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In a time of competing crises, environmental action matters more than ever

Image of a wheat field
A wheat field. Photo: Munruthel/Pixabay
Caspar Trimmer , Hafsa Maalim, Dan Smith, Dr Geoffrey D. Dabelko , Melvis Ndiloseh, Richard Black and Cedric de Coning

Last week saw the launch of SIPRI’s major policy report Environment of Peace: Security in a New Era of Risk, looking at how to manage the growing risks emerging at the nexus of environmental degradation, peace and security.

The events of the last few weeks have reminded us in the most brutal manner of the consequences of armed conflict for the people caught up in it. The war in Ukraine is also threatening lives and livelihoods around the world far from the battlefield, not least with regard to food supplies. Many of these impacts are amplified by challenges related to climate change and other environmental ills.

Even though the Russian invasion has renewed focus on ‘hard’ security issues like armaments, nuclear weapons and military alliances, the wider situation illustrates the central thesis of Environment of Peace: that interactions between the twin crises in security and the environment are creating new, complex risks that can cascade around the world.

The twin crises in action

In researching Environment of Peace, we scoured the landscape for telling examples, first of the ways environmental and security factors interact to intensify risk, and second of how different types of organization have managed to contain such risks in ways that promote peace and environmental integrity.

Climate change and other environmental risks have not played a significant role in causing the war in Ukraine—even if some analysts suggest that a general sense of increasing resource scarcity may have influenced Russia’s calculus with regard to securing Ukraine’s agricultural and mineral resources. But our research underlines that a fixation on what precipitates violent conflict obscures much of what is important. Climate and environment have become major factors determining how the war in Ukraine affects the rest of the world.

One among many sets of such interactions is mediated through global food markets. Extreme and unseasonal weather has hit key wheat crops, just as the war drastically is reducing wheat exports from Ukraine and Russia, two of the world’s biggest exporters. Before this month’s heatwave in South Asia devastated crops—a heatwave made 30 to 100 times more likely by climate change—it was hoped that Indian wheat would plug some of the gaps in the international market. Instead, India—whose emergency grain reserves were already depleted during the pandemic—has imposed an export ban.

There were also fears that unusually heavy rains last year in China, another major producer and consumer of wheat, would lead to perhaps the worst winter wheat crop in recent history. All of these factors helped global wheat prices in May 2022 to reach almost double what they were a year earlier.

All this has clear implications for food security, especially in countries reliant on imports. The head of the World Food Programme, which has sourced around half of its wheat from Ukraine in recent years, has warned that hundreds of millions of people could go hungry as a result. The related stresses could in turn fuel unrest and political instability, especially amid socio-economic tensions in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The situation calls to mind events leading up to the Arab Spring over a decade ago, when the Russian government banned grain exports following another major heatwave intensified by climate change. Soaring wheat prices helped to tip citizens’ dissatisfaction with governments across the Middle East and North Africa over into uprisings. The repercussions of the ensuing conflicts in Libya and Syria are still being felt globally.

Accelerate the green transition

Rising food prices are just one aspect of a set of circumstances testing global resilience and cooperation. Many countries around the world are struggling with immediate security issues. The economic and social havoc wreaked by the Covid-19 pandemic persists.

However, none of these are reasons to postpone dealing with the environmental crisis; rather, they reinforce the urgency to get on with it. Investing in a green transition will reduce the number of environmental tipping points that we risk crossing, while also creating jobs and reducing the threat from rogue fossil fuel-producing states.

As Environment of Peace: Security in a New Era of Risk makes clear, while transitions in energy, land use and other social and economic domains need to happen fast, they can only succeed if they are just and peaceful. We must avoid creating new risks to peace, as has been too often the case in the past with ill-conceived interventions in areas such as biofuels, hydropower dams and land conservation.

Instead, governments should look for solutions that ideally build both peace and environmental integrity. For example, as European governments seek to wean their economies off dependence on Russian oil and gas, they have an opportunity to accelerate progress towards net-zero emissions by investing in renewables. The race to replace Russian hydrocarbons for security purposes must not lock in future insecurity by breathing new life into fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure. At the same time, new renewable investments must take into account issues of justice and peace.

Involving local communities and diverse voices in planning and decision-making can also ensure their support and avoid future opposition or disputes, as can establishing cross-border or intercommunal agreements on resource sharing.

These challenges require a new spirit of cooperation, pulling together to address common threats rather than repeating the mistakes of the Covid-19 response, where too often countries retreated into protectionism and perceived self-interest.

As we argue in Environment of Peace, the world has entered a new era of risk as our growing environmental and security crises converge. The war in Ukraine provides a tragic and stark example of those interactions. The different fires we have to fight are connected, as are the solutions. We must learn how to fight them together.

 

Richard Black, Cedric de Coning, Geoff Dabelko, Hafsa Maalim, Melvis Ndiloseh and Dan Smith are lead authors of the SIPRI report Environment of Peace: Security in a New Era of Risk. Read more about the Environment of Peace initiative and visit the Environment of Peace report website.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

Dan Smith is the Director of SIPRI.
Dr Geoffrey D. Dabelko is an Associate Senior Fellow with SIPRI’s Environment of Peace Initiative and Professor at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Service, Ohio University.
Caspar Trimmer is a Senior Communications Officer at SIPRI.
Hafsa Maalim is an Associate Senior Researcher at SIPRI.
Richard Black

Richard Black is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London. Former science and environment correspondent for BBC News. From 2014–20 he was Director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit think tank. 

Cedric de Coning

Cedric de Coning is a Research Professor in the Research Group on Peace, Conflict and Development at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI). He co-directs the NUPI Center on United Nations and Global Governance, and the Climate, Peace and Security Risk project. 

Melvis Ndiloseh

Melvis Ndiloseh is CEO of the Foundation for Peace and Solidarity (FPS), a Cameroon-based non-profit. She is also a Senior Lecturer at the International Relations Institute of Cameroon, University of Yaounde II.