Energy security has always been a key issue in foreign policy. Since the discovery of fossil fuels and their dissemination as energy sources, energy security has been achieved by the ownership of large reserves of fossil fuels or by alliances with countries that possessed them. The world is experiencing a transition in the energy arena, however. Different actors have emerged as relevant players in oil and gas production; new technology has allowed other energy sources to be exploited and are becoming more and more cost-competitive; and overlapping issues have been added to the picture. Maintaining security of energy supply has become much more complex.
The world is still highly dependent on fossil fuels: they provided 81.4% of global Total Primary Energy Supply in 2013 (IEA, 2015). Large oil producers, whose reserves are easily reached and thus produce at a lower price, still have comparative advantage in the energy market. But decades of high oil prices resulting, mostly, from controls by Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), have turned the exploitation of unconventional oil sources into a cost-efficient business. More producers have joined the oil market; the US shale production, due to its scale, has decisively changed market dynamics. Global oil prices are now a lot lower than they used to be – in the long run, low prices could harm the production of the more expensive unconventional oil, but it is still too early to know it. But the key feature is that the fragmentation of oil production is rebalancing power: owning oil reserves is no longer a guarantee of revenues and allies as it used to be.
Social and environmental impacts of energy are also catalyzers of change. Pollution records in large cities have increased demand for cleaner electricity and fuel. Currently, there is a very competitive race in renewable energy technology, both in generation and storage: it is in fact one of the areas in which innovation gains have been more prominent globally. By investing in generating energy from sources available locally – solar; wind; hydro; geothermal – and considering that there is already a competitive market for renewable energy generation technology, energy dependency would be reduced, especially if a country does not possess fossil fuel reserves. However, because storage is still an issue, renewables still need backup systems, which, ironically, are usually provided by fossil fuels. Therefore, although renewables do already influence the geopolitics of energy, they are, not yet, game changers.
But they might become, if climate policies become more stringent. At COP 21, in Paris 2015, UNFCCC members have agreed to a limit of 1.5ºC in long-term average global temperature increase. However, their combined Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) – in which each country specify which climate change mitigation and adaptation measures will be undertaken – do not guarantee it: even if all measures detailed are implemented, average global temperature would rise by 2.7ºC (UNFCCC, 2016; Climate Action Tracker, 2015). If countries become more serious about climate change, around 80% of unused fossil fuels need to remain on ground (McGlade & Ekins, 2015). In this scenario, energy systems will need to become much more efficient and to rely a lot more on renewables. Energy security, then, will mean more than security of supply: sustainability will be added to the equation.
Although this is currently still only a scenario – it will hardly become true if carbon pricing not is established and at a level that truly internalizes the impact of fossil fuels on climate – it will mean a major shift in the geopolitics of energy. Given that access to energy will still be crucial to any economy, mastering renewable energy technology, and not possessing fossil fuel, would become a strategic asset in foreign policy. Alliances might be built around their development. This would add to the 4th Industrial Revolution that is already in place: global power is more and more detached from to the ownership of resources and attached to innovation.
Energy security has been, and will continue to be, related to power. But power is not an absolute concept; its definition will always depend on the circumstances. In this beginning of the 21st Century, the major shift towards the constitution of a global knowledge society will continue and accelerate. Power will become even more embedded with knowledge. This means that not only the more a country invests in strategic knowledge the more powerful it will be but also that any hierarchy between countries will be very fluid, able to change very rapidly depending on changes in technology. Developing renewable energy technology and increasing energy efficiency, thus, should not only be considered due to their global environmental impacts but also due to their impact in a country’s long-term power assets.
Climate Action Tracker (2015): 2.7ºC is not enough – we can get lower. Available at <http://climateactiontracker.org/assets/publications/briefing_papers/CAT_Temp_Update_COP21.pdf>, access 29 Aug 2016.
International Energy Agency IEA (2015): Key World Energy Statistics. Available at <https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/KeyWorld_Statistics_2015.pdf>, access 29 Aug 2016.
McGlade, Christophe and Ekins, Paul (2015): ‘The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2ºC’. Nature, v. 517, p. 187-202.
UNFCCC (2016): Aggregate effect of the intended nationally determined contributions: an update. Available at <http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2016/cop22/eng/02.pdf>, access 29 Aug 2016.
On our column published in 19 Aug 2016, where it reads “[…] the Trust and 07 children won the case against the Oregon Department of Ecology […]” it should read “[…] the Trust and 07 children won the case against the Washington Department of Ecology […]”. We thank Curtis Morrison, from Our Children Trust, for the correction.
Larissa Basso is a PhD Candidate and member of the International System at the Anthropocene and Climate Change Research Network at the Institute of International Relations of University of Brasília, as well as a Visiting Scholar at University of California San Diego, School of Global Policy and Strategy. Contact: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Editoria Mundorama. "The new geopolitics of energy by Larissa Basso". Mundorama - Revista de Divulgação Científica em Relações Internacionais, [acessado em 18/10/2016]. Disponível em: <http://www.mundorama.net/2016/10/18/the-new-geopolitics-of-energy-by-larissa-basso/>.