Carbon Is Making Us Dependent on Dictators...
...but clean energy alone won’t change that.
In the wake of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, climate advocates have offered a familiar solution to conflict and energy dependence: get off fossil fuels.
“We know the way out of this crisis: Ramp up the infrastructure for renewables, power homes with wind and solar, electrify our transportation systems,” wrote Naomi Klein, a correspondent at The Intercept. “Russia’s outrages in Ukraine should remind us that the corrupting influence of oil and gas lies at the root of virtually every force that is destabilizing our planet.”
“The way we are not dependent on foreign oil is not to use it,” said Illinois Democratic Representative Sean Casten.
“After Hitler invaded the Sudetenland, America turned its industrial prowess to building tanks, bombers and destroyers,” writes Bill McKibben. “Now, we must respond with renewables.”
There is validity to these arguments. The enduring use of fossil fuels has left democratic nations exposed to dangerous relationships with autocratic states like Saudi Arabia and Russia. Oil and natural gas are Russia’s two primary exports, followed by other fossil energy-derived commodities like coal briquettes, nitrogen fertilizers, and pig iron. Dependence on Russian fossil fuels does give needed urgency to the pre-existing call to transition towards low-carbon sources of energy.
But promoting clean energy is an insufficient response to the Russian attack on Ukraine, and only a partial solution to broader energy security and geopolitical concerns. Even in a deeply decarbonized future energy import dependence, resource imbalances, and the whims of authoritarian strongmen are unlikely to phase out alongside fossil fuels.
Climate advocates are certainly not claiming that decarbonization will eliminate all of the world’s evils, or that a transition away from fossil fuels can occur overnight. But it is worth questioning whether even a revolutionary shift in the energy technologies that human societies utilize will really change the nature of international conflict or foreign relations disputes. We should consider the likelihood that a clean energy-powered world might be only marginally less war-torn.
Even if global governments follow through on the climate pledges they highlighted at the Glasgow climate conference late last year, those same promises imply that many countries—particularly growing economies like China, India, and Nigeria but also wealthy countries like Japan and South Korea—will continue to use fossil fuels for decades, particularly in harder-to-decarbonize sectors like freight or heavy industry. Even as fossil fuel demand declines, petrostates will continue to accumulate wealth and wield power due to their command of remaining fossil markets. Petrostates can fund large militaries and act aggressively because they control a valuable mineral product that is still relatively in global high demand. Such dynamics will persist both in a zero-carbon global economy, and throughout the long path toward such a future.
And once we replace fossil-fueled technologies around the world, we are likely to face new and different resource insecurities and geopolitical power imbalances. The scale and speed of the clean energy transition and the unique mineral needs of technologies like wind turbine drives, electric vehicle batteries, and hydrogen electrolyzers are simply reshuffling which minerals are important to energy systems and to modern industrial society.
Already, we are seeing tension and conflict over the material building blocks of a low-carbon economy. In Myanmar, which hosts a significant fraction of the world’s actively mined rare earth element ore deposits, the rare earth metals trade may be supporting the military junta’s violent war against opposition rebel militias. The brutal M23 civil conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo was exacerbated by the M23 rebel group’s smuggling of valuable minerals like copper, diamond, and gold. And China, the world’s leading supplier of processed rare earth metals used in electric vehicles and wind turbines, has blocked exports of this valuable product in the past to put political pressure on neighboring Japan.
China also dominates the global market for solar panels, with many manufacturing chains located in Xinjiang and linked to forced labor programs that coerce Uyghur Muslims into abusive factory work. Painstaking investigative research has uncovered Uyghur forced labor across numerous Chinese supply chains, not just in Xinjiang but throughout China, with workers subjected to discriminatory treatment, dangerous work conditions, and indoctrination in industries ranging from battery production to minerals to pharmaceuticals.
Thus, from polysilicon from China, lithium from Argentina, nickel from Russia, to cobalt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, our clean-energy future will feature plenty of “extractivism” and associated risks of local, regional, and international tension.
A more comprehensive posture towards future energy security would take this consideration seriously. Policymakers should absolutely accelerate innovation and deployment of low-carbon energy alternatives. But they should do so in a way that maximizes the diversity of resource supply and aligns with strong labor, environmental, and human rights standards. In the short run, that will mean displacing Russian oil and gas production with production in Europe, Africa, the United States, and elsewhere. In the long run, it will mean building more globally distributed supply chains for the metals, minerals, and fuels that will drive a low-carbon energy economy.
Protecting the clean energy transition from unexpected shocks may also entail diversifying the set of technologies that produce useful energy. A choice to build an energy system using solar, wind, and hydrogen energy alone introduces more vulnerabilities to unexpected disruptions than an energy system that includes solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal, hydrogen, ammonia, hydroelectricity, waste-to-bioenergy, and more.
Technological innovation is core to all of these goals, from expanding clean energy supply chains more rapidly to reducing the material requirements of our low-carbon economy. But we should avoid indulging in wishful thinking in our hopes of what a clean energy planet would look like. A future in which we’ve transitioned from coal, oil, and natural gas to silicon, lithium, and uranium could indeed be a safer world. But it will require strategic planning and continued vigilance in the face of international conflict, not utopian clean energy determinism.
Alex Trembath is deputy director of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research center in Berkeley, California.
Seaver Wang is Co-Director of the Climate and Energy program at the Breakthrough Institute.