Why We Need To Talk About The Geopolitics of Renewable Energy

Salma Adam*

Geopolitics is simply the study of how geography affects international relations, power and vulnerabilities. We see geopolitics at play everywhere, from the United State’s involvement in the Middle East to China’s diplomatic efforts in East Asia. Halford Mackinder described much of the 20th century’s geopolitical thought as great power strategies, alliances and military events based on geographic and historic factors. It can be defined as the struggle over the control of geographical entities with an international and global dimension, and the use of such geographical entities for political advantage.

The relative novelty of renewable energy resources has limited the volume of research on its geopolitics. It is a no-brainer that this novelty has made it completely difficult to apply familiar frameworks and concepts when carrying out research. There is also the fact that the renewable energy field has until recently been met with a few observers to consider its geopolitical impacts. Also, work in academia and policy work on renewable energy is largely focused on how to achieve the transition to a low-carbon future, not on the impacts of a successful transition on global politics or the power of states.

In today’s world, there is a growing need to phase out fossil fuels, curb climate change and embrace a more sustainable society. This is fitly due to different concourses at the international level that spotlight the effect of climate change on the environment. Countries have been made to refocus their lenses toward renewable energy resources such as wind, solar electricity, green hydrogen, biomass, etc. This shift will not only reshape the global energy market, but it will also; lead to the formation of new energy alliances, alter existing relationships between countries, birth new international actors i.e power shifts and possibly reduce the event of conflicts caused by energy resources, all of which will be discussed below.

Global Power Shifts

The change in the world energy system will inevitably act as a catalyst thereby creating power shifts in the international system. In the clean energy “space race”, the USA is home to advanced technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (A.I), Electric Vehicles (EVs), and wind and solar energy innovations, thereby making them well positioned in the space race. China, which is a large exporter of lithium, will gain from the energy transition journey as the country is not just only a big manufacturer of clean energy resources but also it is a top dog for clean energy investments. In the deployment of clean energy Europe, Japan and India are among the forerunners. The countries/regions identified as not starting the “space race” in good standing are the fossil-fuel countries in the Middle East (United Arab Emirates, Iran, Saudi Arabia), North African countries, Russia, and Nigeria. Fossil fuels make up a large percentage of their exports which has for the longest time placed them either at the helm of affairs in the international system or as notable players in global politics.

Formation of New Alliances

Right after power shifts comes the formation of new alliances, whether bilateral, multilateral or regional, as well as changes in already existing energy alliances. An example of this is the alliance between the United States of America and Saudi Arabia which dates back to the 1940s. The focal point of this alliance was Saudi Arabia’s oil in exchange for USA’s military support. However, with the energy transition in place, there is a possibility of there being either a break-off or a switch-up in the alliance. Another notable example is the creation of multilateral corporations such as the International Renewable Energy Agency, International Solar Alliance, Global Geothermal Alliance, etc. These multilateral corporations advocate for the adoption of clean energy amongst their member states. An alliance that is going to witness change is the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) which might be faced with two options; dissolve as there might be a great decline in oil prices in the coming years or reinvent itself. In this global race for world energy dominance, one can only wait and see as the events unfold.

Reduced Conflicts

The pivot to clean energy may contribute to reduced conflicts in nation-states. There is a potential for small-scale conflict to arise in the extraction of climate minerals (e.g lithium, cobalt, etc), but this is less destructive in contrast to a high-scale conflict that exists in the extraction of non-renewable materials. Fossil fuels, most especially oil, have been one of the catalysts of conflicts in time-past. Hydrocarbon reserves, usually the bone of contention in the South China Sea or East Mediterranean, may witness a reduction in conflicts. African countries have also seen their fair share of conflicts resulting from a dependence on non-renewable energy resources. Increased inequalities often result in such situations, which enable external actors to exacerbate grievances in oil-producing regions, particularly when central governments redistribute wealth away from them, as is very common in Nigeria. An additional advantage of renewable energy is the rise of energy security as countries will no longer be less vulnerable to their suppliers but have the room to independently chase foreign policy objectives which are in their favour.

In conclusion, uncertainties in the international system do not always bend towards negatives such as conflict, poverty or meltdown of public infrastructures; they can be seen as an opportunity to venture onto better paths ‒ in this case, “energy-efficient’’ safe grounds. In my view, the energy transition is a worthy and peaceful disruption of the international energy system. Whilst no one can accurately predict the outcomes of the phasing out of fossil fuels, what form it may take, the complete challenges that it will bring, or the structure the global system will take, what we do know for sure is the outburst of opportunities for many countries, power shifts, new actors and new geostrategic alliances that will be formed. The world that’s coming is new, one in which we all should embrace with arms wide open.

Salma Adam* is a Junior Associate, Knowledge Management at Clean Technology Hub

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Clean Technology Hub is a hybrid hub for research, policy development, community engagement, & incubation of clean energy & climate resilience ideas in Nigeria.