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Climate change and EU security: an innovative approach

Throughout the last decades, the threats that climate change poses to the future of our planet gained the forefront in international debates. The European Union aspires to become the most prominent actor in the global fight against them and, as stated in the Global Strategy introduced by the Union in 2016, Brussels aims to lead by example by implementing its commitments on sustainable development and climate actions”.

This desire of the Union finds its practical transposition in strict internal regulations such as, for instance, the 2030 Climate and Energy Framework approved by the Council of the European Union in 2014. In this document, the EU declared its will to reach a “Sustainable Europe by 2030, an objective achievable through the setting of ambitious goals like cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 (in comparison with 1990 level), which became a binding threshold through the introduction of the EU Emission Trading System (EU ETS). Working on a ‘cap and trade system’, the EU ETS fixes a maximum level of emissions that can be accepted EU-wide (the cap) and forces companies to respect that through the acquisition of “emission allowances” that can be traded according to the needs of the single companies. Every year, each company must have enough allowances to cover its yearly emissions in order to avoid severe penalties and fines. Moreover, the EU is reducing the cap every year in order to make sure that the total emission will decrease.

In addition to the adoption of internal regulations, the EU has addressed the impact of climate change in an innovative way placing more and more attention on the nexus climate change-security. Over time, this topic has increasingly gained relevance, and it is now considered as one of the essential guidelines for the EU’s external action.

The acknowledgment of climate change as a potential factor of insecurity has a relatively long tradition within the EU since the first document addressing this issue was introduced by the Council of the European Union in 2008. According to this pioneering paper – titled Climate Change and International Security – the climate-related dangers have a double nature and can, therefore, be divided into two categories: direct and indirect.

The expression ‘direct risks’ is used to indicate threats which are immediately recognisable and whose existence can clearly be proven by available data. Among them, the increasing average temperatures and sea levels worldwide and the consistent growth in the frequency of extreme weather conditions such as hurricanes, floods, and droughts, as well as the damage caused by these phenomena. Europe is not likely to be one of the geographic areas which will suffer the most from these immediate risks, and yet, the 2008 document listed climate change among the most relevant threats to European security, comparable to terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and cyber-attacks.

The reasons behind the inclusion of climate change in this list lay in what the EU has defined as the ‘indirect effects of climate change. Indeed, starting from 2008, the EU acknowledged that such effects could act as a “threat multiplier which exacerbates existing trends, tensions, and instability” in already fragile States and regions. This, in turn, can create “political and security risks that directly affect European interests”. The most prominent climate-originated causes of instability that can affect EU’s security have been indicated as an increase in conflicts over resources in the Union’s southern and eastern neighbouring areas, growing flows of migrants from these regions and increasing energy insecurity.

Despite this recognition, Brussels failed to address climate change as a security issue in a comprehensive way for almost a decade, according to a senior analyst from the European Union Institute for Security Studies. Things started to change in 2016 when the Union presented its new Global Strategy. In the Strategy, the EU affirms its intention to reduce climate-related threats by supporting third countries in what concerns “energy liberalisation, development of renewables, […] alongside climate change mitigation and adaptation policies. The support offered by the EU has both a financial and technical nature since the Union will help countries in need with funds, technical expertise, and guidelines. The final aim of these actions is to build resilience in fragile States which are particularly exposed to the impacts of climate change. Within the 2016 Global Strategy, the building of resilience is addressed as the top strategic priority in the neighbourhood” and it is considered as the most powerful means to lessen instability while consequently reducing the outbreak of events that could undermine European security.

What became evident over time is that Brussels aims at creating the prerequisites for sustainable security and peace, meaning that instability factors potentially originating from climate change are – and will continue to be – addressed before they present themselves as direct threats to European security. ‘Sustainable security’ is believed to be achievable through adequate policies and investments both at home and abroad. Indeed, as stated by High Representative and Commission Vice-President Federica Mogherini at the 2019 Munich Security Conference, “investments in humanitarian aid, sustainable development, climate actions […] are investments in security and peace in the world of today”, and they “might sometimes be more useful than having a tank in the battlefield”.

The will to invest in neighbouring countries to help them in enhancing their resilience has been exemplified by the EU4Climate initiative launched by the Council of the European Union in 2018 under the Austrian Presidency as part of the European Neighbourhood Policy. Through this structured initiative, the EU aims to support the implementation of the [2015] Paris Climate Agreement and improve climate policies and legislation” in countries located on its Eastern border. Eight million euros were provided. Also, the Union has pledged its commitment in providing the countries that take part in the initiative (namely Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Republic of Moldova and Ukraine) with “targeted practical assistance to support the drafting […] and implementation of sectoral policies […] on low carbon, mitigation and adaptation” to climate change. A project with a strong resemblance to the EU4Climate initiative was set in place regarding the EU Southern border and was named CLIMA SOUTH; after its ending in 2018, the EU re-launched the project with the new name of CLIMA-MED.

The European Union’s interest in promoting climate actions in countries deeply affected by climate change-related problems could be perceived as selfish, only a way to enhance its own homeland security without a genuine humanitarian scope. However, the EU’s role in stimulating these countries to adopt policies that can help fighting climate change worldwide is of the utmost importance. Indeed, being actually moved by both humanitarian motives and strategic interests, the EU appears to be the most likely international actor to play a prominent role in giving fragile States appropriate means to mitigate the suffering caused by climate change, at least in areas such as the Middle East and North and Central Africa. As a consequence, regardless of the motivations behind the actions that are – and will be – carried out by the EU, Brussels can truly become the centre of the fight against climate change-impacts worldwide, complementing the strict regulations already set within its own borders with actions on a global scale.