Published on 28 January 2019


From the geopolitics of oil to the geopolitics of renewable energy

If the geopolitics of oil were far from simple, it may be even more complex for renewable energy. It is a multifactorial domain that incites much negative reaction. Between the criticality of raw materials, the technological transfer to developing countries and the implication of oil-producing countries, there is a strong case for continuing the energy transition.

Raw materials, technology transfer, oil-producing countries ... three elements at the heart of the energy transition.

The issues related to oil access and controlling the price per barrel have dictated global geopolitics in recent decades. Such issues dictated the motives behind many international negotiations and several armed conflicts. At a time when there is a compelling need for decarbonising the global energy mix, new geopolitics are emerging: renewable energies and low-carbon technologies. This may be even more complex. And, badly managed, it would slow down the ecological transition.

Such is the hypothesis of researchers at the French New Energies Institute (IFPEN) and the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS). As part of the ANR Generate project on the geopolitics of renewable energy and prospective analysis of the energy transition, the institutes published a detailed study on new energy policies and renewable energy investments (REI).

Copper at the heart of the transition

Three new forms of geopolitics have emerged. The first, and best known, is that of the international strategy related to the raw materials needed for renewable energies and batteries. "The set of decarbonisation innovations is ultimately dependent on the availability of minerals that have become strategic over the course of their expansion," write the authors. They assert that if one always takes lithium, cobalt or other rare earth elements as an example, it is nevertheless copper which has the highest rate of criticality.

"A 2 MW onshore wind turbine alone consumes almost 1.55 tons of copper for its construction and grid connection," calculates the report. "Metals that, until now, only found applications in a small number of sectors will become decisive for meeting emission reduction commitments," affirm the authors, who call on countries to work on a foresight and recycling approach.

Focus on technological innovations

The second less known form of geopolitics is patents and intellectual property. "Technological innovation and its protection are at the heart of the geopolitics of renewable energy," said IFPEN in a statement.

"In an extreme scenario, few countries would hold all the ownership rights over renewable energy technologies and their leadership in these sectors, and thus, be able to use their position to sell these technologies at a high price.  The resulting reaction becomes negative as the countries consuming these technologies will be reluctant to make ambitious commitments to reduce their emissions," says the report.

"The propensity of a country to ratify an ambitious international agreement on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions will, for example, be all the stronger as it will have significant technological assets in the sectors of low-carbon transition,” affirms the report. "In this context, negotiation efforts should not focus exclusively on GHG reduction targets, but also on new tools dealing with technology transfer and co-financing of R&D projects".

The influence of oil-producing countries

The third form of geopolitics will be linked to the strategy of oil-producing states. "The hydrocarbon producing countries have a major influence over energy transition. In the event of high uncertainty about the sustainability of climate policies, fossil fuel-producing countries will be encouraged to maintain consumer countries’ dependence by favouring relatively low prices".

"The adaptation of a number of hydrocarbon-exporting countries to the global energy transition is a key geopolitical issue," write the authors. They call on leaders to be mindful that these oil countries will play a key role in the energy transition and that it is important to support them.

Ludovic Dupin, @LudovicDupin

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