The geopolitics of fossil and renewable energies are reshaping the world
With 84% of our energy still coming from oil, coal and gas, much of the transition to renewable energy sources is yet to come. Just because a different future will arrive doesn’t mean the present will simply give way. Renewable energies do not change the centrality of energy in geopolitics. And, insofar as the energy transition will be long, it will not quickly end the geopolitics of fossil fuels.
For nearly 200 years, fossil fuels have been at the heart of geopolitics. The relationship between Western Europe and China changed decisively in 1839, when Britain deployed coal-fired steamships in the First Opium War. This decision opened up China to a succession of imperial powers. The turn to oil in the 20th century made the United States the dominant power in the world and began the decline of the great European powers. Over the past decade, the United States and Russia have competed to sell gas to Europe, as they did for oil at the turn of the last century.
The energy creates dramatic geopolitical conflicts with sequels that last for decades. Take the Suez Crisis of 1956. US President Dwight Eisenhower used his country’s financial might to stop Anglo-French military action against Egypt that was aimed at protecting Western European energy interests in the Middle East. . The United States had encouraged these interests, wanting to protect supplies from the Western Hemisphere. Appalled that their supposed NATO ally might betray them, several European countries began turning to what was then Soviet, and is now Russian, oil. In the 1970s, this Soviet-European energy relationship extended to gas.
Since Russian President Vladimir Putin first made it known in Georgia in 2008 that he did not accept the borders created by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this dependence has constrained European Union policy with regard to Russia. Complementary fossil fuel interests have also made China and Russia tacit allies.
Energy research – from materials science to emissions modeling to carbon pricing – that ignores these realities can only paint a partial picture.
As early as the 1990s, it was obvious that the fight against climate change would be constrained by geopolitics and that the choices concerning the new energy sources to be developed would have geopolitical consequences. The United States refused to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions because almost the entire Senate believed that an agreement imposing obligations on the United States but not on China, classified among developing countries, would disadvantage the US economy. Meanwhile, the 1998-2005 coalition government in Berlin switched to renewables and began phasing out nuclear power, deepening Germany’s reliance on Russian gas. At the same time, Putin launched a two-decade strategic effort to remove Ukraine from Russia’s gas transportation system.
Climate change creates acute incentives for cooperation between geopolitical rivals, especially the world’s two largest carbon emitters: China and the United States. Despite deteriorating US-China relations from around 2010, President Barack Obama reached an emissions deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November 2014, which was the essential prelude to the Paris climate accord l ‘Next year. Yet even this moment of US-China cooperation could not transcend geopolitics. In the same year, Xi also reached an agreement with Putin to build the Power of Siberia gas pipeline. This opened in 2019 and is the first to route gas east to Asia rather than west to Europe. For China, this is at least as important as a climate compromise with Washington DC.
States compete to manufacture green energy infrastructure, such as solar panels and wind turbines, and to mass-produce electric vehicles. In May 2015, the Communist Party of China announced a plan – Made in China 2025 – to make the country a high-tech manufacturing superpower, including electric vehicles, and ensure it produces 70% of the basic resources needed. Former US President Donald Trump’s trade and technology war with Beijing was primarily a response to this Chinese ambition and won cross-party support.
There is a perceptible fear in Washington DC that an era of green energy will be the era of China. Renewable energy infrastructure relies heavily on rare earth minerals, the production of which is almost entirely dominated by China. Deng Xiaoping, a former leader of the Chinese Communist Party, once joked, “The Middle East has oil and China has rare earths. Over the past decade, China has also been willing to use this control as a geopolitical weapon, imposing an export ban on all rare earths to Japan in 2010 after a dispute over a fishing trawler in the China Sea. eastern. For the United States, catching up on the creation of a national industry around the extraction of “technological metals” has become a national imperative.
Quite simply, there is no way for governments – or the academics who seek to advise them – to be serious about the energy transition without having a realistic strategy for the issues that history suggests will arise. as the geopolitics of old and new energy sources and technologies combine. Unless these difficulties are met – by citizens as energy consumers, by scientists and social scientists, and by governments – they will become increasingly difficult.
The author declares no competing interests.