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An environmental dimension to UK foreign policy

Article by Luke Murphy

December 3, 2020

An environmental dimension to UK foreign policy

Four years on from the vote to leave the European Union (EU) much has been written about the UK’s international role in a post-Brexit world. Only recently, however, has the climate crisis emerged as potentially the strongest candidate around which the UK could forge a genuine leadership role in the world and make the vision of ‘Global Britain’ a reality.[1]


As the host and president of the G7 and as the host (in Glasgow) of the international climate summit, COP26, the UK has been handed a golden opportunity to demonstrate leadership on tackling the climate crisis. To make the most of this opportunity, the UK must ensure that it gets its own house in order in terms of delivering ambitious domestic commitments on decarbonisation, as well taking some essential actions at the international level in building progressive partnerships, embedding a net zero mentality in aid, trade and finance, and through carving out a future role in the shaping of international agreements and institutions. The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, to be published in early 2021, also presents an opportunity to set out how the UK intends to champion ambitious action on climate through a pivotal year and in the years to come.[2]


The UK as a ‘climate leader’ isn’t new, but its role needs renewing

The idea of the UK being a world leader on climate is, of course, nothing new. Governments of all parties have ensured that over the past decade and more the UK has been able to lead the way with groundbreaking commitments, legislation and policies on climate. These include the groundbreaking Stern report in 2006, which looked at the economics of climate change, the world leading Climate Change Act passed in 2008 and being the first major economy to commit to a legally binding net zero 2050 target.[3]


However, while the net zero target passed last year marked a shift back towards the centrality of climate within UK policymaking, the previous few years had seen some weakening in terms of commitment and delivery. Perhaps most symbolically in 2013 when the then Prime Minister David Cameron called to ‘get rid of all the green crap’ and more importantly inadequate progress is being made in terms of meeting the 4th and 5th carbon budgets, both stepping-stones towards the overall reduction of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.[4]


Why the UK and why now?

Nevertheless, the coming year offers a significant opportunity for the UK to renew itself as a global leader on climate. The question is, why the UK and why now?


The case for renewing the UK’s role as a global climate leader is strong. Firstly, as the fifth largest historic emitter of carbon emissions in the world and as one of the prime exporters of an economic model that has proved to be unsustainable in environmental terms, the UK has a responsibility to ensure that its foreign policy recognises its historic legacy.[5] Secondly, there is the UK’s record on leveraging international climate action. From the climate change act to the net zero target, the UK’s visible action and leadership over the years in tackling the climate crisis has made a difference in spurring action from other countries.


Thirdly, there are the reputational and soft power benefits. At a time when the UK’s standing in the world has been diminished as a result of its decision to leave the EU, as well as the threats to break international law as part of the UK Internal Market Bill, there is a need to rebuild partnerships and confidence in the UK as a trusted international actor – action on the climate crisis provides such an opportunity.[6] Moreover, the Government itself has recognised that such action provides an opening to enhance the UK’s soft power.[7]


Fourthly, there are the economic benefits. The discussions on moving to net zero emissions has shifted worldwide from being a preoccupation of environmentalists to a recognised necessity of economists and policymakers. We’re now moving into a third phase as many countries around the world see the transition to a net zero economy as one of boundless opportunity, an investment and not a cost.[8] In the past few months alone, China, South Korea and Japan have all committed to new net zero targets.[9] The race to net zero has begun and if the UK is to seize the economic opportunities on offer then it cannot afford to be left behind.


Finally, there is the confluence of events in 2021 that should make climate diplomacy a top tier priority for the UK government. Next year the UK will ascend the G7 Presidency, host the vital climate summit in COP26 and Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. As host of both major events, the UK has the opportunity to demonstrate its ‘internationalism and green credentials’ according to the conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and cement relations with the incoming democratic President who has been crystal clear in his determination to make tackling the climate crisis a domestic and international priority.[10]


If the UK is to put words into action, and place climate at the heart of its foreign policy, what does it need to do in practice?


Leading by the power of example

As the host of COP26 in 2021, the UK can help inspire the rest of world and leverage greater ambition and delivery from other developed countries. But to do so, the UK must get its own house in order first. The legal commitment to net zero by 2050 was a necessary but, on its own, insufficient means of doing so. The policy and investment needed to deliver must swiftly follow. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced some bold measures in his recent ‘10-point plan for a green industrial revolution’ but it fell well short of a strategy to deliver on our legal commitments.[11]


The UK must go further in terms of its targets, policies and investments. This should include an ambitious ‘Nationally Determined Contribution’ (NDC) – commitments by each country under the 2015 Paris Agreement to reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of global heating – this would imply a reduction of at least 72 per cent in emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels according to new research by WWF.[12] This should be backed by the creation of new institutions including a ‘Net Zero and Just Transition Delivery Body’ charged with developing a national strategy and sectoral plans to deliver on our climate commitments.[13]


All of this must be supported by a significant increase in investment in projects ranging from sustainable public transport, such as the electrification of rail and bus networks, to nature investments including tree planting and peatland restoration. Only by getting the UK on track to meet its net zero commitments will it credibly be able to call itself a global leader on climate and maximise its influence through its foreign policy.


Building progressive partnerships and shaping climate politics

The UK also has an important role in building progressive partnerships and shaping global climate politics. Although diplomatic success can be hard to determine, some have pointed to evidence of the UK’s impact in the past from the introduction of carbon market pricing in China to power sector reform in India.[14] Some ambassadors have also pointed to the closer bilateral relationships between the UK and countries in Latin America, leveraged through climate diplomacy.[15]


As host to the G7 and then COP26, the UK will have an outsized platform and opportunity to wield influence and use its diplomatic expertise to drive progress on international climate action.[16] In this regard, there is much to be learnt from France’s approach in achieving the 2015 Paris Agreement where its skillful diplomacy delivered a groundbreaking international agreement on climate.[17] Putting this into practice will require concerted effort to build key progressive partnerships and shape climate politics. Working closely with key allies like the EU and particularly the US where Joe Biden has placed a high priority on climate action, the UK should seek to create focused campaigns on key issues including through groupings such as the Climate Ambition Alliance.[18]


An important sign of progress will be the summit hosted by the UK government on 12th December at which Boris Johnson has called on world leaders to ‘announce genuinely transformational net zero targets and bold climate finance pledges’.[19] Ensuring this happens in practice will rely not just on the strength of the UK’s diplomacy but also its own NDC commitment as outlined above. Other areas that the UK should focus its diplomatic attention include key projects, such as the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.[20] This immense infrastructure project poses significant challenges to the world’s ambitions. The UK will need to work with key partners to influence China at every stage from financing to the laying of the infrastructure.


Finally, the UK should step-up its commitment to acting as a ‘supporting partner’ in providing policy, financial and technological assistance to those nations most affected by the climate crisis.[21] A key tenet of foreign and aid policy should be working with such less industrialised countries to build their capability and local institutions in order to accelerate their climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.[22]


Climate progress through progressive trade policy

Between 1990 and 2016, the UK reduced greenhouse gas emissions released within its national borders by 41 per cent, but those emissions from goods consumed in the UK but produced elsewhere fell by only 15 per cent.[23] Indeed, the UK’s consumption emissions in the 1970s were just 0.2 per cent higher than our territorial emissions, whereas they are 37 per cent higher today.[24] But the UK also has much broader environmental impacts, the evidence suggests that if everyone in the world were to live like the average UK citizen, then we would need 2.5 planets worth of resources to sustain us.[25] In other words, much of the UK’s wider impacts on the climate and our environment are currently being offshored.


As the UK seeks to strike its own trade deals outside of the EU for the first time in four decades, there is an opportunity for the UK to embed high environmental standards including robust standards on greenhouse gas emissions, as well as high product and labour standards, within any future trade agreements. The UK’s relationship with the US will be central to making this approach a reality. In comparison to trading giants including the EU, China and the US, the UK is relatively small in global trading terms. But if the UK is able to lever similar commitments to high standards from countries with close diplomatic ties, the UK could punch above its weight in delivering progressive climate action. Moreover, the shape of the UK’s Emission Trading Scheme, which will be in place from 1st January 2021, could also be central to the UK’s approach to emissions reductions both at home and abroad.[26]


Financing the transition

The funds that the UK spends abroad through climate finance will be central to cementing its role as global climate leader. In that regard, the decision to cut Official Development Assistance (ODA) (international aid spending) from the world leading 0.7 per cent of GDP to 0.5 per cent for an undefined period is both a terrible signal in terms of the UK’s supposed leadership and is also terrible climate policy. The UK has a committed a proportion of its ODA to both the mitigation of and adaptation to the climate crisis so a cut in the ODA budget is likely to feed into a reduction in the UK’s spending on climate action abroad.


In light of this, the Government should now seek to do a number of things through its contribution to international climate finance. First, the Government should commit at the earliest opportunity to reinstate the 0.7 per cent target. Second, the need to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis should be mainstreamed across the whole of the ODA budget and not just those parts dedicated to climate action. Third, the Government should make a significant contribution to the international Green Climate Fund and in doing so, seek to leverage similar commitments from international partners. The UK could use an increased financial pledge to recognise its status as the fifth largest contributor to cumulative emissions by explicitly linking its historic contribution to the scale of its financial commitment. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has calculated that a contribution of circa £20 billion between now and 2030 would be commensurate with the UK’s historic contribution and the level of emissions reduction that such a figure could bring about through supporting less industrialised nations to mitigate and adapt to global heating.[27] The Government could also build on this commitment by extending such a ‘fair share’ approach to its other environmental impacts across the world.[28]


As a global financial centre, the UK has significant influence throughout the world on the direction of sustainable private finance. In recognition of this role, the Government has made making progress on this agenda a key priority for COP26 and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has made some recent announcements on the disclosure of climate risks and the issuing of green gilts.[29] But in many commentators’ eyes this is the bare minimum that needs to be done.[30] The Government could for instance go further by requiring all firms to set themselves binding targets for emissions reductions as well as to disclose all of the emissions that arise from their supply chains and consumers use of their products.


Finally, the Government should confirm its intention to phase out UK Export Finance (UKEF) – the Government agency which provides export credit guarantees to companies trading abroad – support for fossil fuel projects, a practice which is wholly incompatible with global leadership on climate. Furthermore, UKEF should also seek to actively increase investment into low-carbon and climate compatible opportunities abroad such as offshore wind and decommissioning.


International agreements and institutions

The UK has long held an influential role in the shaping, reform and creation of international institutions and agreements. In the pre-Brexit era, most of the UK’s influence was through successful shaping of the EU’s positions, amplifying Britain’s influence in the world, within institutions such as the UNFCCC (although the UK acted on its own behalf withing the relevant international institutions for aviation and shipping and remained influential).[31]


In the post-Brexit era, the UK must seek to maintain its influential role on international agreements and institutions. As IPPR has previously argued, this could include seeking reforms of the World Bank, IMF and other multilateral development agencies and funds to increase their policy focus on and financial investment climate and environmental matters.[32] It will also entail the UK increasing its international profile as a country seeking to drive further climate ambition, as well as seeking to retain a strong influencing role in the determination of EU positions.



Tackling the climate crisis has now become a significant priority for the UK within domestic policy, which means that driving progress internationally is fundamentally in the national interest. Moreover, as previous experience has demonstrated it is a powerful tool in building the UK’s soft power as well as its reputation around the globe. It will also provide economic opportunities and benefits to British companies at home and abroad. Perhaps most importantly, however, is the impact that the UK can have as a high-profile champion of ambitious climate action around the world. 2021 could be a crucial year in redefining what the UK’s role is in the world; it is an opportunity that we, and the world, cannot afford to miss.



  • Lead by the power of example: If the UK wishes to be a leader on tackling the climate crisis abroad, then it must get its house in order at home. That must include more ambitious commitments for climate action through its Nationally Determined Contribution, as well as the necessary policies and investments to deliver in practice.
  • Building progressive partnerships and shaping climate politics: The UK must seek to use climate diplomacy to lever greater climate ambition internationally. This will involve forming close partnerships and coalitions with international partners, focusing on key projects to influence such as the Chinese Belt and Road initiative and acting as a ‘supporting partner’ to less industrialised nations.
  • Climate progress through progressive trade policy: The UK must use its new freedoms to strike trade deals to pursue commitments to high environmental standards including robust standards on greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Financing the transition: The UK should commit to reinstating the 0.7 per cent ODA target and mainstream climate action as a priority across the entire ODA budget and wider UK foreign policy. The UK should also make a contribution to the Green Climate Fund which is commensurate with its historic contribution to the climate crisis. The Government should also drive more ambitious action as the world’s financial centre on sustainable private finance and bring an end to support for fossil fuel projects abroad.
  • International agreements and institutions: The UK must seek to maintain its influential role on international agreements and institutions in relation to climate, including seeking progressive reform of institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and other multilateral development agencies in relation to climate and environmental matters.


Luke Murphy is Head of the Environmental Justice Commission and Associate Director for the Energy, Climate, Housing and Infrastructure Team at the IPPR.


Image by Number 10 under (CC).


[1] HMG, Global Britain: delivering on our international ambition,, September 2019,

[2] Boris Johnson, PM statement to the House on the Integrated Review, November 2020,

[3] Nicolas Stern. 2006. The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, Cambridge University Press.

[4] Rowena Mason, David Cameron at centre of ‘get rid of all the green crap’ storm, The Guardian, November 2013,; IPPR. 2020. Faster, further, fairer: Putting people at the heart of tackling the climate and nature emergency, interim report of the IPPR Environmental Justice Commission,

[5] Laybourn-Langton L and Rankin L. 2019. Our responsibility: A new model of international cooperation for the era of environmental breakdown, IPPR.

[6] Georgina Wright, UK threats to break international law make a Brexit deal even more difficult, September 2020,

[7] Written evidence submitted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (CLI0010)

[8] Camilla Cavendish, Climate diplomacy is winning its fight against a zero-sum mindset, The FT, November 2020,

[9] David Hackett and IIona Millar, A new global paradigm for global climate action, November 2020,

[10] Leslie Hook, Katrina Mason and Derek Brower. Biden focuses on US climate diplomacy with key role for John Kerry, The FT, November 2020,

[11] HMG press release, PM outlines his Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution for 250,000 jobs, November 2020,

[12] WWF, COP26: The UK’s 2030 Climate Target to Cut Emissions, November 2020,

[13] IPPR. Faster, Further, Fairer.

[14] Pete Betts, Summary Report of the International Advisory Group to the Committee on Climate Change in Relation to its Work on the UK’s Long-Term Emissions Goal, May 2019,

[15] Ibid

[16] ECIU, UK diplomacy and influence ahead of COP26, October 2021,

[17] Fiona Harvey, Paris climate change agreement: the world’s greatest diplomatic success, December 2015,

[18] Climate Ambition Alliance: Nations Renew their Push to Upscale

Action by 2020 and Achieve Net Zero CO2 Emissions by 2050, December 2019,

[19] HMG News Story, PM: ‘Climate action cannot be another victim of coronavirus’, September 2020,

[20] Ibid.

[21] Laybourn-Langton et al. Our responsibility.

[22] ibid

[23] ECIU. UK diplomacy and influence ahead of COP26.

[24] IPPR. Faster, Further, Fairer.

[25] O’Neill D W, Fanning A L, Lamb W F and Steinberger J K (2018) ‘A good life for all within planetary boundaries’, Nature Sustainability, 1:88–95, doi: 10.1038/s41893-018-0021-4

[26] Lindsay Edwards, UK greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme order published, November 2020,

[27] Laybourn-Langton et al. Our responsibility.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Alok Sharma, President Alok Sharma at launch of COP26 Private Finance Agenda, February 2020,; HMT, Chancellor sets out ambition for future of UK financial services, News Story, November 2020,

[30] Leslie Hook and Matthew Vincent, Green business reporting rules at risk of pale response, The FT, November 2020,

[31] Pete Betts. Summary Report of the International Advisory Group.

[32] Laybourn-Langton et al. Our responsibility.

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