COP26 and the blind spot of foreign policy in European climate protection – Carnegie Europe


In the run-up to the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, the EU stepped up its climate protection commitments and put pressure on other states to do the same. The union polishes its claim to global leadership and presents international climate policy largely as a matter of catching up with Europe.

Richard Youngs

Richard Youngs is a Senior Fellow in Carnegie Europe’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program. He works on EU foreign policy and international democracy issues.


However, the EU’s record is less positive when we take into account the broader geostrategic elements of the ecological disturbance. And it is very important that this external dimension of environmental challenges is not on the COP26 agenda.

While the EU has made a strong commitment to reducing carbon emissions, it has not yet developed strategies to fully address the strategic effects of environmental pressures around the world.

Despite its impressive leadership role in selected areas of climate protection, the EU is still a long way from developing a comprehensive environmental foreign policy. On the longstanding climate security agenda, the EU does not have a particularly good story to tell, just a slightly less bad one than other powers.

Despite all of the admirable steps the EU has taken to lead the global climate agenda, the bloc is still exporting what could be termed ecological uncertainty. The EU’s routine message about the benefits of exporting its own climate policy framework and internationalizing the European Green Deal overlooks how the Union itself is contributing to the pollution-driven instability.

Rhetorically, the EU has recognized for many years that environmental pressures require a more ambitious approach to peacebuilding and conflict resolution. The member states recently signed another commitment to link climate policy and conflict resolution, a 2020 roadmap for integrating climate factors into EU defense policy and NATO’s climate security guidelines.

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 security notions. Indeed, European engagement in conflict and fragile contexts is generally reduced to much thinner forms of engagement.

European trade interests and EU regulatory power are still more damaging to ecology than promoting global climate policy. This despite the increasing use of green trade clauses by the EU and the future mechanism for adjusting CO2 limits. The European Green Deal conveys the idea that exporting EU rules and laws is axiomatically a good climate policy for other countries, when translating them into other contexts can in fact be deeply destabilizing.

A geo-economic race for the critical minerals that is driving digitalization is worsening environmental degradation, exacerbating conflicts in Africa and Asia and exacerbating security risks: contrary to the standard rhetoric of governments, the green and technological changes are not Two sides of the same coin.

The EU has often argued that poor governance is the deepest factor adding to the pressures associated with climate change and other ecological changes. However, there is little evidence that this has strengthened EU support for governance reform in third countries. The opposite is more the case: the vast majority of EU climate funds go to government agencies whose poor governance is a source of social instability. The EU’s approach to ecological transition and climate adaptation can feel strangely apolitical and non-strategic in this sense.

While the EU and its member states have increased their commitments on climate finance, adaptation finance still lags behind the focus on climate change and falls far short of needs.

The European Commission is now starting to link climate, conflict and geographic aid programs. It is also beginning to incorporate social support for local communities into biodiversity strategies. Yet most EU adaptation projects focus on defensive containment – keeping the physical effects of climate change in check – rather than the predictive social and political change required to cope with environmental stress. Much of European policy is geared more towards the EU’s own access to renewable energy sources than towards supporting developing countries in their ecological renewal.

The EU has produced world-leading and trend-setting analyzes of the foreign and security policy effects of climate change. But despite the routine rhetoric that climate change is taking over all other security challenges, the EU is still giving much higher priority in practice to other, more immediate security crises.

The union certainly has hundreds of climate security projects and initiatives under way, but these are generally about data gathering; Promoting dialogues; Use of environmental advisors; Training of EU staff; Addressing topics in international organizations; Improving conflict monitoring; and the same. It is rarely about the implementation of concrete political changes.

To live up to its own rhetoric and warnings, the EU would need to focus on a more strategic understanding of climate and broader environmental issues. It would have to move from relatively superficial and shaky containment of the effects of climate change to more ambitious foreign policy engagements that could suppress ecological instability across the international system. This would involve difficult choices and a willingness to leave other interests aside.

For now, the EU has shown a limited willingness to take difficult decisions. Rather, it has merely screwed useful, cautious initiatives on climate security into its existing foreign policy.

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

Whatever the headlines after the Glasgow Summit is over, unfortunately this gap in the EU’s external action is not being addressed.


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