Linking Europe’s environmental and security agendas: What next for the new European Commission?

As we enter a new political cycle for the EU, it is worth pondering whether environmental risks and scarcities feature high enough on Europe’s security agenda.

With the new European Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in place, it is also worth considering how the proposed Green New Deal and the building of a stronger common defence could represent opportunities to link Europe’s resource use with the broader environmental and security agendas.

While the political guidelines published by the president-elect of the European Commission do mention the need for “an integrated and comprehensive approach to our security”, proposals seem to be referring to organised crime, terrorism and instability, rather than to resource use and the environment.

Likewise, the proposed Green New Deal appears to be conceived as a domestic agenda rather than an external agenda for Europe to share with its neighbourhood and key partners as part of a common prosperity- and peace-building agenda.

The need for a more integrated security agenda?

Combined with an increasing world population, the pressures on the natural environment and competition over natural resources are among the key peace and security challenges of the 21st century.

Between 1970 and 2017, the annual global extraction of materials increased by more than 240%, from 27 billion tonnes to 92 billion tonnes.

Exceptional growth rates (+376%) occurred among non-renewable materials – particularly industrial and construction minerals extracted to satisfy the energy demand.

Over the same period, consumption of fossil fuels experienced growth of more than 142%, while the extraction of renewable resources, accounted as biomass, increased by more than 167%, reflecting the upcoming trend towards industrialised agriculture and forestry, biomass-based energy production, and growing demand for feedstuff.

If everyone in the world were to consume like Europeans by 2050, we would need the equivalent of three Earths’ worth of natural resources

In the context of population growth (+43% by 2050) and growing affluence in the developing world, correlating with demand for materials, such booming trends are unlikely to change. In fact, if everyone in the world were to consume like Europeans by 2050, we would need the equivalent of three Earths’ worth of natural resources.

Alongside an increase in demand, there is a clear mismatch between available resources and geographical distribution of the world population. For instance, while the Middle East and North Africa represent 5% of the world population, they only account for 1% of the world’s renewable water sources.

In such a context, resources could become an even bigger source of major fuel of conflict worldwide.

According to UNEP, at least 40% of internal conflicts since 1990 have had natural resources as a key driver, due to a combination of poor governance, socio-economic tensions, growing resource scarcity and unequal access to resources. Resource-based conflicts are also harder to resolve and more likely to relapse within five years after a peace agreement.

Implications for Europe’s security

Further environmental degradation, combined with the increasing impacts of climate change, will have major geopolitical impacts, by contributing, for instance, to instability and conflict or by changing the balance of powers among countries.

Major sea routes for global traffic might change because of the meltdown of the Arctic, while decarbonisation and resource-efficiency policies could affect the economic prosperity of resource-based exporters.

Furthermore, Europe might be affected even more directly in terms of its own resource security. For the majority of its industry and everyday consumption, the continent relies on non-EU sources, including China, Russia, Turkey, Thailand, DRC, Rwanda, South Africa, Brazil and the USA.

The EU imports 55% of all the energy it consumes, at an average cost of around €266 billion per year

The EU is also 100% dependent on imports from external countries for about half of the 39 raw materials required by its defence sector, and about one-third of these originate from China – a country considered a high supply risk. Moreover, the EU imports 55% of all the energy it consumes, at an average cost of around €266 billion per year.

Given the role of material and resource scarcity as a driver of conflict, moving to a more circular economy would, therefore, be critical to Europe’s future security. Through eco-design, reuse, repair and recycling, circular economy significantly reduces resource use, which would, in turn, reduce import dependency.

It would also be in Europe’s interest that other countries follow suit: greater global efficiency in material use could reduce the likelihood of both economic scarcity (when rising prices make the use of certain resources uneconomical) and genuine material scarcity across different regions of the world.

What next?

The 2019 European Foreign Affairs Council’s conclusions on climate diplomacy are a strong basis to build on. They emphasise the links between climate, peace and security, and the Council has also recognised threats to peace and security linked to resource use challenges that extend beyond climate, including water, biodiversity and land degradation.

Useful next steps could include:

  • Broadening the scope and increase the ambition of European climate diplomacy to include other major interrelated risks to sustainable resource use.
  • Promoting Europe’s environmental and sustainable resource use policies beyond its borders, as a common prosperity and peace-building agenda with Europe’s neighbours and key partners, starting with the circular economy.
  • Increasing support for EU’s water diplomacy as a key area where the EU can show leadership while simultaneously contributing to the delivery of SDG6 on water, for example by integrating security aspects into the EU Water Diplomacy Initiative and related funding.
  • Ensuring that the proposed EU-Africa partnership will support Africa in reaching SDGs, including SDG12 on sustainable consumption and production while remaining within planetary boundaries.


Image © Bert Kaufmann/Flickr