Emerging renewable energy geopolitical frameworks are defined by relations to fossil fuel geopolitics. Novel frameworks could divorce the energy economy from its association with international conflict, financial crises, and political instability.
Geopolitics, or the study of the influence of geographic factors on international relations, is by definition concerned with the distribution of natural resources across regions, countries, and territories. Since the Industrial Revolution, the study of energy geopolitics has been dominated by the relations between energy-rich and energy-poor countries, “energy” in this context being defined as access to oil and gas. These energy fault lines have shaped the modern world, contributing to wars, financial crises, and massive human migration.
While these renewable power dynamics are largely pre-emergent, critical geopolitical theory holds that frameworks themselves influence and reinforce the shape of the relationships to come, changing how individuals, governments, and institutions approach international renewable energy policy. In a sense, these frameworks have the power to “speak into existence” the world they describe. For this reason, it is of paramount importance to analyze early frameworks of renewable energy geopolitics.
Popular discourse frames the oil and gas-dependent world of the last 150 years as a binary one: there are the producers (the Middle East, Russia) and the consumers (Europe, East Asia), with a few regions falling in the middle (U.S., Brazil). Oil and gas are perceived as finite resources and energy consumption a zero-sum game.
Energy-based international relationships are viewed as both a source of global stability (“pipeline diplomacy”) and a source of conflict. Exporting countries try to keep energy prices high, while importing countries try to secure reliable energy sources at low costs. Importing countries take action to ensure free and open sea lanes and punish countries that interfere with the global order. Producers operate on a large-scale, centralized basis, with the overarching goal of increasing annual production each year. Due to economies of scale, oil and natural gas can be cheaply stored and transported. The capital intensity and technological sophistication needed for large extraction projects means that the upstream industry is dominated by a handful of private corporations and state-owned companies.
The transition from fossil-fuel reliance to renewable reliance is framed alternately as a rupture and a gradual transition. There is a clear assumption of difference between “fossil fuel geopolitics” (status quo world) and “renewable geopolitics” (altered world) that is predicated on dramatically increased renewable resource reliance rather than a prolonged transition period during which both sources are used.
Indeed, comparatively little analysis focuses on “mixed use” renewable and fossil fuel geopolitics. Two geopolitical frameworks emerge for this “altered world”: 1) renewable geopolitics as a transposition of fossil-fuel-era behaviors, dynamics, and hierarchies; or 2) renewable geopolitics as a shift away from or in contrast to fossil-fuel geopolitics. Both frameworks of renewable geopolitics are defined by their relation to historical oil and gas geopolitics.
Framework 1: Transposition of Fossil Fuel Geopolitics
Discussions surrounding the future global energy ecosystem map extant geopolitical structures of oil and gas onto emerging renewable ones. This is visible in the discursive preoccupation with competition, centering on: 1) the competition for rare earth minerals, and 2) the competition for technological know-how.
The discourse on rare earth mineral geopolitics is similar to that of oil and gas, with experts dubbing it a “race” that may engender “cartelization,” resulting in “winners and losers.” Even describing the market for rare earth minerals as a “competition” is charged: although free, open markets rely on competition to generate the best products at the lowest prices, popular discourse does not typify all markets as “competitions” (as in, “the competition for Nalgene bottles” or “the race for pea coats”).
While it is possible that bottlenecks will emerge around rare earth minerals, this is by no means a foregone conclusion. As the Rocky Mountain Institute’s chief scientist Amory Lovins writes, “Rare earths do merit measured expert attention, as with any special ingredient in important processes and products—cobalt or gallium, indium or phosphorus. But rare earths are very unlikely to shift the world’s strategic balance or create resource crises.”
Characterizing the rare earths market as a “competition” simply echoes fossil fuel geopolitical language, which can serve to justify pre-emptive aggressive rhetoric over a seemingly inevitable rare earth minerals conflict. Portraying the “competition” for technological know-how as such (in contrast to presenting it as a “market”) also intensifies the rhetoric in a manner that preempts future rivalries.
Such framing is also reductive: it implies a straightforward winner and loser, ignoring complexities of global trade and the international order. This framing also erases distinctions between governing bodies and citizens: by virtue of geography, Russia is a “winner” of the global energy “race,” but with a per capita GDP of $27,000, Russian citizens themselves are unlikely to feel like winners.
The expectation that the new resource curse will befall countries rich in rare earth minerals or renewable resource potential is another transposition of fossil fuel geopolitics. While it is likely that the renewable energy transition will benefit some countries more than others, it should not be taken for granted that access to these resources will result in the same “paradox of plenty” as fossil fuel resources. According to Indra Overland of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, this comparison falls short in that it discredits the learning curve around resource management. It also fails to consider how renewable energy generation may involve longer-term contracts, greater employment, and more stable revenues than do fossil fuels.
Framework 2: Repudiation of Fossil Fuel Geopolitics
Transposing a petroleum framework implies that the renewable energy-reliant world is as driven by supply-side dynamics as the fossil-fueled world. A contrasting framework challenges this assumption, arguing that renewable energy generation is the antithesis of fossil fuel extraction and production: it is abundant where fossil fuels are finite, distributed where fossil fuel production is centralized, and necessitates proximity where fossil fuel markets allow for far-flung distribution.
This framework, though less overtly geopolitical, still defines renewable energy geopolitics in relation to fossil fuel geopolitics. Definition through negation confines renewable energy geopolitics rhetoric to a like/unlike dichotomy that ensures the continuation of fossil fuel geopolitics, in the same way that categorizing an economy as “booming” limits the discussion to a boom/bust polarity and reduces potential for alternate characterizations and models.
While most analyses either transpose (framework 1) or contrast (framework 2) renewable energy with fossil fuel geopolitics, there are occasional comparisons to alternate modes of production. In “The Geopolitics of Renewable Energy,” O’Sullivan et al. compare a highly decentralized renewable energy ecosystem to farming. Indra Overland and others posit that the renewable energy industry will operate more like mobile telephony, with its emphasis on technology and intellectual property rights.
Daniel Schloten of the University of Delft writes, “The special preoccupation of energy geopolitics with oil and natural gas can be attributed to the specific geographic and technical characteristics of oil and gas systems that have shaped the particular (politicized) nature of contemporary interstate energy relations.” This analysis leaves room for the possibility that the renewable energy-reliant world may not only have its own geopolitics, but be less “geopolitical” as a whole. By creating renewable energy frameworks outside the similar/dissimilar fossil fuel polarity (e.g. presenting renewable geopolitical frameworks as similar or different than farming, or healthcare, or technology), the discourse could create space for alternate realities.
Perhaps energy could be unbundled from international conflict and financial crises, and the global renewable energy market could function more like a market than a “race.” Instead, transposing fossil fuel era dynamics onto emerging frameworks of renewable geopolitics will shrink this space and ensure the current resource-based geopolitical framework endures even as the energy landscape transforms.
Corissa Steiner is a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, focusing on energy and the environment. She works as a research assistant at the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy.