Renewable energy sources could be a game changer on the global stage—impacting everything from climate change to trans-national relations. Yet only a dearth of academic research on the topic has been produced. Now a group of researchers at Columbia and Harvard Universities, the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NIPI), and the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy, has authored a timely policy paper which looks at the expanding renewable energy market through a geopolitical lens.  

The paper, titled “The Geopolitics of Renewable Energy,” was produced as part of the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) faculty research working paper series.  One of its lead authors, Meghan O’Sullivan, is the Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs and director of the Geopolitics of Energy Project at HKS.

“It has long been evident to strategists and policymakers that energy is a significant driver of foreign affairs. For nearly a century, the intersection between energy and geopolitics has centered around fossil fuels,” the authors write. “The importance of renewables as a significantly growing portion of the global energy mix could have significant implications for geopolitics as well. This will include both opportunities and challenges.”

The authors build upon scenarios produced by various energy agencies that posit that the renewable energy market could reach 30-45% of the total energy market in 2035 or 2040 and 50-70% of the total energy market in 2050. From there, they ask the question, “What might the geopolitical landscape look like in a world where renewables are so dominant?” They articulate the seven mechanisms through which renewables could significantly impact global geopolitics in the decades to come:

  • Critical materials supply chains. As the transition to renewable energy accelerates, cartels could develop around materials critical to renewable energy technologies.
  • Technology and finance. In a world in which renewables are the dominant source of energy, capital for investment and technology may increasingly become sources of international cooperation or rivalry.
  • New resource curse. The prevalence of the resource curse (the phenomenon that resource rich countries often grow more slowly than resource poor ones) could be affected by a rise of renewable energy in at least three ways.
  • Electric grids. Renewable energy technologies may lead to greater electric interconnections between nations, more widespread distributed energy generation or both.
  • Reduced oil and gas demand. To the extent that renewable energy reduces demand for oil and gas, there could be significant geopolitical consequences.
  • Avoided climate change. Reduced greenhouse gas emissions on a large scale as a result of expanded use of renewable energy should logically reduce the risk of conflict and instability that climate change would otherwise generate.
  • Sustainable energy access. Access to modern forms of energy is one of the preconditions for achieving sustainable development.

“There are reasons to believe that at least in the long term, a global energy system dominated by renewable energy will be more stable, peaceful and just than one dominated by fossil fuels and nuclear technology,” the authors conclude. “The geopolitical path towards this end state is, however, unknown. Further developing the ideas above, as well as new ones not set forth in this paper, is the first step in helping the world anticipate the new geopolitics of renewable energy.”

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Meghan O'Sullivan

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Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs
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