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European Union steps up its efforts to become the global leader on addressing climate-related security risks

[This article originally appeared on]

On 26 February 2018 the European Union (EU) adopted its latest Council Conclusions on Climate Diplomacy following a Council Meeting of Foreign Ministers in Brussels. These Council Conclusions are much more action-oriented than those adopted previously. They illustrate not only that the EU is stepping up its efforts to become a leading global actor when it comes to fulfilling the 2016 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, but also that the EU is now placing far greater emphasis on the need to address and mitigate security risks posed by climate change. This essay discusses what is new in the recent Council Conclusions and puts these updates into context. It also discusses the key steps required for the EU to strengthen its work to mitigate climate-related security risks. 

The Council Conclusions adopted in February 2018 are the latest in a series of conclusions on climate diplomacy adopted by the EU since 2011. For the EU, climate diplomacy chiefly refers to actions undertaken by the European Commission, the EU Foreign Affairs Council and the European External Action Service (headed by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) to shape international cooperation on climate change. A key area in the EU’s work on climate diplomacy relates to the security risks posed by climate change. The EU acknowledged relatively early on that climate change also has security implications. The European Security Strategy of 2003mentions climate change, but it was not until the report in 2008 by the High Representative and the European Commission that the EU explicitly identified climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ for security and stability across the globe.[1]

The EU Global Strategy of 2016frequently refers to climate change and stresses that it ‘exacerbate[s] potential conflict’ due to desertification and land degradation, as well as its impact on water and food security.[2] In addition, the Global Strategy notes that the EU should assist partner countries in terms of climate action, for example through the development of renewable energy and technological transfers, as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation. In 2017 a joint communication from the High Representative and the European Commission suggested that the EU should integrate environmental, climate and disaster risk assessments into its conflict prevention early warning systems.[3] Thus, the recently adopted Council Conclusions can be seen as the latest step in a process through which the EU seeks to identify security risks posed by climate change and tailor policy responses to address and mitigate those risks. Two aspects of this are worth further consideration here: the emphasis in the Council Conclusions on multilateralism and the more nuanced and action-oriented discussion on the security risks posed by climate change.

The Paris Agreement is crucial to understanding the latest Council Conclusions, and especially the strong wording in defence of multilateralism. Multilateralism as a principle has been frequently mentioned in past Council Conclusions on Climate Diplomacy, but now the EU ‘underlines […] the crucial importance of a shared rules-based global order, with multilateralism as its key principle and the United Nations at its core’ and ‘emphasises the unprecedented urgency to step up global efforts to halt and reverse climate change’.[4] There is little doubt that these statements are directed towards the administration of US President Donald J. Trump specifically with regard to its announcement in 2017 that the United States (the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases—responsible for around 14 per cent of global emissions) would seek to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and its general dismissal of the multilateral system (with the UN at its core).[5] By contrast, in the recently adopted Council Conclusions, the EU pledges to deliver on its commitments to the Paris Agreement and to help partner countries to do so as well—therefore emphasizing the need for multilateralism. 

The Council Conclusions also show a clear qualitative shift in the EU’s statements on the security risks posed by climate change. The EU ‘recognises that climate change has direct and indirect implications for international security and stability’ and that climate change acts as a threat multiplier.[6] While this wording is not new, the Council Conclusions add more refined and nuanced statements than issued previously on how the impacts of climate change can contribute to loss of livelihoods, reinforce environmental pressures and disaster risk, force displacement of people, and exacerbate the threat of social and political unrest. Moreover, the Council Conclusions provide concrete suggestions on how to respond to climate-related security risks. They note, for example, that development responses need to become more conflict sensitive, while security policies need to become more climate sensitive. Furthermore, they point to the need to integrate effective responses to climate-related security risks across EU policy areas (ranging from climate action and resilience building to preventive diplomacy and improved risk assessment). In addition, the Council Conclusions support strengthening the UN Security Council’s role in climate risk assessment and even suggest that institutional changes to the UN system should be explored in order to achieve this.[7] Interestingly, these suggestions to a large extent echo recent policy recommendations developed by the research community.[8]

The Council Conclusions adopted in February 2018 represent a welcome step towards closing the gap between identifying climate-related security risks and taking action to respond to and mitigate these risks. A strong voice from the EU in global climate politics and diplomacy is needed—perhaps now more than ever. Nonetheless, the EU needs to deliver on the promise of making its conflict prevention and early warning systems ‘climate sensitive’. The EU’s focus on resilience building in partner countries seems promising in this regard, although it is too early to assess the effects. The EU also needs to consider how to strengthen the cooperation with other regional organizations and local partners since much of the relevant work in terms of risk assessment and mitigation will most certainly be done at the regional or local level. Finally, the Council Conclusions firmly support the initiative of the High Representative, Federica Mogherini, to hold a high-level meeting in Brussels in June 2018 on climate and security. This could be a good opportunity for participants to discuss practical solutions on how to make the EU and its partners better equipped to deal with climate-related security risks.       


[1] Council of the European Union, ‘European security strategy: a secure Europe in a better world’, 12 Dec. 2003; and High Representative of the Common Foreign and Security Policy and European Commission, ‘Climate change and international security’, Paper from the High Representative and the European Commission to the European Council, S113/08, 14 Mar. 2008. For further detail see Bremberg, N., ‘European regional organizations and climate-related security risks: EU, OSCE and NATO’, SIPRI Insights on Peace and Security no. 2018/1, Feb. 2018.

[2] European External Action Service (EEAS), Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe: A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy (EEAS: Brussels, June 2016).

[3] European Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, ‘Joint communication to the European Parliament and the Council: a strategic approach to resilience in the EU’s external action’, JOIN(2017) 21 final, 7 June 2017.

[4] Council of the European Union, ‘Council Conclusions on Climate Diplomacy’, 6125/18, 26 Feb. 2018, p. 2.

[5] Shear, M. D., ‘Trump will withdraw US from Paris Climate Agreement’, New York Times, 1 June 2017. For further detail on US emissions of greenhouse gases see e.g. Freidrich, J., Ge, M. and Pickens, A, ‘This interactive chart explains world’s top 10 emitters, and how they’ve changed’, World Resources Institute Blog, 11 Apr. 2017.

[6] Council of the European Union (note 4), p. 3.

[7] Council of the European Union (note 4), p. 3.

[8] Born, C., ‘A resolution for a peaceful climate: opportunities for the UN Security Council’, SIPRI Policy Brief, Jan 2017; Mobjörk, M. et al. Climate-related Security Risks: Towards an Integrated Approach (SIPRI: Stockholm, Oct. 2016); and Rüttinger, L. et al., A New Climate for Peace: Taking Action on Climate and Fragility Risks(adelphi: Berlin 2015).