Making climate a UK foreign policy priority is a start: delivering it will be tough

“I’m gutted we didn’t make it.” Those were the words of then UK deputy prime minister John Prescott in 2000 after a failed round of UN climate negotiations.

It’s rare to see a UK politician as senior as Prescott at a UN climate summit. Gordon Brown and David Cameron attended the 2009 and 2015 summits, but otherwise it’s left to ministers and officials.

Is all that about to change? This week the government published what’s billed as the ‘largest review’ of the UK’s foreign, defence, security and development policy since the end of the Cold War.

№10 made a decision to brief media on the nuclear deterrant, defence and cyber aspects of the review, but the commitment to climate is clear from PM Johnson in the foreword.

"In 2021 and beyond, Her Majesty’s Government will make tackling climate change and biodiversity loss its number one international priority."

But what does this really mean — beyond decent PR ahead of the COP26 UN climate summit in Glasgow - and how could it shift UK international policy and politics in the 2020s and 2030s?

For one, it comes two years after a №10 under Theresa May embarked on the most important international play the UK has made in living memory — a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050.

Brexit was big, but net zero is huge, requiring wholesale shifts across all sectors.

Brexit tweaked trading relations, but the shift to low carbon is already accelerating and will transform the economy this decade, argues Tim Lord, a former senior government official.

“Already, growth in green sectors outstrips that of the wider economy. And this transition is happening not just in the UK, but globally. The opportunities of getting ahead of the curve are significant, and the risks of not doing so profound.”

The 2020 EU-UK post Brexit trade agreement recognised this, writes Markus Gehring, a trade expert from Cambridge University, labelling it the “the strongest found in any trade agreement.”

For all that the deal was panned by critics, it became “the first instance in which climate change is an ‘essential element’ of a trade treaty,” he adds, a bar all future UK deals will presumably need to meet.

All talk?

Yet targets and deals are one thing. Making climate change a foreign policy priority means it will be a factor in government decisions across areas as diverse as supply chains, food security, export finance, international coalitions and defence procurement.

“An effective foreign policy requires taking climate change directly into consideration — not just as a problem to resolve, but as an issue that can affect the success and failure of strategies in areas as varied as counterterrorism, migration, international economics, and maritime security.”

That’s the view of US analyst Jason Bordoff, who sat on Barack Obama’s National Security Council. He argues climate is the defining challenge of this generation, but warns mainstreaming it is hard.

For the US, he argues, it means exploring a security framework in the Middle East that shifts major powers off oil and gas and considers how terrorists exploit rising levels of desertification in the Sahel.

For the UK it could mean anything from cutting all overseas support to fossil fuels, ramping up aid in vulnerable regions and investing in new technology and military hardware to meet a warming planet.

President Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken have already committed to make climate an “essential element” of foreign policy on assuming office — but it’s tougher than it looks.

Last week the US stood back as a former Australian finance minister with a track record of trashing climate policies took charge of the OECD — the rich country think tank based in Paris.

It’s unclear if Washington supported Mathias Cormann or just decided not to intervene. What we do know is the UK government supported his nomination — despite that dodgy climate record.

China, free trade and military hardware sales were among myriad reasons cited by officials from various countries for supporting Cormann. Climate, while a meta concern for many, was boxed off.

“We need leaders brave and bold enough to back up words with actions,” said Laurence Tubiana — the French diplomat who guided talks on the 2015 Paris Agreement — in the aftermath of that decision.

One track minds

The problem for so long has been a zero sum game mindset, where climate is played off against trade, security and other geopolitical concerns.

There are three reasons to think that will change. One, the economic case for low carbon is becoming clearer, with the US, EU and China among those committing to mid-century carbon neutrality goals.

An estimated 35 million new ‘green’ jobs are slated to land in the 2020s across the world with profound shifts already underway in the transport, power and financial sectors.

Two, the case for climate action as insurance against catastrophic weather events (and pandemics) is obvious. As former №10 policy chief Camilla Cavendish argues: “If global temperatures rise by more than 1.5C, we all lose.”

Three, national intelligence agencies are already linking spikes in violence and unrest to environmental degradation, as the UK Ministry of Defence acknowledged in late 2020.

Every degree of global temperature rise reduces global yields of wheat by 6%, rice by 3.2%, maize by 7.4%, and soybean by 3.1%. Some regions are more affected than others — for example in West Africa, wheat yields could fall by up to 25% if temperatures rise 1.5C.

Fishing will also be affected. Every year, about 82 million tonnes of fish are caught in the sea. For every degree of warming, this could decrease by 3 million tonnes.

When, not if

UK PM Boris Johnson highlighted the risks in a February 2021 speech to the UN Security Council: “Whether you like it or not, it is a matter of when, not if, your country and your people will have to deal with the security impacts of climate change.”

And whether you like it or not, politicians will need to be bold and hold their nerve in the face of domestic flak, not least because cutting foreign aid as the climate crisis takes hold is a poor long term bet.

Climate will need to be integral to all trade deals, align with long term security plans, inform overseas aid spend and be at the heart of cooperation at the UN, NATO, OECD and other fora.

A fully committed UK will need to make a global case that further investments in oil, gas and coal threaten global stability and invest in the resilient and sustainable supply chains critical to the green economy.

This may mean tough conversations with allies reluctant to wean themselves off a fossil rich economy; notably Five Eyes intelligence partners Canada, Australia and Japan.

So too Germany, whose continued support of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline offers Russia an economic lifeline, not to mention markets for gas when we need to be investing in alternatives.

If the UK regards Russia as a major threat — then building a strategy that cuts demand for its main exports would be a logical first step in curbing Moscow’s influence and power.

But it also means tougher calls at home. To quote veteran US diplomacy analyst Richard Haass, “foreign policy begins at home.” It’s easier to sell a global net zero vision when you’re not digging coal mines in Cumbria.

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