The Great Convergence
The UK’s Integrated Review shows the convergence of British geostrategy with environmental policy, writes William Hague
By Rt Hon Lord Hague of Richmond
In 2010, during one of my first speeches as Foreign Secretary, I warned that “as the world becomes more networked, the impacts of climate change in one country or region will affect the prosperity and security of others around the world.”
Eleven years later, this has regrettably come to pass. In Iraq, farmers were driven to join ISIS once opportunities to provide for their families dried up along with local water sources. In Somalia, jihadists have cut off water supplies to punish areas of the country outside of their control. And in Syria, social unrest, exacerbated by droughts driving Syrian farmers into cities, spilled over into civil war just a few short months after my remarks, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and millions scattered across the world.
Something less easily predicted, however, is the speed and scale in which not just the impacts of climate change, but the prevention of climate change has become intertwined with our prosperity and security. This is a result of two crucial trends.
First, as action to protect our planet has become more pressing, so too has the need for governments to bring greater coherence to the full range of their policies. The recent controversy over the Cumbrian coal mine is a good example of this. A decade ago, perhaps the UK could have reopened a coal mine in the same year as we hosted a crucial global conference on climate change, without this action undermining our efforts to secure meaningful international decarbonisation targets. But not today. As the international community gears up for the race to Net Zero, Global Britain cannot get away with talking the talk without walking the walk.
Second, the issue of China is looming larger and larger in UK politics, drawing a growing number of previously unrelated policy issues into its orbit. A decade ago, there might have been little problem with the UK relying solely on Chinese batteries to power our electric cars. Indeed, if it were not for our political differences, China, with their strong industrial capacity, would still be an ideal country to manufacture the renewable technology the UK needs to reach Net Zero. But the last ten years have seen China become a strategic rival of the West, and it is now impossible for us to remain dependent on them in such a critical area. As a result, our policies towards China and climate change have become unavoidably linked.
As a result of these trends, it will become increasingly difficult for the UK Government to pursue a foreign policy that is not centred around the twin threats of climate change and China. And as the race to Net Zero and the West’s rivalry with China accelerate, policy coherence in this area will only become more essential.
The convergence between climate and foreign policies
Some commentators have expressed a great deal of optimism regarding the impact that this transition could have on global peace and stability. Fossil fuels can exacerbate competition and conflict, both through their location in existing international flashpoints, such as the Eastern Mediterranean, and in their transport through strategic chokepoints, such as the Straits of Hormuz. Similarly, many of the petrostates reliant on fossil fuel revenues, such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, have chequered histories on human rights. It can be argued that a move to renewables, allowing countries to produce more of their own energy domestically, could reduce conflict and weaken many authoritarian regimes.
But this optimism is almost certainly misplaced. Anyone who thinks that the transition to renewables will usher in a more peaceful world might well be in for a nasty shock. There are three reasons for this.
The first is that the transition to renewables is unlikely to weaken many of the world’s authoritarian regimes. In the short-term many petrostates could benefit from the transition. As Jason Bordoff, a former adviser to President Obama has pointed out, if the race to Net Zero leads to a rapid decline in new capital investment for drilling, oil supply will drop faster than demand, driving up prices. In the longer term, many established petrostates will be able to use their strong fossil fuel revenues to invest in renewables. For example, last year Saudi Arabia announced a $5 billion green hydrogen plant.
Instead, the petrostates most likely to lose out from the transition to renewables are countries, such as Nigeria and Libya, where governance is weak. Further destabilisation of such states will overlap with the growing impact of climate change and could easily lead to new waves of mass migration, conflict, and terrorism rippling through neighbouring countries and towards the shores of Europe.
Secondly, the transition to renewables will likely shift strategic competition from fossil fuels to different natural resources, rather than end it altogether. Already competition over the supply of critical minerals required for green technology has become part of the wider rivalry between China and the West. For example, China has established a powerful hold over the supply of cobalt, a crucial material for producing the batteries that will power the electric cars of the future, while the nations of the West are playing catch up and seeking to wean themselves off Chinese supply chains.
This race to control the critical minerals on which the transition to renewable energy depends will create new flashpoints. As the North Pole melts, the rush to exploit deposits of rare earth minerals in the Arctic Sea and Greenland, exposed by the receding ice, will heat up. Moreover, today’s science fiction of commercial mining in space could yet become science reality. Further in the future, China and the United States could be racing to extract the vast stores of nickel and cobalt on asteroids, adding extra friction to the already tense issue of space exploration.
The third factor is that, leaving aside the impact of the transition on petrostates, the technology of renewable energy itself could create a whole host of security problems. Renewable electricity trading through integrated grids might open up vulnerabilities for terrorists and hostile states to exploit weaknesses in these grids and wreak havoc on countries’ electricity supplies. There is evidence that a Chinese cyber campaign was responsible for substantial power outages in Mumbai last year. Likewise, the spread of nuclear power raises the risk of proliferation to hostile states or terrorist attacks on plants.
With both climate change and the transition to renewables likely to make our world a much less stable place, governments will need to align their domestic and international policies if they are to thrive in these dangerous waters.
Putting climate change at the heart of domestic and international policy
Climate change is no longer a discrete issue that can be separated out from other policy considerations. From now on, preventing climate change and mitigating its impact must be central priorities running through UK policies. In domestic terms, this means creating a strong home base from which to lead the world on responding to climate change. Globally, this means prioritising climate change in our international relationships.
Creating a strong home base
As noted in the Government’s recent Integrated Review, “our foreign policy rests on strong domestic foundations”.This is particularly true of our approach to climate change, with what we do here in the UK directly affecting our influence on this issue on the world stage.
A landmark report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) argues that three types of countries have the potential to emerge as global leaders on renewable energy – countries with sufficient renewable energy capacity to become significant exporters of it; countries rich in the critical minerals required for renewable technologies; and countries that lead in technological innovation, who are “positioned to gain the most from the global energy transformation.”
It is in this third category that Global Britain should aspire to be a leader. The UK is already renowned as a global hub for research, enjoying many of the ingredients so crucial for innovation, from world leading universities to our culture of entrepreneurialism. With these existing strengths, we can leverage the talent that our country possesses towards spurring advances in green technology. Such an approach would also fit seamlessly into the first strand of the Strategic Framework set out in the Integrated Review, which proposes “sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology” by making science and technology “an integral element of our … international policy”.
In recent months, the Government has taken a number of steps that will go a long way to establish the UK as a green tech leader. These include commitments to support research into difficult-to-decarbonise sectors like aviation, new funding for developing floating offshore wind technology, and new visa reforms which will ensure the UK continues to attract and retain the international talent we need to spur technological advances.
But more could still be done to steer the talent of UK innovators towards renewable technology. The UK’s new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), set to become fully operational next year, is an opportunity to drive forward high risk, high reward research in critical sectors. The Commons Science and Technology Committee have rightly recommended that ARIA focus on just one or two strategic missions. There is a strong argument that the technologies arising from combating climate change should be one of these. After all, the Government itself has acknowledged that, after Covid, “the greatest challenge facing the UK and the world is that of decarbonising our economies.”
Prioritising climate change in our international relationships
There are a myriad of factors that influence our relationships with other countries around the world, from ties that bind us together, such as trade, investment, and shared culture, to issues that drive us apart, such as security concerns and human rights violations.
As action to alleviate climate change becomes more pressing, environmental issues are likely to become a more influential factor in our international relationships. In the past, the UK has been willing to use all of our firepower, both military and diplomatic, to secure and extract fossil fuels. But in the future, the UK will need to use all of its diplomatic capacity to ensure that these resources are not used and that natural environments are protected.
This could result in uncomfortable situations where the need to coordinate international action on climate change runs against our other foreign policy priorities. Trade policy might present difficult choices, with the UK ambitious to strike as many new trade agreements as possible to maximise the opportunities of our departure from the European Union.
Take for example, Brazil. The ninth largest economy in the world with a population of 211 million, Brazil is exactly the sort of growth market with which the UK should be seeking to build a strong trading relationship. But as climate change climbs the hierarchy of important political issues, it will be increasingly difficult to square our climate change policy with agreeing a free trade deal with a country that clears a football pitch-sized area of the Amazon rainforest every minute. In such cases, realpolitik will leave the UK with a dilemma: ease up the pressure on climate change delinquents like Brazil or forget about your trade deal.
We are not yet at the place where the UK has to choose between stronger trade ties and protecting our planet. For example, in December, the Chancellor of the Exchequer skillfully negotiated a deal with Brazil to help develop a green finance market in Brazil, supporting action to tackle climate change in that country while providing opportunities for the City.
But such a dilemma could soon be upon us. For example, climate concerns loom ever larger in the relationship between the United States and Brazil, with President Biden warning during his election campaign that the latter would face “economic consequences” if it doesn’t “stop tearing down the rainforest”. And in January, a coalition of former US cabinet secretaries and chief climate change negotiators produced an “Amazon Protection Plan”, which called on Biden to ensure that “future trade agreements strengthen tropical forest governance”. The Plan went on to argue that deforestation should be taken “into account when considering U.S. policies relating to Brazil, including … new trade agreements”.
Such an outcome is not inevitable, however. One way to avoid the trade-climate dilemma would be to introduce new mandatory labelling schemes for products with risks of high environmental damage, such as food and clothing, to clearly demonstrate environmental standards. Such a system, as is being considered for animal welfare standards in the EU, if mandatory, would allow consumers in the UK to snub products that damage our environment while enabling the UK to deepen trade ties in other sectors. With the Government already committed to consulting on what can be done through labelling to promote high standards, they should give this proposal consideration.
If such a workaround is not forthcoming, we will soon face the day when our legitimate desire to deepen trade ties conflicts with our responsibility to protect our planet. If it does, we must choose to prioritise the environment over exports, for the economic costs of climate change and the destruction of biodiversity far outweigh the short-term benefits of a trade deal with any one country.
Developing a network of innovative partnerships
Multilateralism is indispensable in dealing with climate change. All of humanity shares this planet, and we cannot hope to cap rising global temperatures without each major emitter steadily reducing their emissions. It is for this reason that the forthcoming COP26 being held in Glasgow and the biodiversity conference being held in China later this year are so vital.
At the same time, the world is moving on from the assumption that international relations will mainly consist of the manoeuvring of powerful blocs. I argued in 2010 that we are witnessing an increasingly networked world, with new alliances and bilateral partnerships. In the last decade, this trend has only accelerated, as the world’s rapid digital revolution has made it easier for new innovative partnerships to be established.
These new alliances offer the opportunity to go beyond existing multilateral forums and drive progress towards Net Zero even faster. For example, last year the thaw in relations between Israel and the UAE, announced in the recent Abraham Accords, has resulted in the two countries working together on food and water security, both threatened by climate change. Even more recently, the UK and the UAE have launched a £1 billion investment partnership to support innovation in life sciences.
The UK should seek to develop a latticework of criss-crossing new bilateral partnerships and “coalitions of the willing” to buttress the existing pillars of our international rules-based system and their work on climate change.
Partnerships to prevent climate change
The most important area in which the UK can spur action on climate change is tackling deforestation, responsible for around 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Quite apart from addressing climate change, deforestation is one of the key trends driving the rise of zoonotic diseases, as Policy Exchange noted in a recent report. While Covid-19 is thought to have begun in the wetmarkets of Wuhan, it is just as conceivable that Covid-29 could begin on the palm oil plantations of Indonesia.
To his credit, International Environment Minister Lord Goldsmith recognises this and has announced legislation to prohibit larger businesses operating in the UK from using products grown on land that was harvested illegally. It is widely expected that encouraging similar commitments from other countries will be a key aspect of the UK’s agenda for COP26. Earlier this year, the Government launched a Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade Dialogue with 17 other countries ahead of the COP, to “agree principles for collaborative action” on protecting forests at the same time as promoting development and trade.
But due diligence laws on their own are not enough. We also need to boost supply chain traceability, to ensure companies impacted by these laws cannot hide behind ignorance. As the Global Resource Initiative taskforce has recommended, the Government should provide further financial support for researching and commercialising technologies to support more traceable supply chains. One such technology ripe for further innovation is blockchain – a distributed ledger technology which securely records all transactions in a way that is resistant to modification. The Government should explore the potential for new research partnerships on blockchain between leaders in the technology here at home, such as University College Oxford and the University of Edinburgh, and those overseas, such as Cornell and Kyoto universities.
Carbon taxation is another issue that has to be on the national and international agenda. In an ideal world, the forthcoming COP26 would see the UK and other countries agree sufficiently ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to keep temperature rises below 1.5 degrees Celsius, leaving carbon taxation unnecessary.
However, as a last resort, the UK should be prepared to work towards an internationally agreed tax on specific high-carbon products. At present, many Western countries have driven down their carbon footprint at home through taxation, only to offshore their emissions by purchasing cheaper goods, produced in a high-carbon way from overseas. Levying tariffs on high-carbon products would level the playing field between domestic and international producers, and encourage overseas countries to reduce their carbon emissions.
Partnerships to respond to climate change
Innovative new partnerships will be just as important for responding to the impacts of climate change as they are to trying to prevent these impacts, with climate change exacerbating a whole host of existing problems and creating new ones.
One of the most thorny problems that will be created by climate change is the future of the Arctic. As Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg has recently warned, global warming risks a new cold war to the North, as melting ice “will increase the economic interest in the area for oil and gas activities and it will of course also make it easier to move military capabilities around.” Part of this competition will include a race to extract renewable energy resources, such as uranium, found in the region. The growing risk to stability in the Arctic is underscored by China’s recently released 14th five year plan which commits to further developing their “Polar Silk Road” in the Arctic Ocean and pursuing greater engagement in the region.
The commitment in the UK’s Integrated Review to ensuring that greater access to the Arctic region is managed responsibly reveals an increased emphasis on the High North within UK foreign policy. There is a danger that increased tensions in the area could drain attention away from other priorities, including the Indo-Pacific region.
The Government should prepare to join other Western nations in countering Chinese and Russian activity in the region, by increasing our own presence. China’s success in expanding control of the South China Sea has been made easier by the lack of a local, sustained presence by the United States. A similar situation in the Arctic would prove extremely problematic for the West.
The UK should press for an overarching NATO strategy for the region. If that is not possible, the UK should push for greater military cooperation outside of NATO, through a coalition of Northern Atlantic countries. Recently, the UK led a task force of warships from the United States, Denmark and Norway into the area to underscore our commitment to freedom of navigation in the Arctic Circle. We could seek to expand this makeshift alliance into an “Arctic Quad”, to mimic the Indo-Pacific Quad’s work to protect freedom in the Pacific Ocean.
While only an observer state on the Arctic Council, the UK could also push for reform of this institution, to open up the Council to greater cooperation to Near Arctic powers, such as ourselves, as the Council on Foreign Relations has proposed. Doing so would help to give China a stake in Arctic governance and make it more likely to engage with the international frameworks in place, rather than bypass them.
Cyber security is another security policy concern which will become more complicated as a result of climate change, with the integrated electricity grids required for decarbonisation providing an attractive target for terrorists and hostile states. It is worth noting that the Chinese-controlled State Grid company has announced ambitions to create a global supergrid – the ‘Global Energy Interconnection’ – to link each continent’s grids with transmission cables. In order to mitigate security risks, the global community will need to develop common cybersecurity norms and rules, and the UK would be well placed to lead on this issue. As Foreign Secretary, I launched the first in a series of biennial Global Conferences on CyberSpace regulation, which the Government should consider relaunching after the pandemic.
By creating this network of new relationships, the UK will place itself at the forefront of global efforts to both prevent and respond to climate change. This will also leave us well placed to join with other nations to create the right framework for dealing with the other issue looming larger in Western policy priorities – relations with China.
The convergence between China and climate policies
There has been widespread criticism of the Integrated Review’s approach to China, with commentators struggling to accept that we can work with China on key issues, at the same time as standing up to its human rights abuses. Of course there is tension between these two simultaneous approaches, but a realistic foreign policy often requires managing such tensions, however difficult that might be.
The Government is right about both aspects of its proposed approach to China. The Integrated Review rightly acknowledges that China poses “a systematic challenge … to our security, prosperity and values” but that the UK must also “cooperate with China in tackling transnational challenges such as climate change.” Indeed, there are many global issues, from nuclear proliferation to cooperation on pandemics such as Covid-19, where we should seek to work with China. While it might be possible to live with the consequences of a lack of cooperation with China on some of these issues, this is not true of climate change. We cannot solve climate change without China.
All of humanity, from the Americans in the West to the Chinese in the East, call the same planet home. The negative impacts of climate change upon our planet affect us all, and every country on Earth has a shared interest and shared responsibility to work together to mitigate it. No one country or bloc can solve climate change. The West cannot solve climate change without China, nor can China solve climate change without the West.
Working to reduce our dependence on China
Of course, working with China on climate change does not mean that the UK should be neutral in the growing rivalry between the United States and China. The UK will always be aligned with our American friends when it comes to foreign and security policy, and we must continue to oppose Chinese human rights abuses. The coordinated sanctions announced in March by the UK, US, Canada and the EU in response to the oppression of the Uighurs should be welcomed.
The race to Net Zero is fast becoming a central front in the West’s strategic rivalry with China, with each side seeking to gain the upper hand in the green tech race. By investing in huge cobalt mining operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo and shipping these minerals back home for manufacturing, China has made itself indispensable to the supply of batteries that will power the renewable revolution. Dependence on your rivals is a deeply uncomfortable position to be in, and it is right that the West is at last waking up to this threat and seeking to end our reliance on China.
The most important action that the UK should take to achieve this is announcing a review of our critical mineral supply chains, to inform a dedicated resilience strategy. Australia already has such a strategy, while earlier this year President Biden issued an Executive Order announcing that the United States would also prepare “a report identifying risks in the supply chain for critical minerals”. Aside from seeking to build critical mineral supply chains with our existing close allies, the UK’s new strategy should also explore the potential for new partnerships on critical minerals. For example, the Polar Research and Policy Initiative has proposed greater links with Greenland, rich in deposits of crucial minerals from cobalt and nickel for battery production to uranium for nuclear power.
Another approach to mitigate China’s early lead in the supply of electric car batteries would be to spur innovation in the design of batteries in a way that would reduce, or eliminate, the need for cobalt. The Government has already committed £274 million to the Faraday Battery Challenge project, which seeks to support battery research, including research to reduce our dependence on raw minerals. More remains to be done, however, and the Government should consider making battery technology one of ARIA’s key areas of research. The UK should also explore the potential for new innovative research partnerships between ARIA and universities specialising in battery technology, from the University of Birmingham here at home, to the University of Technology Sydney and Berkley.
Working with China to prevent and respond to climate change
With the UK hosting COP26 and China hosting the UN conference on biodiversity, 2021 will be an extraordinarily important year for the UK and China to work together on climate change. If we are to meet our target of keeping rising temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius, it is essential that China agrees to ambitious NDCs at COP26. There are grounds for optimism, given President Xi Jinping’s recent commitment that China will reach Net Zero before 2060, and given that China is keen to make a success of its biodiversity conference later this year, which will be the first time that the country leads negotiations on a major international agreement on the environment. However, China’s commitments have been undermined by a lack of concrete steps towards Net Zero, with its recent Five Year Plan likely to accelerate the country’s emissions rather than reduce them.
International standards for mining are another area in which it would be helpful for greater cooperation between the West and China. This is an issue which will become increasingly febrile during the renewables revolution. Fossil fuel extraction in the South China Sea has exacerbated problems there, and the race to exploit critical minerals for renewable technology, first in the Arctic, and potentially, in due course, in space, will likely lead to additional tensions. The UK should therefore redouble efforts to engage with China and agree new international standards for deep sea mining through the International Seabed Authority, and new international standards for future commercial exploitation of space, which remains a grey area under the Outer Space Treaty 1967.
The race to Net Zero is also incentivising nuclear power, creating additional risks which China and the West should work together to ameliorate. As the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research warned in 2009, “the revival of interest in nuclear power could result in the worldwide dissemination of uranium enrichment” with “obvious risks of proliferation.” Potentially even more concerning is the risk of terrorist activity towards nuclear plants, with the UN warning that “the nightmare scenario of a hack on a nuclear power plant causing uncontrolled release of ionizing radiation is growing.” With the popularity of nuclear power likely to grow as we transition to Net Zero, the UK should lead on reforming international frameworks and standards on nuclear power, to both prevent proliferation and protect plants from attack.
Working to reduce our reliance on China at the same time as working with China against climate change will be no simple task. It will require us to dispense with simplistic, two-dimensional descriptions of our relations with China, abandon the monikers of “Sinophile” and “Sinosceptic”, and become clear-eyed Sino-Realists. But if we could work with the Soviet Union over nuclear arms limits at the height of the Cold War, we can most certainly work with China to protect our planet, and they with us.
When the G7 – or the G8 as it then was – last met in the United Kingdom back in 2013, climate change was nowhere near the top of the agenda. Today, with months still to go before the Summit, the UK Government is already making excellent progress in pushing forward ideas for preventing climate change. That alone is commendable.
But the race to Net Zero will be a marathon, not a sprint, and the UK will need to retain focus on this issue in the years and decades ahead, all the while recognising that climate change policy is now closely linked both to domestic policy here in the UK and our international policies, not least of all China.
By putting climate change at the heart of our policies, creating a strong home base that leads in renewable technology and innovation and prioritising climate change in our international relationships, the UK can establish itself as a world leader in decarbonisation.
By developing a network of innovative partnerships, in policy areas from deforestation and carbon taxation to the Arctic and cyber security, the UK can both support the rest of the world to decarbonise and respond to the risks climate change pose to UK security.
And by pursuing a realistic approach to China of smart competition, that sees the UK work with our rivals to decarbonise, while working with our allies to diversify our supply chains of the critical minerals required to do so, we can combat climate change at the same time as reducing our dependence on China.
If the Government commits to pursue each of these three objectives, they will ensure that by the time the G7 next meets in the UK we will be well on our way to saving the natural world and, just maybe, ourselves.
The Rt Hon Lord William Hague of Richmond served as British Foreign Secretary between 2010 and 2014 and as First Secretary of State until 2015. He previously served as Leader of HM Opposition between 1997 and 2001.
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