“Completely new dynamics”

Interviewed by Jörg-Rainer Zimmermann, 2 Mar 15
Energy researcher Karen Smith Stegen predicts that the triumph of renewables will reshape international politics to the detriment of producing countries such as Russia and Saudi Arabia, while greater interconnectedness could result in a more peaceful coexistence.

new energy: What role do renewable energies play in global geopolitics?

Karen Smith Stegen: At the moment, they play an unfortunately small role. But this will change in the future. When renewables become the dominant energy sources, they will dramatically change international power relationships. In the past, the countries that were able to reap the most benefits from a change in energy systems were the first movers. In the case of oil, it was Russia and the United States. A similar dynamic may occur with renewable energies. One can imagine that the countries that learn first how to tap their renewable energy resources could become the leaders in a renewable energy-dominant world. And, because not every world region possesses the same technological prowess, it could be that—even for decentralized power generation—regional power centers emerge. Some countries would be able to meet their domestic demand and also supply neighboring countries. Chile could be an example of this in South America. But we are talking about a timeframe of about 50 years

new energy: Could there also be countries that do not manage to develop their renewable capacity?

Karen Smith Stegen: There could also be laggards. There are many reasons this could happen. For starters, a country may not have sufficient natural resources. And, even if they do, the public and the government have to be receptive towards using the sun and wind, for example, as energy sources. Moreover, if a country has a strong conventional energy industry, then this could act as a brake on the development of renewable energy sources. For these countries, it will be difficult to develop their renewables potential to the point that they could become regional power exporters. 

new energy: In a timeframe of 50 years, who could be among the “winners” or “losers” of a renewable energy world?

Karen Smith Stegen: According to the preliminary results of a study I am conducting on this question, it appears that Saudi Arabia could be among the losers and Jordan and Tunisia could be among the winners in the Middle East. Both countries have ample natural resources as well as stakeholders who are receptive to a renewable energy buildout—and neither country has a powerful hydrocarbon industry.  In South America, Venezuela could lose and both Chile and Uruguay could come out as winners. In Europe, Russia could be one of the biggest losers, and Portugal and Sweden could be, interestingly enough, among the winners, as well as France and Germany. It will be interesting to see if these preliminary results hold as the study progresses and the variables are refined.

new energy: Could these developments lead to new conflicts? Will climate wars and climate crises emerge, as the result of climate-related catastrophes and migrations?

Karen Smith Stegen: There will be completely new political dynamics. In the past, dictators were propped up by their country’s oil wealth. For importing countries, the dependence on foreign oil has led to difficult foreign policy compromises; for example, strategic partnerships were established with countries with problematic regimes. In a renewable energy world, this should occur less often. There is an interesting study of US foreign policy in which the authors assert that, with regards to oil, the US military plays a disproportionately large role. This will change in the future: a positive effect of renewable energies is that countries will have to be interconnected, in the truest sense of the word. The exchange of renewable-sourced electricity will require countries to develop greater transmission connections. The EU is already undertaking this approach by creating an internal market that ignores national boundaries. As past examples indicate, energy cooperation fosters greater political cooperation.

new energy: Does this mean that renewable energies will lead to a more peaceful world?

Karen Smith Stegen: Political tensions will always exist. But, in general, the transition to renewable energies should lead to greater connections within regions. If electricity is just being transported from Country A to country B, then there is still the same potential for conflict and manipulation. But the dynamic between countries changes if they are interconnected.

new energy: And now on the topic of climate wars—governments and militaries in particular warn of the security risks. So far they have not appeared….

In English there is the concept of “climate stressors”. When states already have problems with governance, such as Chad, then climate stressors, in the form of agricultural problems or mass migrations, can tip such countries into the failing state category. In these situations, civil wars are more likely. There may also be border conflicts, when people flee from inhabitable areas and migrate across national borders. These types of conflicts are likely to increase.

new energy: The US military repeatedly warns of potential climate conflicts, although the US would not be directly affected. Is this perhaps just a way to justify military expenditure?

Karen Smith Stegen: One facet of concern for the US military is that the US has the potential to be a “first responder” when a catastrophe occurs somewhere, that is, the US military has the capacity to be among the first helpers.

new energy: The US military itself would like to expand its use of renewable energies…

Karen Smith Stegen: For two reasons. First, energy costs for the military are quite high, which could be minimized by using renewable energies. Second, fuel transportation in conflict regions is very risky, and tankers and supply chains are often attacked. This of course changes if photovoltaics are being used and the need for fuel deliveries lessens. It is interesting that the US Republican Party still resists acknowledging that climate change exists. They still think that climate change and renewable energies are something from the Flower-power-hippy movement. The US military, however, is less ideological. They use renewable energies, but do not say they are doing so to “save the world”, which would agitate the Republicans. Rather, the US military emphasizes the cost savings and the reduction of logistical risks that accompany renewable energies. With this approach, their use of renewable energies is taken seriously.

new energy: Will research into renewable energies—as well as technological developments—be driven forward by the military?

Karen Smith Stegen: That is difficult to say. However, I can imagine that the military is concerned by the current dependence of many of its technologies on rare earths, particularly heavy rare earths. The processing of heavy rare earths is exclusively conducted in China. The US military could be concerned about this dependence. I could imagine that they are working to find substitutes. 

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