Renewables could save the planet in more ways than one
Renewables offer our best weapon in the fight against climate change, but they could also come with an equally valuable ‘peace dividend’. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has published ‘A New World — The Geopolitics of the Energy Transformation’. This paper sets out the findings of a commission set up by IRENA and chaired by the former President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson.
The commission was established by IRENA to analyse ‘the geopolitical implications of the global energy transformation driven by renewables.’
These implications are far-reaching. Unlike renewable energy sources, the world’s oil, coal and gas fields tend to be concentrated in quite localised areas. Depending on the luck of the geological draw, some countries have enjoyed an abundance of these energy resources while others have had to rely on imports. This imbalance has led to, or exacerbated, many conflicts as nations fight either to gain direct control of resources or to protect their supplies.
Conversely, the sources of renewable energy are much more evenly spread around the world. No one country — or even bloc of countries — has a monopoly on sunlight or wind, and most have a sufficient quantity of one or the other to supply all the energy they require. If renewable energy is effectively harnessed around the world, it will become much more difficult for resources to be used as power levers by countries and blocs threatening to remove or limit supplies.
Not only will countries tend to become more self-sufficient in energy, they will also be able to integrate renewables with food production by powering irrigation schemes. This will in turn increase and stabilise their supply of food and thereby mitigate another potential source of conflict. This is particularly relevant in many developing countries, which have the potential to develop locally sustainable energy sources and potentially completely bypass the need to build a complex grid (just as has happened when mobile phone technology was adopted without any need to build a comprehensive landline network).
At a very fundamental level, the IRENA report notes that by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and so counteracting global warming, renewables can also help to mitigate inter-state tensions through their impact on climate change. The more the world warms, the more likely it is that populations will be displaced from their homelands by rising sea levels or as a result of sustained droughts. This process has already started, and it is clear that the world’s richer nations have a very limited willingness to rehome such environmental refugees. If climate change cannot be reversed, the enforced movement of millions of people will inevitably lead to new tensions and, potentially, wars.
Of course, the report’s authors do not foresee all the results of a switch to renewables being positive. There will be a massive readjustment to cope with in switching from fossil fuels to renewables. Some countries will struggle to adapt, and there will be a vast amount of redundant infrastructure and equipment left to deal with. Also, while sustainable energy resources are more evenly distributed than fossil fuel reserves, there are other ingredients in the mix which are not. Certain components rely on minerals that may be found only in a limited number of places, and a few countries — notably China — have built a lead in technological know-how. Some forms of renewable energy, such as hydro-electric schemes, can also create their own regional problems, as demonstrated by the fears that Egypt and Sudan have about the potential impact of Ethiopia’s Nile Dam on their own water supplies.
Notwithstanding these problems, the IRENA report still regards the impact of renewables on geopolitics as overwhelmingly positive.
Commenting on the findings, Ruth Chapman, Managing Director of innovative UK renewables firm Dulas, noted the report’s finding that ‘improving access to energy brings numerous benefits that are vital for human development and therefore helps to create the conditions necessary for geopolitical stability.’ She said, ‘Having developed and distributed solar powered vaccine refrigerators for nearly four decades, we have seen first-hand how renewable energy sources can improve life opportunities. It is easy to see how this one instance can be extrapolated into a whole range of situations where access to local electricity brings health, economic and social benefits that can all help to create greater stability. When repeated around the world, these local gains accrue into a global effect.’
The full IRENA report can be read at http://geopoliticsofrenewables.org/Report/addressing-root-causes-of-geopolitical-instability