The electric vehicle revolution and the rapid adoption of solar and wind technology will break the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. For many countries, that will dramatically improve energy security, by reducing overreliance on volatile and unstable oil producing nations, particularly in the Middle East.
However, the switch to clean technology could swap out one geopolitical vulnerability for another. A new report looks at the geopolitics of renewable energy and concludes that the clean tech revolution will bring many new supply chain vulnerabilities just as they solve old geopolitical dependencies.
The report from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy, and the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs finds multiple geopolitical problems that will crop up from the spread of renewable energy.
First, the raw materials used to build solar panels and batteries for electric vehicles are often concentrated in very few – and sometimes unstable – countries. For example, more than half of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lithium, as of now, is found mostly in the Lithium Triangle of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, although more lithium mines are opening up in Nevada in the U.S.
Also, nearly all of the world’s rare earth minerals are produced in China, and China and Russia control more than half of the world’s known reserves of rare earth minerals. This presents the possibility of a cartel forming, not unlike OPEC, to control the trade and pricing of rare earths.
Second, the area of finance and technology presents complications, which are more difficult to untangle. For instance, there will be fights over technology transfer, patents, anti-dumping, and the like. Developing and developed countries will clash over access to finance. Large pools of capital, such as sovereign wealth funds or state-owned companies, could dictate where and how money is spent. The effects of the clean energy revolution on the global flow of capital is still in its early stages.
Perhaps the most obvious geopolitical consequence of the switch to renewable energy is the possibility of a new resource curse that could emerge from the sale of raw materials and rare earths, creating new problems for new countries. Congo could see an influx of capital because of the demand for things like cobalt. While the country might welcome the windfall, it could also further fuel corruption and instability.
But an even grimmer scenario awaits the petro-states of yesteryear, which could become increasingly unstable as revenues dry up. What will happen in Saudi Arabia, for instance, if oil demand peaks and falls, taking oil prices down with it? Some argue that Saudi Arabia is already starting to see the writing on the wall, having declined to prop up oil prices back in 2014 in favor of a strategy of all-out production. “If you have 100 years’ worth of oil reserves, then 25 years looks like a very short time frame,” Martijn Rats, a Morgan Stanley oil analyst, told Bloomberg in an interview earlier this year.
Needless to say, Saudi Arabia has since backtracked on that market share strategy, as oil prices plunged to painfully low levels. But the partial IPO of Saudi Aramco, the implementation of new taxes, and major planned investments in non-oil activities are all part of an effort to pivot away from oil.
Saudi Arabia has blown through hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign exchange and has also turned to debt markets to plug budgetary holes. Expect more of that as the clean energy future unfolds and eats into oil demand. For weaker countries, acute destabilization is not out of the cards. There are a lot of complex reasons for Venezuela’s current implosion, but low oil prices is certainly one of them.
Of course, there will be a lot of benefits to the clean energy transition. Leaving aside the obvious upside in regards to climate change – which has been discussed at length elsewhere – the economic benefits of switching to clean energy be “overwhelmingly positive for most countries,” the Harvard report says, although it adds that the benefits will be “unequally distributed.” New jobs, innovation, cheaper energy or access to energy in places that haven’t had it before – the benefits are too long to list here.
To take one specific that highlights the complexity of the clean energy revolution, building out renewable energy will necessitate the transformation of electric grids, which might lead to greater interconnections across borders, reducing the incentive for conflict. The flip side of that is the proliferation of off-grid or micro-grid solutions could free countries up to pursue a more bellicose, or at least independent, path. The authors cite the case of the European Union’s dependence on Russia for natural gas. If the EU broke that dependence with renewable energy, it would have been more open to harsher sanctions targeting Russia’s gas sector. In the future, the increasing self-reliance on home-grown distributed renewable energy could whittle away at the economic, energy, and infrastructure ties that bind nations together.
All of that is to say that the main takeaway is that the transition to cleaner energy is more or less inevitable, and while the benefits of doing so will be monumental, they also carry risks that many policymakers have yet to consider.
By Nick Cunningham, Oilprice.com
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