Geopolitical resource competition: Energy transition success
Climate change has become humanity’s biggest problem in the past decade. The energy transition has garnered global attention to address this challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic briefly halted momentum. Despite this setback, we defeated the pandemic and are ready for a bigger challenge. According to Google Trends, energy transition interest has increased over the past year. In November 2022, during the UNFCCC’s COP27, it reached 100 popularity.
The energy transition is searched more in developing countries and less in affluent ones. The energy transition has typically involved switching from wood/biomass to coal, oil, gas, and nuclear power. Commercial incentives drove these earlier transitions, which increased energy access and economic growth.
The current energy transition, on the other hand, is driven by the urgent need to meet climate targets, address environmental issues, and decarbonize the global energy system. Renewables have dominated global power mix capacity additions, according to IRENA. New renewable capacity comprised 82% of global installed capacity in 2020, up from 73% in 2019.
Energy Transition Environmental Issues
The energy transition requires solar and wind power. To use renewable energy, solar panels, windmills, and batteries must be built. These technologies require extensive mining of non-renewable materials, surpassing coal and other mineral mining operations. Sustainability requires significant environmental excavation. Recognizing that mining can harm local ecosystems and populations is crucial. The extent and location of required mining activities and their effects on climate security and geopolitics are crucial.
Power dynamics change when energy sources change. Energy-transforming nations lead the global order economically and politically. Consider the UK’s coal dominance or how oil made the US a superpower. Energy resources directly affect geopolitical power dynamics. We must implement human history’s biggest energy transition while racing the climate clock. Critical materials power a new power generation that decarbonizes and digitizes.
How are these materials currently? Demand is starting to grow exponentially. From 2010 to 2020, global lithium production increased by nearly 300 percent. Isn’t this encouraging? It indicates decarbonization. Our “clean” future requires larger materials. The International Energy Agency (IEA) found that an electric car requires six times more mineral resources than a traditional car at current innovation levels. The World Bank says this is just the start. By 2050, graphite and cobalt production will rise 500% to meet clean energy technology demand.
Geopolitical Changes: Energy Transition’s Resource Race
Let’s turn to supply. Mining and processing companies and future deposits to meet rising demand reveal how the energy transition will change geopolitics. Lithium extraction is dominated by Chile and Australia, cobalt by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, nickel by Indonesia and the Philippines, and rare earth minerals by China. China also dominates mineral processing. The energy transition is reshaping the global power balance.
China’s Belt and Road initiative seeks more mineral resources. However, the US and EU are considering reshoring critical mining and processing activities and redirecting their international partnerships to ensure better mineral supplies. Japan is exploring oceanic marine reserves for strategic accounts. Ukraine is rich in minerals, which may explain Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine was one of two countries that partnered with the EU to diversify and develop supply chains for critical raw materials to support the EU’s decarbonization efforts and foster closer political and economic integration with Ukraine. The invasion occurred eight months after the partnership. Mineral resources cannot be ignored when analyzing events. Major players are targeting mineral-rich countries to compete for critical raw materials.
African, Latin American, Central Asian, and Indo-Pacific countries dominate this list. The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) has mapped the distribution and deposit sizes of decarbonization materials. According to corruption indices, many of these deposits are in corrupt countries.
Climate Vulnerability-Resource Exploitation Nexus
Another map from the Notre Dame Institute shows that climate-vulnerable countries are rich in natural resources. The fragile countries in the IISD map also contain many vital ecosystems that must be protected and restored to stabilize the global climate, reboot the hydrological cycle, and protect biodiversity. These nations have abundant mineral resources. Mining, deforestation, and other activities would damage these ecosystems. This begs the question: Does fighting climate change endanger the environment and humanity? Over the past two centuries, fossil fuel exploitation and its unintended consequences have blindsided modern economies.
The key is to consider unintended consequences before switching to alternative energy sources, technologies, and materials. Our future and humanity are at stake. We must decarbonize. No doubt. We must also imagine a post-decarbonization future. Peace requires a climate-safe future and peace between humans and the environment. We must change international politics, business, and economics to achieve peace.
Redefining Innovation: Sustainable Energy Transition
Science can determine where mining is environmentally safe. We should create no-mining zones in unsafe areas. Mining business models can include socioeconomic and ecological regeneration.
Decarbonization is necessary for human survival in the global public good regime, so the materials needed should be managed globally. Conflict and environmental collapse are alternatives. While we design this regime, resource-competing countries should receive competent and coherent support to address geopolitical competition and climate disruptions. The global energy transition should prioritize conflict resolution, corruption, and context-specific resilience.
Switching energy systems is insufficient. We should cut energy and material use. Public and private investments in circular economic models prioritizing recyclability and material substitution start this. Supply chain ecological assessments should also consider greenhouse gas emissions, water, soil, biodiversity, and material and energy footprints.
Innovation requires rethinking. Our era’s innovation involves limiting economic activity to the planet. Even innovative ideas that deviate from this goal are business as usual. Thus, a successful energy transition requires a regime that covers social, political, economic, and, most importantly, environmental security.