Renewables and geopolitics: Who will ‘win’ the energy transition?

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It is easy enough to pinpoint the geopolitical losers from a successful energy transition to renewables, with heavily hydrocarbon-dependent nations such as Brazil, Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela at risk of crippling economic blows.

Picking winners in a clean energy world, however, is more tricky, according to the authors of a review of how the energy transition could shape global geopolitics.

Indra Overland and Roman Vakulchuk, from the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, and Daniel Scholten, from Delft University in the Netherlands, have produced the paper Renewable energy and geopolitics: A review, published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews and on the ScienceDirect website.

The academics posit the idea multiple nations will enjoy a geopolitical windfall by freeing themselves from dependency on fossil fuel imports produced by an exclusive group of hydrocarbon-exporting nations. That alone, however, will not be enough to come out on top in a clean energy world.

The winners

The study’s authors say securing the biggest slice of the pie when it comes to cleantech manufacturing and intellectual property will ensure a place at the top table in the world of tomorrow.

In that respect, China, the EU, Japan and the U.S. are positioning themselves to take advantage and will also benefit from kicking their fossil fuel habits. In terms of conflict, the central role played by fossil fuels in wars in the modern age is likely to make way for a rise in cyberwars and trade conflicts” in the post-energy transition world.

For nations such as Australia, Canada and Norway, the economic disruption of the death of fossil fuels will be significant but each has an economy able to pivot towards renewable energy or new revenue streams.

The real losers in the energy transition can be expected to dig their heels in and lock in global carbon use for longer than necessary and the report’s authors reviewed peer Sarah Ladislaw’s work to note between 2007 and 2009, the geopolitical dynamics of energy took on a discernibly new tone. Traditional fossil-based energy producers became concerned about the apparent growth in global willingness to seriously consider alternative sources of energy.” The UAE and Saudi Arabia, wrote Overland et al, moved quickly to privatize their national oil resources.

Peace dividend?

Geopolitical literature is divided on the extent to which the triumph of renewable energy can bring peaceful outcomes. Abundant, more evenly distributed, constantly replenished clean energy resources offer the potential to decentralize political power and facilitate democratization where rolled out at scale. The requirement of interconnector capacity between nations to supply clean electricity worldwide has also been cited by some as offering the potential for more harmonious cross-border relations.

However, switching to the current generation of renewables simply means relying on rare earth metals and other critical materials rather than fossil fuel deposits. Similarly, the decentralized, small scale nature of renewables generation may reduce the chance of global conflicts but it could also give rise to more local conflagrations.

Overland, Vakulchuk and Scholten highlighted weaknesses in the current literature devoted to geopolitics and the energy transition, notably with regards to theorization and analytical frameworks to handle the complexity of the topic. That means, according to the authors, there would be limited use in forecasting or scenario building at present, as empirical evidence remains scarce.

In previous interviews with pv magazine, Overland has discussed geopolitical issues including myths about the geopolitics of renewable energy and the potential of combining solar and hydropower technologies. He has pondered the fate of nations including China, the United States, Russia and Saudi Arabia, and examined technologies including storage and super-grids, as well as providing an overview of the energy transition itself.