Toward a New German Foreign Policy

May 05, 2021

Future Focus: Any Foreign Policy Must Include Climate Policy

Germany has the potential to be a global climate pioneer. To do so, it must have the courage to consistently weave climate and environmental issues into its foreign policy.

An illustraion showing a wind turbine and circuit boards
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Global warming is the greatest challenge faced by the world today. What measures should be taken to curb climate change and stem its apparently irreversible effects are key questions for humanity today. For this reason, it is quite obvious that climate policy must also be foreign policy.

In June 2019, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas co-authored one of the best-publicized attempts formulating such an approach. In an op-ed written together with the leaders of a prominent German climate research institute, Maas referred to climate protection as an “imperative” for the country’s actions in the world. The same year, a report by the Federal Foreign Office on climate foreign policy succeeded, defining some fields of action and insisting that climate change “must be taken into account in all aspects of our future foreign relations.”

Beyond Security

Examined more closely, however, it becomes clear that until now the foreign ministry’s environmental thinking has been strongly influenced by the link between climate change and international security. And with good reason. Drought, rising temperatures, and extreme weather are all factors that can exacerbate food shortages, drive migrant and refugee flows, and fuel social and political tensions. Environmental issues thus serve as threat multipliers. Some estimates suggest climate change may increase the number of armed conflicts in Africa alone by 50 percent in years to come. Clearly, any forward-thinking, preventive foreign policy must address climate questions.

But climate change makes further demands on foreign policy, forcing German foreign policymakers to consider issues greater than the usual “peace and security” agenda. Germany traditionally owes its global influence to two factors, which both depend directly on an effective climate foreign policy: economic strength, but also a certain degree of soft power. First, the country can only maintain international competitiveness by investing in sustainable production, while also building up relevant supply chains and promoting climate-friendly technology around the world. Climate foreign policy thus is always foreign trade policy as well. Second, we can expect to see ambitious climate policy becoming a “hard currency” within the international political system in the not-too-distant future. As a country, Germany has long availed of soft power, among other things because of its production of large numbers of fast cars. But to maintain its international appeal, the country now has to produce popular green bestsellers; it must become a climate pioneer. In this, domestic and climate foreign policy are inextricably linked.

Finally, climate and environmental questions also seem certain to exert increasing influence over future geopolitical realities, possibly becoming their determining factor. It seems safe to assume that oil-rich petro-states will lose some global power and a portion of their traditional influence. By contrast, makers and suppliers of sustainable products—the key phrase being “green tech”—will gain in relative power, changing the international power game accordingly. It is in Germany’s interests to play a role in actively shaping this new reality, not simply passively enduring it.

To have an overall understanding of climate foreign policy—and crucially, to implement it—decision-makers must take action on at least four levels. They must work within the global multilateral framework of the Paris Climate Agreement and its concrete goals, but also operate within plurilateral formats involving individual states. Bilateral relations are another sphere of action, as is domestic politics, which can strongly influence climate foreign policy.

Bolstering the Paris Agreement

As a binding set of global rules, the Paris Climate Agreement forms the crucial political and legal framework for German climate policy, both internally and externally. Foreign policy action, development cooperation, and global trade relations hence cannot violate the Paris climate goals or stand in the way of its implementation. Wherever possible, efforts should be made to make the Paris goals more binding, with the international community able to take concrete steps to punish and sanction violations. A breakthrough in this field would require a realignment of power and influence within the multilateral global system. This could perhaps take the form of new voting rights in international organizations, rights that would depend on positive steps within national climate policy. This would give states incentives to set ambitious commitments, and to adhere to them.

In contrast to this kind of far-reaching reform, other climate policy realignments could prove easier to implement through multilateral organizations. The European Development Bank now aligns its actions completely with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement; in the same way, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund should now also link their lending policies to compliance with climate targets. In the context of world trade, the current crisis afflicting the World Trade Organization could provide an opportunity to shift the organization toward a new, more climate-friendly direction. The European Union has put forward proposals for a carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM)—also known as the cross-border carbon tax—which would levy a carbon tax on goods imported from outside the 27-member bloc. The development suggests that the “free trade at any price” paradigm may be giving way to approaches that take the climate and the broader environment into account.

But time is of the essence. Over the next five to 10 years, measures to cut carbon emissions seem unlikely to be negotiated and implemented by almost 200 states together. So further efforts will be needed: plurilateral cooperation, working through smaller, more flexible formats. This approach is all the more important since only a handful of states are responsible for the majority of carbon emissions. German climate foreign policy should take a lead here, attempting to bring those key states on board, above all China, the United States, India, and Russia: this will undoubtedly be easier with some than with others. Germany must use its 2022 G7 presidency to coordinate measures with the other six members of that club, going beyond the Paris Agreement obligations or implementing them more quickly.

“Climate Clubs”

If large industrialized countries take decisive action, it will send an important signal to emerging countries and less-developed nations with high emissions. It will be crucial to work with these countries in plurilateral coalitions of the willing. What have been called “climate clubs” between small groups of countries could offer a solution to the “free rider problem,” whereby individual states shy away from investing in climate protection, fearing others may benefit from the common good at their expense, while actually putting a disproportionate burden precisely on those who are attempting to take action on the climate. “Climate club” member states would jointly agree on climate goals, paving the way to exchange technologies and offer each other financial support. In this way countries would be incentivized to join the club and stick to its rules.

The “Alliance for Multilateralism”—an informal international network launched by Germany and France in September 2019—could be the starting point for such a climate club. What makes the Alliance particularly attractive is its capacity to integrate non-state actors—companies and civil society organizations, for example—into initiatives with many stakeholders. For action on global warming to succeed, these organizations must be involved in climate protection.

Bilateral relations will form the third key pillar of any comprehensive climate foreign policy. As relatively technical issues, environmental questions could serve to “open the door” to relations with difficult partners, promoting cooperation where other channels have been blocked. However, there is the problem of well-known spoiler countries; in the short term, climate change is not going to transform these adversaries into allies. For years now, countries like Russia and China have prevented the UN Security Council from dealing with the climate crisis at the highest level. In the medium term, German climate foreign policy could leverage the increasingly palpable consequences of climate change in places with traditionally “climate-skeptical” governments.” Wildfires and persistent smog in large cities could push these states into a new dialogue on joint climate efforts.

For this reason, Germany needs to constantly weave environmental issues into its relations with other parties, and seek to exert its influence on countries to reduce their carbon output. However, it should be borne in mind that energy companies are often crucial pillars of state capitalist systems. Twelve out of the 20 highest-emitting companies worldwide are state-owned. Any German government taking climate policy seriously should seek to be judged by its actions; this will include how it shapes its own relations with countries like Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

Setting Domestic Example

An even more promising approach is to work directly with interested partner countries. Designated climate partnerships could form part of an ambitious climate foreign policy. In doing so, the German government would conclude binding agreements with other countries, pledging to a climate agenda, including the Paris targets. In this scenario, Germany could support some partner states through technology transfers, helping them to decarbonize their economy, especially in the areas of energy and mobility. This approach could help the economic development and political stabilization of emerging and developing countries, while at the same time, creating and growing markets for German green tech.

All this suggests that there is no real possible separation between the foreign and the domestic when it comes to climate change. To have a good impact globally, Germany must set a good example domestically. Restructuring the German economy will play a crucial role in this. There will inevitably be conflicting goals, but these must be tackled head on if the country is to exercise foreign policy leadership on climate change. To keep its position as one of the world’s leading export nations, Germany must continue to reach customers around the world. But at the same time, it must develop the capability to produce for export on a carbon-neutral basis. If it can demonstrate domestic success with this model, the result will be new forms of German green soft power.

Making the connection between climate, foreign, and economic policy will also require institutional readjustment in Berlin. Most key institutions on climate change still have a purely domestic focus. As of today, Germany’s foreign minister is not yet a member of the government’s special “climate cabinet.” This needs to change, and fast. Last year, the federal government established an Expert Council on Climate Issues: this must also incorporate foreign policy dimensions.

Climate Envoy

Welcome as these innovations would be, they cannot hide the profound institutional problem in German climate foreign policy—the sheer number of actors involved, and the constant cacophony of competing voices. A whole series of ministries—foreign affairs, development and environment, finance, economic affairs—have a say on global environmental issues, just like their affiliated public agencies. In all of them, top-level buy-in is needed: it can both serve as a good example and help implement wide-ranging climate foreign policy. However, top-down approval within the respective institutions will not in itself eliminate the coexistence of a wide variety of actors in the field.

One solution might be for the federal government to appoint a special climate envoy, with equivalent rank to a minister of state. Like John Kerry, appointed as the Biden administration’s “Special Presidential Envoy for Climate,” this new minister would have the power to set policy direction, and would be equipped with a budget appropriate to the task. Institutional innovation of this kind would send out a genuine signal on climate change, one that could not be dismissed out of hand. A special climate envoy would have responsibility for shaping Germany’s climate foreign policy, putting leadership structures in place to coordinate the relevant actors, and setting the domestic foundations for more wide-ranging and coherent policy.

Unveiling the European Green Deal in November 2019, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke of its historical significance as being the same as the moon landing. Just a few months later, the COVID-19 crisis tested EU member states’ solidarity to its limit. Faced with the crisis, climate and the environment took a back seat. But a world out of joint can offer a real opportunity for a comprehensive climate foreign policy. “Build back greener” has rarely seemed so straightforward. As the biggest country in the European Union, Germany must have a central role on climate. But to play this role correctly, Berlin must have the courage to consistently weave climate and environmental issues into its actions on foreign affairs. Party programs for September’s general election in Germany all promise to make the climate a key topic for the upcoming legislative period. Let’s hope these fine words are followed up with actions.

Ronja Scheler is Program Director International Affairs at Körber-Stiftung. Christin Knüpfer is Program Director International Affairs at Körber-Stiftung.

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