Nearly a month has passed since stakeholders from across the globe met in Dubai for the 28th United Nations Climate Conference (COP). Unsurprisingly, the conference, mediated by the CEO of the UAE’s national oil company, failed to reach any meaningful resolution on tackling fossil fuel production and emissions. Negotiators were, however, able to agree on a Loss and Damage Fund to support the Global South with climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. COP, in terms of scale, is the sole multilateral decision-making forum on climate change, with membership from almost every country in the world. It stands, therefore, as an impressive example of what eco-diplomacy can look like. Eco- or climate- diplomacy is, broadly speaking, a brand of diplomacy that employs environmental issues to advance conservation and ecology protection policy. The nature of the approach varies given the range of environmental issues faced by different countries. For example, there is contrast in the type of issue given primacy by nations of the Global North and Global South. The former bloc tends to promote greenhouse gas emissions’ reduction, as opposed to the latter who are keen to seek financial reparations for the devastating effects of climate change caused by the North. Differences aside, the global effects of the climate crisis can engender empathy or natural solidarity between the two blocs.Foreign policy practitioners can use this to strengthen transboundary cooperation to tackle the truly supranational problem of saving the planet.
While shared recognition of climate change’s dramatic effects can encourage cross-border collaboration, eco-diplomacy in practice isn’t yet an effective remedy to our climate fears. Countless disappointing COPs and power motivated political manoeuvres from government actors – like Donald Trump, responsible for temporarily withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreements – expose the weaknesses of eco-diplomacy. In Central Asia, leaders have not disregarded climate policy so brazenly, but they have often exaggerated their eco-diplomacy efforts. One such example is the state takeover of the Kumtor Gold mine in the Issyk-Kul region. Previously belonging to various Canadian firms, the mine was formally nationalised in April 2022 after a series of “dubious” legal manoeuvres by the government. Despite the government’s claim that the takeover was necessary due to the mine’s impact on local glacier degradation, the mine continues to operate.
Nevertheless, there are instances at a regional level that provide encouraging progress. One such case is the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Programme (GSLEP), established in 2013 by the Snow Leopard Trust. Unifying the twelve Third Pole countries home to the Snow Leopard, the programme aims to coordinate and facilitate improved conservation efforts for the species and its ecosystem. GLSEP has used the cat’s predilection for disregarding national boundaries to its advantage, portraying the feline as a natural ambassador of the mountains. The animal, a third of whose habitat is within 50–100 km of international borders, has been the focal point for a decade’s worth of sustained work connecting communities to governments across Central Asia. This is no mean feat in a continent characterised by historically turbulent international relations.
The programme also exceeds its mandate by lending assistance to eco-diplomacy efforts led by the Kyrgyz government. It provides crucial consultation to civil servants on ecologically oriented matters, and often on issues that fall outside of Snow Leopard conservation. Supported by Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Natural Resources, GSLEP offers a readily accessible platform for boosting eco-diplomacy efforts across the region.
However, eco-diplomacy can be easily overshadowed by other political events. In mid-September 2022, one Tajik border guard was killed and two injured by their Kyrgyz counterparts. This happened after they reportedly took up positions in a non-demarcated area bordering Kyrgyzstan’s southern Batken oblast. Quickly reigniting an already extant border dispute, the resulting fighting saw 90 new deaths, with casualties on both sides. Consequently, Ministerial representatives from the Tajik government were unable to attend the GSLEP annual steering committee meeting conference two months later, owing to a temporary ban by the Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tajik citizens’ entry.
Although the situation in Batken had a negative impact on biodiversity, it is unlikely that this perspective would have helped existing efforts to control the conflict. It is possible, however, that if mobilised aptly, clear communication that highlights the negative environmental effects of armed conflict or government instability could foster a change in approach. In the case of Batken, emphasising the destruction to local habitats caused by artillery fire could shift perspectives. This change in mindset could lay the groundwork for eco-diplomacy to thrive in the future. Nonetheless, popular thinking still considers conflict and border issues to occur in a separate arena to that of biodiversity loss and ecological conservation.
In some cases, ecology and geopolitics converge, as is the case with water security. With ever decreasing supplies of water, held mostly in the glaciers of Kyrgyzstan, the region is faced with an issue that requires the deployment of ecological solutions through a coordinated international approach. Debates over water security divide Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, who rely on the water for agriculture during the summer, from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan who dam streams during the same season to meet energy needs in the winter.
Eco-diplomacy has been deployed since Soviet times to assuage the situation. Several transboundary agreements have been based on the theoretically simple exchange of energy for water to calm local worries. Iterations of these arrangements have fallen victim, among other circumstances, to unfulfilled obligations from the side of the energy providers. As such, in times of perceived insufficient energy supply, upstream riparian actors have retaliated, exercising their control over the flow of water by limiting its supply downstream. These malign actions shift attention from a very pressing and humane issue of water distribution to that of energy security and international posturing. In this fraught domain, administering eco-diplomacy would take time, but could provide a more accessible platform for negotiations.
Going forward, eco-diplomacy’s role could facilitate better transboundary cooperation in Central Asia, but it will be limited if it is not articulated in a way that stresses the interconnectedness of regional disturbances to ecological integrity. The salience of a possible water crisis is not lost on regional stakeholders, but the issue has not yet been confidently met. Instead, progress is marred by misunderstandings that quickly become over politicised. Central Asian states must aim to communicate better, but to do this through eco-diplomacy requires patience, given the not yet widespread appetite for it. An eco-diplomatic approach should express the way in which problems traditionally seen as unrelated to the environment do have negative environmental impacts. If done right, ethical eco-diplomacy could help avoid a regional crisis, strengthen alliances between all Central Asian states, and boost the collective’s international prestige. Ultimately, whether it chooses eco-diplomacy or not, Central Asia’s fate is inextricably bound to the fate of its environment.
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