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Climate Change and Foreign Policy: The UK Approach

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  • April 24, 2009
    Fellows' Seminar
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: R Rajagopalan
    Discussants: Luther Rangreji and Purnamita Dasgupta

    Climate change has the potential to create conditions for changing foreign policy in a globalised world. It dares to test whether the established tenets of foreign policy are still valid. Climate change has entered the realm of negotiations. National action plans, globally binding commitments, leadership and historical responsibilities are determining countries positions and defining their foreign policy agenda. However, the mainstreaming of climate change in foreign policy due to domestic and international imperatives reflects a shift in strategic thinking. It creates possibilities for the international community to look for solutions and bring together varied policy initiatives and differing positions.

    UK’s foreign policy has clearly adorned a green drape whether in helping create cross-cutting coalitions or strengthening institutions. The objective is to balance trade with climate change and climate change with development thereby enhancing its competitive position in the global economy. Climate change equally bolsters the image of Britain to take on a challenging role as it has on such critical issues like terrorism, nuclear proliferation and reducing global poverty. The UK has accepted and committed to the Kyoto Protocol and correspondingly reoriented its energy policies. Under the Kyoto Protocol, it is committed to reducing emission of six greenhouse gases by 12.5 per cent below 1990 levels and within the period of 2008-2012. However, what makes it interesting is the self-imposed pledge to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent by 2012

    UK’s approach vis-à-vis the EU is not divergent but seeks to act ‘beyond the defined’ framework. Such an approach towards a low carbon economy outlines a broad outlook towards the EU and inclines towards the ‘practical’ rather than ‘integrationist’. The EU catch figure of ‘2020 by 2020’ suggesting a 20 per cent reduction in emission targets as well as an increase of renewable energy by 20 per cent by the year 2020 as been greatly determined by UK’s own initiatives. Today, climate change is a dominant theme in the UK’s foreign policy, particularly under the current government.

    Current British policy has been founded on some farsighted thinking and initiated by Margaret Thatcher. In fact, there are three striking aspects that one can draw from the speech and as the article argues remains a guide to framing current UK policies on climate change. The first is the importance of research or knowledge capability. The second feature of climate change relates to the interplay between people and policies and the approach needed. The third pillar is effective environmental diplomacy and strengthening international regimes. Under foreign secretary Margaret Beckett, the UK, which held the presidency of the UN Security Council for the month of April 2007, was instrumental in bringing, for the first time, the issue of climate change to the UNSC in April 2007.

    In 2006, the G8 held one of the most interesting summits, with participation from emerging economies and agreed to hold a Ministerial Dialogue on Climate Change. Thus helping create an alternative path from formal negotiations at the UN to discuss new ideas, identify common ground and practical actions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The defining feature was to bring the G5 to the table and develop a way for cooperation; a strategy that is not imposed, but develops through consultation and dialogue. This will remain a critical guidepost to the north-south divide on the issue of climate change.

    In the UK, global warming and climate change have been prominent in public debates and greatly impacted policy making. The integrated approach has also been consistently backed by the leadership. For both Blair and Brown, climate change has been a priority issue. Whenever the UK has assumed a leadership role in the case of G8, or in the EU or in the Security Council, it has effectively raised the debate on climate change and gave it a forward momentum.

    Points in the Discussion

    • EU mandates and its directives are playing an important role to control climate change. In the eyes of EU there is split in terms of Iraq and EU trying to find space in this area.
    • Need to deal with the challenges of climate change and it should not be ignored. The international community is worried about but needs to take specific steps to deal with it.
    • In terms of Foreign Policy, UK is in the right direction and leading the way in areas of economics and trade.
    • Need to discuss diverging views between Western and Asian countries in general and India and China in particular.
    • In the UK, traditionally energy has never been an important issue. Suddenly with these ambitious targets for greenhouse reductions, it has had to do a rethink in its energy choices.
    • The role of politicians in the Labour Party and their proactive approach to climate change should be highlighted.
    • The UK has taken a leadership role in climate change and other countries should equally take a lead.
    • Economic compulsions are vital in evaluating climate change and a precautionary approach should be taken.
    • Criticism of the British approach should be further strengthened.
    • Need to take into account critical issues of climate change related to technology.
    • Why has Britain decided not to become a member of IRENA?
    • What is the impact of the economic recession on climate change?
    • To what extent does domestic politics affect climate change issue?

    Prepared by M. Mahtab Alam Rizvi, Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.