Geopolitics of climate impacts: implications for the UK’s international policies

8 May 2024


Geopolitics of climate impacts: implications for the UK’s international policies

Reported by Valérie Nowak, Policy Intern, Centre for Science and Policy

This roundtable on the geopolitics of climate impacts and their implications for the UK’s foreign policies was hosted by Emily Shuckburgh, Director of Cambridge Zero, and Peter Hill, former Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister and CEO of COP26. The discussion explored the global challenges of the climate crisis over the next ten years. The event was organised by the Cambridge Zero Policy Forum and the Centre for Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge and Groundswell.

In his opening remarks, COP26 CEO Peter Hill said climate change is a geopolitical issue and must be treated as such – and no major country was currently doing so. Major powers were now engaged in competition to dominate or at least not be left behind in the transition. Advanced economies including the US, China and the EU would largely decarbonize their economies by 2035 but much of the rest of the world risks being left behind which would be a problem of both equity and emissions. China is better positioned to partner with many developing countries in the transition than the UK and its allies due to its lead in green technologies and longstanding links with many developing countries. That will further affect the desire of many in the developing world to maintain the open and stable international system the UK and others value. Consequently, the UK approach must change and offer developing countries more sustainable, resilient growth and a stronger share in the system.

The discussions highlighted various facets of climate change, emphasising the urgent need for UK foreign policy actions, international cooperation, and sustainable development. Concerns were raised about policy and investment failures leading to unaddressed emissions, particularly in advanced economies like China. Disagreements surfaced regarding China's advantageous position in transitioning compared to the West, prompting discussions on the need for the latter to improve its offers.

Geopolitics and climate change

Managing the geopolitics of climate change requires cooperation and rules-based approaches. The UK plays a crucial role in brokering new coalitions and defining coalitions around various issues. Addressing climate problems necessitates solving issues collaboratively. As a middle power, the UK must seek alignment with other nations. Discussions highlighted the power dynamics in the Middle East, including the growing influence of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, and their interactions with the UK.

China's concept of climate change

China aims to achieve its goal of net zero emissions by 2060, but not at the expense of other national interests, especially development. It sees the goal as a means to an end and is placing a more urgent emphasis on climate adaptation. China has a national strategy to become a climate-resilient society by 2035. China's concept of climate change is based on a Marxist interpretation of three decades of IPCC science and is called ecological civilization. China sees climate change as a developmental and regime security issue as it can pose threats to social stability and financial stability, which might threaten the control of the regime. China also aims to use climate action to strengthen central government control, resolve energy security problems, and position itself favourably in emerging regions.

South Africa's positioning on climate change

South Africa's stance on climate change was also discussed. One participant highlighted that President Ramaphosa has been serious-minded in his attitude towards multilateralism and the international legal order. During President Zuma's time in office, the Department of Environment remained largely untouched and held the line on climate change. South Africa is now punching above its weight in international affairs, partly due to its leadership in new global south structures like BRICS+. While South Africa's positioning may shift on an issue-by-issue basis, it remains committed to multilateral processes and combating climate change.

Discussion on the UK's international reputation and domestic policy

A participant posited that the UK's economy is flatlining due to chronic underinvestment, resulting in stagnant productivity growth. The UK’s failure to deliver on climate commitments has undermined international relationships, reduced its trustworthiness in this sphere.Central banks had evolved significantly over the last 20 years in their thinking on the need to take into account macro-economic risks of climate change. Foreign Ministries by contrast had evolved much less. The FCDO needs to shift and recognise the importance of climate change in its policy, which would also open up investment opportunities for the UK. Greater investments in emerging markets and developing countries will be crucial for building trust. It was suggested that domestically the UK has a broad consensus on the importance of transitioning to net zero, but the challenge lies in achieving it quickly and cost-effectively, without causing social disruption. Another participant underlined the importance of finding policies that have both security and energy-transitioning climate benefits.

Participants scrutinised the impact of geopolitics on climate change and emphasised the necessity for rules-based cooperation, especially for vulnerable and developing countries. Domestically, participants had apprehensions about the UK's tarnished international reputation and its perceived untrustworthiness on climate policy. The intersection of climate change and foreign policy highlighted challenges including security, economic growth, and the imperative to engage with the Global South constructively.

US industrial policy on climate change

Participants noted that the US's industrial policy may swing back if there are changes in federal politics. The US has formulated its own version of industrial policy around climate change in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act which is driving significant investment in manufacturing employment and infrastructure technology, although had not paid much regard to its international impacts. One attendee commented that US domestic politics meant it was unlikely to have a credible, coordinated, and clear strategy on a global scale for addressing climate change.

Climate change policies in India and Indonesia

One attendee said that India lacks a policy on climate change due to a lack of capacity and the necessary state coalitions. Indonesia faces environmental challenges, including island loss, flooding, fires, and pollution. An example of how actors in Indonesia exploit loopholes in the law is that fires in Indonesia are deliberately set to exploit land law loopholes, leading to environmental destruction. Moreover, foreign direct investment in Indonesia is directed towards natural resource exploitation. Global demand for batteries, particularly for use in Chinese electric vehicles, drive nickel mining in Indonesia, impacting the local environment.

The UAE's position on climate change

The UAE aims to diversify its economy. The UK and the UAE have a high level of diplomatic engagement. Progress in the UAE on decarbonisation would likely to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to also demonstrate results. The UK’s relationship with Egypt is more complicated. Saudi Arabia remains the only G20 country that continues to rely almost entirely on fossil fuels. The UAE has invested in renewables, particularly solar energy, and positions itself as a leader in the development of such technology. However, UAE is under pressure to produce concrete actions for the climate change agenda. It is considered to have missed its targets in the past, as one attendee underlined.

Existential risk

Participants discussed the interconnections and multiplier effects of climate change, highlighting the complexity of these interrelations and the need to comprehend and navigate the system. Participants emphasised the concept of existential risk at both the global and local scales, expressing concerns about marginalised communities and stressing the importance of empowering those affected. Discussants explored the politics of sacrifice in addressing climate change and the need for transition and self-reliance. The roundtable emphasised the benefits proactively tackling climate change rather than ignoring it.

Valérie Nowak

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge