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Geopolitics of Energy

The New Geopolitics of Energy (Illustration for education only)

The New Geopolitics of Energy (Illustration for education only)

WebPublicaPress (New York) – “Proponents of clean energy hope (and sometimes promise) that in addition to mitigating climate change, the energy transition will help make tensions over energy resources a thing of the past. It is true that clean energy will transform geopolitics—just not necessarily in the ways many of its champions expect,” argue Co-Founding Dean of the Columbia Climate School Jason Bordoff and Harvard Kennedy School’s Meghan O’Sullivan in the upcoming January/February issue of Foreign Affairs.


“Talk of a smooth transition to clean energy is fanciful: there is no way that the world can avoid major upheavals as it remakes the entire energy system, which is the lifeblood of the global economy and underpins the geopolitical order,” the authors warn. “The so-called petrostates,” they write, “may enjoy feasts before they suffer famines, because dependence on the dominant suppliers of fossil fuels, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia, will most likely rise before it falls.” Meanwhile, “the poorest parts of the world will need to use vast quantities of energy—far more than in the past—to prosper even as they also face the worst consequences of climate change.”


“More consequential right now than the long-term geopolitical implications of a distant net-zero world are the sometimes counterintuitive short-term perils that will arrive in the next few decades, as the new geopolitics of clean energy combines with the old geopolitics of oil and gas. A failure to appreciate the unintended consequences of various efforts to reach net zero will not only have security and economic implications; it will also undermine the energy transition itself,” they continue.


Bordoff and O’Sullivan explain that, “innovation and cheap capital will determine who wins the clean energy revolution.” Countries with these attributes will dominate in at least four ways, by having:

  • the power to set standards for clean energy, including equipment specifications and norms of engagement
  • control of the supply chain for minerals that are critical to clean energy technology, such as wind turbines and electric vehicles
  • the ability to cheaply manufacture components for new technologies
  • the capability to produce and export low-carbon fuels, which will be critical to the transition to a net-zero world

“As greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow and as extreme weather events become more frequent and harmful, the current efforts to move beyond fossil fuels appear woefully inadequate,” conclude Bordoff and O’Sullivan. If governments do not recognize these problems and plan for the pitfalls, national security concerns may come into conflict with climate change ambitions, and “a successful transition might not take place at all.”


Jason Bordoff is Co-Founding Dean of the Columbia Climate School and Founding Director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. During the Obama administration, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Energy and Climate Change on the staff of the National Security Council. 


Meghan L. O’Sullivan is Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power. During the George W. Bush administration, she served as Special Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan.


This article is part of the forthcoming January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, which will be released on Tuesday,

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