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Britain should build new routes for climate diplomacy

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) framework is crucial for tackling climate change. Attaining the key objective of the Paris Agreement – limiting global warming to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels – is in the national interests of all states. Readers in the United Kingdom (UK) may have seen reports that 2023’s global surface temperatures are freakishly high. That translates into more common extreme weather events, like the intense wildfires ripping through Canada right now, California last year, or those in Australia a couple of years before that.

But negotiations under the UNFCCC framework are having trouble. The legitimacy of COP28, hosted by the United Arab Emirates, is questionable, and Russia is vetoing the COP after that from being hosted by any European-aligned country. The on-going Bonn Climate Talks are in stasis. The US$100 billion (£80 billion) in climate finance promised in 2009 may be delivered this year, but the London School of Economics says a total of US$1 trillion (£800 billion) might be needed by 2030.

While the Bonn Climate Talks appear to be flagging, hopes turn to the upcoming Paris Climate Summit. Here, it is hoped that a ‘New Global Financing Pact will establish the principles for future reforms and pave the way towards a more balanced financial partnership between the North and South’. And countries will ‘rebuild credibility in the international system’.

Here lies the problem with climate negotiations under the UNFCCC: Its definitions, couched in academia, do not align to the reality of international affairs. The UK and other liberal countries with open economies count as ‘the North’. But does the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the world’s second largest economy which has contributed more to climate change in the past decade than the UK has done since the Industrial Revolution, really count as ‘the South’? 

These forums too often result in vague commitments due to their inability to align interests, which in turn fail to deliver the progress the world urgently needs. Furthermore, the vague definitions of ‘the North’ and ‘the South’ are leveraged by countries in the latter to shift burden to countries in the former whilst simultaneously obfuscating their role in contributing to and attempting to address climate change; geopolitical concerns risk trumping those of the climate.

Worse, the results of failing UNFCCC negotiations would be most catastrophic for those countries pushing for this approach to tackling climate change. The objectives of representatives of those countries most at risk and least responsible for climate change, like Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados, are justified, and the UK should be part of the solution. Mottley has done some crucial work on the Bridgetown Initiative, an action plan to reform the global financial system so the world can better respond to current and future crises. But this approach of relying on multilateral forums and emphasis on ‘climate justice’ and global redistribution will have limited success in an era of intensifying geopolitical competition. 

There is an opportunity here for the UK to apply some NATO-style logic to climate. It could act as a ‘bridge’ between North America and Europe, helping to facilitate compromises over sticky issues.

What should Britain do? The Integrated Review refresh rightly kept climate change and biodiversity as a priority in British foreign policy. Not only are both a threat to the UK specifically – they threaten critical supply chains Britain relies on as an island nation – it is also a good diplomatic opportunity, especially as the UK seeks to export our expertise in industries like offshore wind to partners old and new. Demonstrating ‘climate leadership’ is strategically beneficial to Britain.

The UK unfortunately no longer holds the COP Presidency. But there are more opportunities and it will always be beneficial for His Majesty’s (HM) Government to engage, for example with the African Climate Summit in September this year. Britain should also seek to establish new forums and routes for faster, more effective climate policy. In a previous Britain’s World article, the author wrote about the potential of the Commonwealth as a vehicle for advancing the UK’s climate policy in the Indo-Pacific. Britain has also been at the forefront of Just Energy Transition Partnerships, which bridge the divide between developed and emerging economies.

These avenues could both cement tackling climate change as a core pillar of the UK’s bilateral relationships with emerging economies. They fit in perfectly with Foreign Secretary Cleverly’s doctrine of ‘patient diplomacy’ – where Britain will be thinking ‘thinking 10, 15, 20 or more years ahead.’ In that time, climate change’s wound will have grown deeper, and the UK will be thankful that it began putting climate at the heart of its strategic relationships earlier.

This is not to say that Britain should not engage with the UNFCCC framework in tackling climate change; it should, and where it can, it should lead. However, as HM Government uses climate change to approach countries in climate vulnerable regions, like the Indo-Pacific, Africa, and Latin America, providing new avenues for progress should be pursued with vigor. This will help it to find common areas of interest with countries and build cooperative relationships with them. Snags may be hit as countries with particularly idealist leaders stress their desire for international climate change policy to be conducted through the UNFCCC framework, with an emphasis on justice. But this should not deter Britain from providing new avenues for progress, something which, if correctly worked out and implemented, should be welcomed.

It is just as important, however, to ‘green’ our existing relationships. That is why the Atlantic Declaration, a policy paper equipping the UK-United States (US) economic relationship for the 21st century, is welcome. It fired the starting gun on negotiations for deals around electric vehicles and offshore wind, and also the critical minerals that go in them. And the two countries will cooperate over nuclear energy, which might help to end its decades-long malaise in both countries.

Tackling climate change also provides a good opportunity for working closely with European countries. A similar approach to the Atlantic Declaration could be replicated in Europe, advancing climate action in the region and smoothing British relations with Europe following some turbulence from the post-Brexit period. And there is clear desire for this in the region. France positions itself as a climate leader. Germany – while now felling wind turbines to expand coal production – sees the energy transition away from fossil fuels as its best hope for energy security. Working together on energy with Spain and Italy, which are well positioned to become Europe’s southern energy hubs, could also be mutually lucrative.

There is an opportunity here for the UK to apply some NATO-style logic to climate. It could act as a ‘bridge’ between North America and Europe, helping to facilitate compromises over sticky issues, like the European Union’s (EU) carbon border adjustment mechanism. There appears to be more potential for this approach given the argument of Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, for less alignment with the US in April – even if it is not shared by all in Europe.

Building a more cohesive, and importantly more substantial, approach to climate change among open societies may then help them to deliver much needed climate aid and trade more efficiently and effectively. There have been attempts to respond to the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative with climate change and clean technologies at their core. There was the ‘Build Back Better’ framework of Joe Biden, the US President, and the EU’s ‘Global Gateway’. This is the right approach given the strategic importance of clean technologies. But the frameworks lacked coherence and vision, and in the end went nowhere.

There is truth in the idea that ‘credibility’ in the international system needs to be rebuilt, as stated in the Paris Climate Summit’s website. It is not delivering security for those most at threat by global warming. The architects of the rules-based system – especially the UK, US, and France – should establish more vehicles for climate action that cannot be held back as easily as the UNFCCC can. To do that, they need to better align their climate policy. Here, as a credible actor when it comes to taking climate action, the UK should lead.

Jack Richardson is James Blyth Associate Fellow at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also Head of Energy and Climate at Onward.

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