“Go and explain to developing countries why they should continue living in poverty and not be like Sweden”, “No one has explained Greta that the modern world is complex and different and… people in Africa or in many Asian countries want to live at the same wealth level as in Sweden”. These are two of the several statements Russian president Vladimir Putin made in criticism of Greta Thunberg’s UN speech while he spoke during an energy conference last year. But why is the situation that the Russian president is referring to, so complex? And why is that the world leaders who are failing to tackle climate change are now trying to tell the world that it is not just about climate but also geopolitics? This piece tries to delve into the inevitable dilemma that is emerging in the sphere of climate change mitigation and the geopolitics that has always been the one of the topmost priorities for the nations around the globe.
The Present State
Historically, the industries and the global economy has been reliant on fossil fuels, resulting in the anthropogenic climate changes that we are witnessing today. At present, geopolitics is at the center of the struggle for mitigation of the climate change phenomenon. This has led to a variety of responses from different nations. Some are trying to postpone the responsibility, some are trying to deny, and some are trying to spearhead the fight against the problem. However, the issue of climate change is not one that can be solved by one or a subset of nations working in isolation. It remains to be seen how the results of climate change as well as the struggle for mitigation will impact the ground reality for the populations, as it is widely expected that the effects on different nations will be to different extents. Some are set to be hit harder than others, and some are going to be hit even if they have not done anything to contribute to the problem. In this background, many of the concerns about the technological manipulation of nature, environmental destruction, North-South relations, sustainable development, conflict and resource wars have returned to prominence in recent years in the increasingly intense debate about climate change. In this piece we a look at some of the major themes in the geopolitical landscape today related to climate change and climate change mitigation activities.
Russia and Saudi Arabia are two of the several examples of nations which depend on energy commodities export for most part of their revenue. They are also the best examples of nations with vastly established fossil fuel production and processing infrastructure. Accordingly, they face different geopolitical challenges than others in terms of their climate mitigation policy adoptions. Nations like Russia and Saudi Arabia, as well as Qatar, Iran, Venezuela, and UAE depend on exports of oil and gas to developing and emerging economies like China and India. However, an increasing emphasis in these developing economies for a transition towards renewable energy sources has been creating unrest in the oil, gas as well as coal export dependent nations. In case of Russia, another issue, in form of permafrost thawing has been emerging since the last few years as a big worry threatening its infrastructural facilities in Far East region as well as the Siberian region. Last year Russia witnessed several oil spills due to weakening infrastructure in its facilities. However, this issue is dwarfed due to the fact that infrastructure can be upgraded, but if the demand for oil and gas reduces in the global markets due to a renewable energy transition, then the vast infrastructures will become loss generating assets.
In Gulf countries, the narratives of collapse and chaos in a post-oil world has taken over most policy makers’ imagination. According to some predictions, over the next 50 years, these countries could be facing a twin issue of increasing strain on societies and economies due to climate change on one hand and increasing shortage of funds on the other, either due to the decreasing exports and demand, or due to simply less production due to waning stores of energy. Moreover, emergence on alternative sources like shale oil in US and oil and gas in Central Asian region can also lead to increased strain in these countries. This has led to new geopolitical conditions becoming possible for the Gulf region which has for long been dependent on a US hegemony in the region for overall security framework. A receding US interest can witness an increasing interest of other powers like China and Russia.
Moving to the developing world, economies like India, Brazil and even China have at various times expressed an unwillingness to concede mitigation of emissions of greenhouse gases and pointed towards their right to economic and industrial development, world equity and issues. This stance has attracted criticism from the developed world who see this struggle against climate change as a journey in which every nation needs to stand in unity. However, on one hand where concepts like ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibilities’ has emerged in climate action frameworks, countries like India have showed that they are ready to lead in the action for climate change mitigation by implementing policies to work towards a transition to renewable energy. This stance although is also influenced by the fact that India is forced to import most of its fossil fuel needs from other countries which exists as a big burden to its economy. By decreasing its reliance on energy imports, India can look towards following a more independent course in the geopolitical order. As seen in the collapse of Iran-US relations which led to India being forced to abandon its oil imports from Iran, a situation where India is not dependent on oil itself, stands to be a big win. Further, initiatives like the International Solar Alliance have helped India to cultivate India’s image as a responsible global actor, at par with other like the European Union who has been using climate change activism as an element of its foreign policy to retain command over the global climate change policy agenda and thus assert not only regional, but global influence.
Talking about the global powers, US and China are undoubtedly the two biggest players in the world today when it comes to geopolitics, as well as emissions. In US, about half of electricity is generated through coal power plants as the nation has abundant coal deposits. The last four years under President Trump witnessed US detaching itself from major climate change action frameworks like the Paris Agreement based on the reasoning that any policies which have a chance to curb economy growth will have a disastrous effect on the lives of American citizens as well as national security. On the other hand, China, which has for some time now been the biggest greenhouse gas emitter, has now been working towards becoming the leader in sphere of sustainable energy. Chinese president Xi Jinping at the last year’s United Nations General Assembly made the promise that China will become carbon neutral by 2060. According to scholars of the field, through this stance, China not only wants to enhance its geopolitical position as a main partner to EU for future, but also wants to take away attention from its human rights abuses, and aggressive behavior. This phenomenon needs to be understood in the light of the fact that today almost all mining, production and processing of rare earth elements, which are essential for the production of renewable energy infrastructure like solar panels, takes place in China. Thus, providing not only an upper hand to China as an economic power but also as a great geopolitical power in sustainable energy.
Not all countries however face the dilemma of effects of slowing economy in case they go for transition to renewable energy or adopt policies that mitigate emissions. The poorest of the countries stand to go bankrupt and loose relevance due to geopolitics of climate action in case the world decides to transition fast to renewable energy. These are the poor countries of Africa which have recently started establishing their oil production and now almost completely depend on it. As mentioned by Russian president Putin, these are the economies which look towards economic development based on their energy stores. They however have massive potential for renewable energy extraction too. But this potential need massive amounts of investment in infrastructure to realize, an element that these economies do not possess. Further, as the oil produced by these satisfy the needs of the developing and emerging economies, most of their buyer nations will see no benefit in trying to aid the African economies to substantially create their supplier’s renewable energy sector.
Similar is the case of the Central Asia region where the nations depend on extractive industries of oil, coal, and gas. Both climate impact as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation in this region is projected to heighten geopolitical tension. Not only are the foreign direct investments in the region low at present, but the existing investments do also not prioritize resilient and sustainable development and is related mostly in sector of non-renewable energy resource extraction. The geopolitics of this region is connected in more than one way with the issue of climate change. The region is prone to water and energy shortages. Whereas carbon rich Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan extract and use oil, gas and coal for their energy production, other nations in the region- Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which have lower GDP per capita uses clean hydro energy. Thus an inequality exist as the downstream nations are those which are more reliant on fossil fuels and the upstream nations, although not energy rich, possess ample hydroelectric potential. This inequality is estimated by the scholars to create strains in the region which can spill over in the rest of Asia.
It might seem like the fossil-fuels based energy export reliant nations are set to lose the most in the coming future as the world starts looking for ways to transition towards clean fuel and energy in the coming years. However, the oil and gas industry might not be ending anytime soon.
For instance, Nord Stream 2, a planned pipeline through the Baltic Sea, which is expected to transport natural gas over from Siberia to consumers in Europe is being looked upon as a secure and reliable as well as cleaner source of energy for the coming decades. It indeed will replace the coal powered sectors in Europe and help reducing carbon emissions, however, this is also expected to provide Russia a sort of geopolitical push that it has not witnessed in many years now in terms of its relations with Europe, especially since the conflict with Ukraine in 2014. Although, this has changed in recent times as tensions arose with Georgia and the political chaos around Alexei Navalny’s poisoning, who was being seen as a political competitor to President Putin by some in Russia. However, this is not to say that Russia has not been working towards climate change mitigation agenda. In November last year, Russian President Putin signed a decree ordering the Russian government to work towards meeting the 2015 Paris agreement to fight climate change, but stressed that any action must be balanced with the need to ensure strong economic development. This in geopolitical terms can be seen as an attempt to align Russia with the change in presidency in US, where the new president Joe Biden is supposed to be an avid supporter for climate activism and is expected to work towards making US carbon neutral with a long-term plan, in stark contrast to the previous president Donald Trump.
Another geopolitical battle is emerging in the Arctic, where several nations like the US, China and Russia are no vying for dominance. In Arctic, with melting snow, shipping is all set to witness an increase. According to some estimates, if shipping along the Arctic becomes fully accessible, Bering Sea can become an area of contention for US and Russia, as well as China, thus reducing the importance of other choke points and the nations controlling them, like Egypt and Southeast Asia. This phenomenon also exists in line with the argument that if oil ceases to be a central driver of the global economy, many regions like Gulf are set to see their long-standing relations with the western nations like US change.
Climate change related migration, which can result out of several reasons like submergence of islands, droughts due to varying rainfall patterns, stronger hurricanes or storms, or massive flooding of rivers due to higher rate of melting of glaciers that feed them with water, is also becoming a geopolitical contention that the nations are staring at today. The world has witnessed in 2015 refugee crisis in Europe, the extent of chaos, heightened populism, and nationalism, as well as lack of trust in multilateralism and established institutions that can be caused. Even though in this case, the result was not due to underlying climate change related challenges directly, similar effects due to influx of refugees and similar migration patterns can be expected from the regions of changing patterns of rainfall. This leads us to think where the current situation leaves us today for the future.
What does the Future Hold?
For many economies, initial investment cost for renewable energy systems is usually high, resulting unaffordability for many, especially in developing countries. Some others on the other hand, like Malaysia, with some of the highest level of subsidies on fossil fuels result in renewable energy market to remain economically weak and uncompetitive. Similarly, for Australia’s economy, which has for long been reliant on fossil fuel industries to ensure the economic prosperity across the country, it is now becoming an issue of contention which it will need to resolve in order to ensure not its own, but also its neighborhood’s sustainability lying in the Indo-Pacific region as low lying islands which are at the risk of submergence due to climate change related effects.
In today’s world, not only can conflicts related to renewable energy infrastructure lead to stress as seen in case of Central Asian region, but also strain over issues like transfer of technology between developed and developing countries can turn into bigger forms of geopolitical conflicts. It also remains to be seen if the resources like rare-earth metals, which are needed for expansion of cleaner energy platforms will be available according to need of a nation or be made available to the highest buyer and turned into a business. The global order as it stands today between the oil producers and the oil consumers is also set to change as the climate change mitigation policies are adopted resulting from increasingly severe negative effects emerging from the anthropogenic climate change.