations, First Edition (Abingdon, Oxon, and New York, NY: Routledge, 2020).
20 Chuka Enuka, “The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC): A Framework for China’s Re-engagement With Africa in the 21st Century,” E-BANGI: Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities 6, no. 2 (2011): 220; and “Forum on China-Africa Cooperation,” accessed February 19, 2021, http://www.focac.org/eng/.
21 Anna Katharina Stahl, “The Attempted Trilateral EU, China, Africa Development Dialogue,” in EU-China-Africa Trilateral Relations in a Multipolar World: Hic Sunt Dracones, ed. Anna Katharina Stahl, The European Union in International Affairs (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2018), 52–62. The political dialogue was upgraded to strategic dialogue in 2005, and the first such discussions were held in 2005 in London. After the Lisbon Treaty in 2010, this same strategic dialogue was further upgraded to High-Level Strategic Dialogue and has become the fundamental venue of Europe’s political dialogues with China.
22 Chris Alden, Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, and Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, “Africa-China-EU Cooperation in Africa Prospects and Pitfalls,” Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2009, http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:nai:diva-297 urn:nbn:se:nai:diva-297; and John Fox and Francois Godemont, “A Power Audit of EU-China Relations,” European Council on Foreign Relations, 2009, https://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/a_power_audit_of_eu_china_relations.
23 Bas Hooijmaaijers, Unpacking EU Policy-Making Towards China: How Member States, Bureaucracies, and Institutions Shape Its China Economic Policy (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).
24 Maurizio Carbone, “The European Union and China’s Rise in Africa: Competing Visions, External Coherence and Trilateral Cooperation,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 29, no. 2 (2011): 203–21; and Christopher Ayres, “The EU-China-Africa Partnership: Trilateral Relations Entering New Waters,” September 9, 2020, http://www.eias.org/news/the-eu-china-africa-partnership-trilateral-relations-entering-new-waters/; and Bas Hooijmaaijers, “China’s Rise in Africa and the Response of the EU: A Theoretical Analysis of the EU-China-Africa Trilateral Cooperation Policy Initiative,” Journal of European Integration 40, no. 4 (2018): 443–60.
25 Joshua Eisenman and Eric Heginbotham, “Carbone,” in China and the World, ed. David Shambaugh (Oxford University Press, 2020), 416.