In the run-up to the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, the EU has moved up a gear in its climate action commitments and has pressured other states to do the same. Burnishing its claim to global leadership, the union portrays international climate politics largely as a matter of others catching up with Europe.

Richard Youngs
Richard Youngs is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, based at Carnegie Europe. He works on EU foreign policy and on issues of international democracy.
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However, the EU’s record is less positive if we consider the wider geostrategic elements of ecological disruption. And crucially, this foreign policy dimension of environmental challenges is not on the COP26 agenda.

While the EU has made strong commitments to reduce carbon emissions, it has not yet devised policies to deal fully with the strategic ramifications of ecological stresses around the world.

Despite its impressive leadership in select areas of climate action, the EU is nowhere near having developed a full-spectrum ecological foreign policy. On the longstanding climate security agenda, the EU does not have an especially good story to tell, just a slightly less bad one than other powers.

Indeed, despite all the admirable steps the EU has taken in leading the global climate agenda, the bloc is still on balance exporting what might be referred to as ecological insecurity. The EU’s routine message about the benefits of exporting its own climate policy framework and internationalizing the European Green Deal overlooks the ways in which the union itself adds to the instability driven by environmental stresses.

Rhetorically, the EU has for many years recognized that ecological stresses require a more ambitious approach to peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Member states have recently signed off on another commitment to connect climate policy and conflict resolution, a 2020 roadmap for integrating climate factors into EU defense policy, and NATO climate security guidelines.

Yet, despite many such documents and promises over the years, EU conflict interventions and Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) missions still lack climate-related elements and environmental peacemaking remains subordinate to traditional notions of security. Indeed, European involvement in conflict and fragile contexts is in general scaling down into far thinner forms of engagement.

European trade interests and EU regulatory power still do more to damage ecology than boost global climate policies. This is despite the EU’s increasing use of green trade clauses and the prospective Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism. The European Green Deal conveys a notion that exporting EU rules and laws axiomatically constitutes good climate policy for other countries, when in truth transplanting these to different contexts can be deeply destabilizing.

A geoeconomic race for the critical minerals driving digitalization is worsening environmental destruction, intensifying conflicts in Africa and Asia, and compounding security risks: contrary to governments’ standard rhetoric, the green and technological transitions are not two sides of the same coin.

The EU has often argued that bad political governance is the deepest-seated factor that amplifies the stresses associated with climate and other ecological change. Yet there is little evidence that this has strengthened EU support for governance reform in third countries. If anything, the opposite is true: by far the largest share of EU climate funds goes to government authorities whose bad governance is a source of societal instability. The EU’s approach to ecological transition and climate adaption can feel curiously apolitical and non-strategic in this sense.

While the EU and its member states have ramped up their climate finance commitments, funding for adaptation still lags behind the focus on mitigation and falls far short of what is needed.

The European Commission is now beginning to connect some climate, conflict, and geographical aid programming. It is also starting to build social support for local communities into biodiversity strategies. Still, most EU adaptation projects tend to focus on defensive containment—holding at bay the physical effects of climate change—rather than the forward-looking social and political change that will be needed to manage ecological stress. Much European policy is oriented toward the EU’s own access to renewable energy sources rather than to assisting developing states in their ecological regeneration.

The EU has produced world-leading and agenda-setting analysis on the foreign and security policy implications of climate change. However, notwithstanding the routine rhetoric that climate change usurps all other security challenges, in practice the EU still gives much higher priority to other, more immediate security crises.

The union certainly has hundreds of projects and initiatives underway on climate security, but these are generally about collecting data; fostering dialogues; deploying environmental advisors; training EU staff; raising issues in international organizations; improving conflict monitoring; and the like. They are rarely about implementing tangible policy change.

To live up to its own rhetoric and warnings, the EU would need to foreground a more strategic understanding of climate and wider environmental issues. It would need to move from a relatively superficial and rickety containment of climate-change impacts to more ambitious foreign policy engagements capable of quelling ecologically driven instability across the international system. This would entail difficult choices and a willingness to put other interests aside.

For now, the EU has shown limited willingness to make tough choices. Rather, it has merely bolted useful, low-key climate security initiatives onto its existing foreign policies.

The EU’s narrative that climate change acts as a “multiplier” of other security concerns implies that it reinforces existing EU foreign policy logics. In fact, ecological crises raise serious questions about existing understandings of strategic interest and beg for qualitative foreign policy change.

Whatever the headlines when the Glasgow summit concludes, this lacuna in EU external action will sadly remain unaddressed.