Energy Transition: The Unforeseen Security Risks of Decarbonization

Everyone understands that a future free from the effects of climate change is necessary for peace. Another widely held notion is that future energy may come from renewable energy sources.

Everyone understands that a future free from the effects of climate change is necessary for peace. Another widely held notion is that future energy may come from renewable energy sources. This notion must be more precise. The materials we need to decarbonize are simultaneously lethal and attractive. Generally speaking, when we talk about a decarbonized future, we mean the possibility of separating economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions. That’s what we call “green growth.” Usually, we don’t think about how we will get there if we can’t recover economic expansion with massive resource extraction. Of course, to utilize renewable energy sources like the sun and wind, we must build technologies like solar panels, windmills, turbines and batteries. 

In other words, our ticket to green growth is fully exploring the environment, as we must extract vast amounts of non-renewable resources to make things. As we already know, mining can hurt residents and ecosystems. But I want to talk about the ramifications for geopolitics and international security and where and how much digging we will need to do. History shows that when the primary energy source changes, so do the power dynamics. Countries that can control energy for their gain have the potential to become dominant in both politics and the economy, as well as to occupy a central role in the global economy.

Think about the UK and coal or how oil impacted the US’s and some Arab countries’ ascent to become a global superpower. This suggests that having access to and using energy directly results in the ability to impact geopolitical power relations. We also have to deal with the issue of implementing the most significant energy shift in human history as the climate clock is running out. A new generation of leaders is trying to take the lead. All the necessary components needed for decarbonization and digitalization are crucial to it. So what is happening to them?

On the demand side, we are at the beginning of an exponential demand curve. Global production of this crucial battery component increased by more than 300 per cent between 2010 and 2020, using lithium as a stand-in. It signals that decarbonization is starting. The bad news is that material consumption will surpass historical levels in our “clean” future. The International Energy Agency estimates that at the current rate of development, an electric car will require six times as much mineral input as a conventional car. This rests on a highly elementary measurement.

The Resource Race and Fragile States:

The World Bank predicts that by 2050, the demand for clean energy technology will propel a 500% increase in global mineral production, including cobalt and graphite. Now, let’s look at the supply side. Several exciting things are happening there. We can accurately forecast how the transition will change geopolitics by examining who currently mines and processes minerals and where resources are located to meet future demand. As a result, China usually controls the processing of a commodity like lithium, whereas Australia and Chile usually control extraction. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the leader in cobalt extraction, whereas China is the leader in cobalt processing.

Even though Indonesia and the Philippines dominate nickel extraction, China typically leads in nickel processing. Furthermore, China is in charge of processing and extracting rare earth elements. China has controlled the geoeconomic arena for the last 20 years by combining the supply chains for rare earth elements at every stage, from extraction to export and processing.  While we occasionally hold China accountable for not rapidly moving forward with its internal energy transition, the truth is that China knew long ago how important it would be to other countries’ transitions. For instance, 100% of China’s rare earth supplies the European Union needs.

This presents China with a rare chance to restructure the global power structure. Some argue, however, that this is a positive thing because the worldwide power structure still has to be changed. This applies to the US, China, and all other significant actors: we need to ensure that the redesign process does not compromise free societies and human rights. Moreover, it keeps supply lines from turning into weapons in the case of a world war or, more importantly, a complete collapse of the climate. Unfortunately, there are already signs that this is happening. China is trying to gain access to additional mineral resources through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Both the United States and Europe are considering reshoring significant mining and processing employment and changing some of their foreign connections to provide easier access to additional natural resources. Japan is also considering using some of its oceanic marine reserves to establish strategic reserves.

Still, Ukraine is a country rich in minerals. It is also one of just two nations partnered with the EU to create supply chains for essential raw commodities and diversify their economies. The cooperation aimed to strengthen the EU’s political and economic relations with Ukraine while aiding in its decarbonization efforts. Eight months after the relationship was established, there was an invasion. Natural resources are not the only thing that led to the war. But they can’t be ignored when looking at the instances. A new race for resources is about to begin, with significant corporations fighting for access to nations with plentiful mineral reserves to gain a competitive edge in the supply of vital raw materials. Nonetheless, some of these countries are primarily in the Indo-Pacific, Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

According to economists, This is great news since many of these countries, or at least a significant portion of them, need significant financial resources to accelerate their growth and climate adaptation strategies. But still. Furthermore, the risk profiles of many of these countries overlap. Many of the deposits were located in countries with relatively high corruption indexes. Many resources are found in countries that are either conflict-affected, like Myanmar and the Central African Republic, or fragile, like Sri Lanka. Nations with abundant natural resources are also at risk from climate change.

Finally, one more thing. Are you referring to those enormous ecosystems that we need to protect and restore to sustain the status quo of the global climate? Preserving biodiversity and resuming the hydrological cycle? Any action that modifies or destroys these ecosystems, such as mining or deforestation, undermines planetary security not just international security.

Earth safety. In essence, it is a perfect storm waiting to happen. The environment is being stolen, and institutional and socioeconomic fragility, corruption, and climate disruptions are creating conditions for a race to obtain the minerals needed for decarbonization. These issues will only improve if we manage the crazed race for resources. They’ll all help each other out.

In addition, I would like to clarify this. The countries at the epicentre of the competition for resources may suffer the most in terms of their ability to develop, adapt to climate change, and curb violence. But their story is hardly an isolated one. Distance is separate from their problems. Our most prominent blind spot in this scenario is that we’re headed toward a decarbonization trajectory that could jeopardize ecological integrity and raise the risk of conflict and insecurity, with potentially disastrous global implications.

The key lesson here is that we must consider any unintended consequences before we can afford to adopt new materials, technologies, and energy sources. There is too much in jeopardy. We are aware that they are related to our future. They do, however, also address our humanity. Additionally, they relate to our nature, or rather, the type we have selected for ourselves. Emissions reduction is the way to go. Not a single inquiry is allowed about this. However, the road ahead also necessitates planning for a post-decarbonization future as soon as feasible.

The Need for a Global Response

Future safety from climate change is a prerequisite for peace. However, a future free from climate change is only achievable with peace. To promote peace, we must change the current state of affairs in world politics, business, and economics. So, where should we start? First comes science. Science can accurately determine which places are safe for mining and which are not from an ecological perspective. We have to establish protected regions where mining licenses are prohibited and act as though these minerals never existed in areas where mining is dangerous. We can include ecological and socioeconomic regeneration in mining regions in commercial strategies. Second, a global public welfare framework. Suppose the goal is to decarbonize without compromising human life. In that case, the resources required for this process should be cooperatively managed within a global public goods framework. The alternatives are conflict and planetary collapse. Thus, as we iron out the details of this regime, the nations at the centre of the resource race should get adequate, informed, and persuasive assistance to face the common issues of geopolitical competitiveness and climatic disruptions.

Stated differently, financing conflict resolution, the fight against corruption, and context-specific resilience should be given top importance during our global energy transition. Third, we are changing the way we think about business and economics. We are unable to alter our energy structure. Instead, we need to use less energy and resources overall. Making significant public and private investments in circular economic models that support material substitution and recyclability is the first step toward achieving this goal. Although this is an essential first step, more is needed.

Thus, we also need to develop ecological assessments for supply chains that account for the simultaneous impacts of water, soil, biodiversity, material, and energy footprints in addition to greenhouse gas emissions. On this thorough basis, we can only fully understand the adjustments that must be made to supply and distribution networks and, by extension, the evolution of globalization. Fourth place goes to innovation. All of this will only be feasible if we start shifting the way we think about innovation. Restoring economic activity within the planet’s boundaries is the goal of modern innovation. Anything less than that is just business as usual; it’s not innovation, not even the newest, flashiest items. Right now, we know two things. Priority should be given to solving the fundamental issues of global economic redistribution. Furthermore, a geopolitical de-escalation is necessary for decarbonization and regeneration. That’s what we’ve transformed into an ecological diplomacy concept.

Global power elites are putting much pressure on Indonesia to adjust its foreign policy to fit this paradigm. Ecological integrity is the foundation of all security, if there is one thing we can be sure of. It is, therefore, the single thing that unites us and that we can all attempt to repair together.

Claudia Syarifah
Claudia Syarifah
Claudia Syarifah, One of the Winner of Many Languages, One World 2015. Currently serving as a Lecturer of International Relations at Wahid Hasyim University in Semarang. Teaching International Humanitarian Law, International Politics, Negotiation and Conflict Resolutions, and Foreign Policy Analysis.