While the geopolitics of fossil fuels are well established, we at ARPN have long lamented the lack of awareness regarding the geopolitical implications of non-fuel mineral resource supply and demand. For that reason, we were very pleased to see a recently released study co-authored by Meghan L. O’Sullivan of Harvard University’s Kennedy School, Indra Overland of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), and David Sandalow of the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy zero in on precisely this aspect of resource policy.
The working paper entitled “The Geopolitics of Renewable Energy” examines how a shift to renewable energy sources, which, while reducing dependencies on fossil fuels, will result in new dependencies on non-fuel metals and minerals ARPN followers are by now familiar with, and the “good and bad geopolitical karma” these new dependencies will bring – including new forms of the so-called “resource curse.”
Explains O’Sullivan in a piece introducing the working paper for Bloomberg:
“Among the most interesting of possible trends we highlight is the idea that a more renewable-heavy future will likely bring with it new forms of the “resource curse” — the phenomenon that political and economic development in many resource-wealthy countries seems stymied when compared to resource-poor ones. In many resource-rich nations, economic growth is actually slower and political institutions are more likely to be repressive and nondemocratic.
In the world of fossil fuels, this curse has generally applied to big producers of oil and gas. In a world heavier on renewables, the curse will probably not be so relevant for producers of power; solar, wind and geothermal energy are more likely to be generated and consumed within the borders of a country than to become profitable exports and generators of huge windfall cash flows. Rather, we may see this curse surface in countries rich in the materials required to produce the components that make renewable energy possible.”
The paper discusses “seven renewable energy scenarios for the coming decades” and examines “seven mechanisms through which renewables could shape geopolitics” – which the authors associate with both opportunities and challenges. The authors also point out significant uncertainties as “[w]ith the current growth of renewable energy, we are instead dealing with the disruption of old markets and the creation of new ones, which are not known yet.” That, coupled with technological uncertainty – after all the renewables sector “involves several entirely separate types of energy sources, and energy generation, transportation and storage,” makes for big question marks that make predictions about our geopolitical future challenging.
Concludes O’Sullivan in her Bloomberg piece:
“This question of new dynamics around critical resources is just one of many examined in our new report. But none of the potential dark sides is a reason to halt or slow the momentum toward a more renewable energy future. The benefits will likely outweigh the costs. Yet, policy makers need to start thinking seriously and objectively about the geopolitical contours of a future more reliant on renewable energy, and how to prepare for it. It is coming, sooner or later.”
Now would be a good time for policy makers to put on their thinking caps. Here’s hoping that this report has made it to the top of their offices’ post-Labor Day reading list.