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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Geopolitics of Climate Change: China and the United States at the UN Security Council

Beijing has for years leveraged its status as a developing country in the Paris Agreement construct to avoid responsibility to reduce emissions as fast as the U.S. or to provide climate finance to hard-hit countries in the Global South.

Erin Sikorsky, Director of the Center for Climate and Security and the International Military Council on Climate and Security, sets out the geopolitical dynamics from a recent United Nations Security Council meeting, and says effective leadership on climate security risks would strengthen the United States’ hand in its competition with China:

On June 13, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held a ministerial-level open debate on climate change, peace and security—the latest in a series of UNSC meetings on the topic. While many ministerial statements focused on the nexus of climate change, instability, and conflict, the conversation underscored how today’s competitive geopolitical dynamics are complicating good-faith efforts to address climate security in such multilateral fora. Statements from China, in particular, suggest it sees a geopolitical opportunity in such discussions. Namely, due to the United States and other countries in the Global North failing to live up to their commitments to provide climate finance, especially adaptation funds, to the Global South. 

In the meeting, China used its time at the microphone to level a series of pointed comments aimed implicitly at the United States and the European Union (EU). Beijing’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Zhang Jun, argued there were three areas in which the UNSC should focus its attention. 

  • First, given that emissions reductions are key to limiting climate change and therefore limiting climate-driven security risks, does unilateral withdrawal from the Paris Agreement (i.e. U.S. policy under President Trump) constitute a threat to peace and security that the Council should take enforcement measures to address? 
  • Second, Ambassador Zhang noted the importance of climate finance and the gap between what has been promised and what has been provided. He argued that the UNSC, “…could consider authorizing its field missions in those countries more heavily affected by climate change to collect information on the host country’s annual receipts of climate finance from developed countries and to inform the Council on a regular basis.”
  • Third, China lamented what it called “green protectionism” – a clear reference to U.S. policies such as the Inflation Reduction Act and the EU’s new Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism – claiming that it is “a ball and chain that shackles developing countries and keeps them at the bottom rung of the global value chain.”

Of course, the statement from Beijing hypocritically ignores the reality of its emissions and predatory lending practices—not to mention focusing in part on past U.S. policies that are no longer in effect. China is now the world’s largest emitter of carbon and the leading cumulative emitter since the advent of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—when countries agreed on an obligation to mitigate emissions. Beijing has for years leveraged its status as a developing country in the Paris Agreement construct to avoid responsibility to reduce emissions as fast as the U.S. or to provide climate finance to hard-hit countries in the Global South. As Scott Moore and I noted at the UNFCCC’s 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) in Egypt last November, some countries publicly challenged China’s stance for the first time. We explained, “China became the target of criticism for failing to do enough to address climate change. The disapproval came not just from other big greenhouse gas emitters but also from other developing countries: Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda and chair of the influential Alliance of Small Island States, called China a ‘major polluter’” that could no longer expect a ‘free pass’ on contributing to climate finance.”

Despite this criticism, it is likely that China’s framing resonates with some countries in the Global South. Even among countries that expressed support for a UNSC role in tackling climate security in the 13 June meeting,  such as Ecuador, Egypt, Gabon, and Jordan, the issue of climate finance and the need for fully funding existing commitments was front and center in their remarks. For example, the representative from Ecuador said that in order to address climate risks in conflict-affected states, “…developed countries must crystalize their commitments to mobilize $100 billion per year for developing States.”

For its part, the United States, represented by Special Envoy for Climate (SPEC) John Kerry, focused its remarks on the direct threats to human security from climate hazards and the need for cutting emissions, particularly admonishing countries (i.e. China) for allowing the construction of new unabated coal plants. While SPEC Kerry briefly mentioned the need for trillions in climate finance as well as the US PREPARE program, which focuses on adaptation, he did not detail any concrete U.S. initiatives to scale up funding for adaptation or focus on finance to the Global South.

This was a missed opportunity for the United States to more robustly counter China’s challenging remarks. The United States has a strong comparative advantage when it comes to climate security and adaptation. In comparison to China,  it has a track record of more resilient infrastructure investments abroad and more collaborative and democratic security cooperation. Overall, the ministerial meeting underscored that climate change discussions are deeply intertwined with geopolitical competition and cannot be seen in isolation. In the run-up to COP28, scheduled for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) later this year, China is likely to continue to try to leverage the finance issue to its advantage—at preparatory meetings in Bonn earlier this month, China joined India and Saudi Arabia among others in blocking an agenda item on mitigation unless a new climate finance agenda item was added. Yet, as the challenges China faced at COP27 illustrated, Beijing also faces geopolitical vulnerabilities due to its role in the climate crisis.

There is an opportunity for the United States to call China’s bluff as Beijing calls for more climate finance but does not actually provide significant funds. Stepping up U.S. leadership on climate finance and adaptation will pay dividends not only in addressing climate security risks but also strengthening the U.S. hand in its competition with China, demonstrating Washington’s commitment as the partner of choice for the Global South.

Read more at the Center for Climate and Security

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