The Geopolitics of Renewable Energy

The Geopolitics of Renewable Energy



In a working paper jointly published by the Center on Global Energy Policy, the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, the authors — including CGEP Inaugural Fellow David Sandalow -- explore geopolitical issues that could accompany the widespread deployment of renewable energy technologies. Following an overview of six renewable energy scenarios for the coming decades, the paper outlines seven mechanisms through which renewable energy technologies could shape geopolitics:

  • Critical material supply chains: As the transition to renewable energy proceeds, cartels could develop around materials critical to renewable energy technologies including rare earth elements, lithium, cobalt and indium.
  • Electric grids: Renewable energy technologies will reshape electric grids, with complex implications for relations among nations. 
  • Reduced oil and gas demand: To the extent renewable energy technologies and electric vehicles reduce oil and gas demand, they could reshape relations among oil and gas importers and exporters.  
  • New "resource curse": The “resource curse” could become less of a factor in oil and gas exporting nations and more important in countries exporting materials critical for renewable energy technologies. 
  • Avoided climate change: By reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases, renewable energy technologies can reduce the risk of conflict and instability as a result of climate change.
  • Energy access: Renewable energy technologies can help provide access to modern energy services to those who now lack it, reducing poverty and associated risks of instability and migration.  
  • Technology and finance: The ability to exploit renewable energy depends critically on access to technology and finance, giving potential advantages to countries with strong innovation cultures and access to capital. 

The paper notes the need for further research on all these topics and concludes by providing options for further analysis.