Renewables, More Than Pretty Words

Ecological, environmentally-friendly, and green… these are just some of the pretty words we use to paint a positive image out of renewable energy. Doing so is not wrong; after all, if we want to combat the adverse effects of fossil fuel use, framing renewables as something positive will only make us prefer it over other energy sources. However, in using this frame we ignore a harsher use for renewables: its geopolitics.

When we mix energy, security, and international relations, the conversation is most likely to center around oil, its access, and the competition surrounding it. Whoever owns and has the most access to oil, has the most power in the international stage, controlling the very foundation of our fossil-fuel-obsessed society. Scholars only started adding renewable energy into the mix within the past two decades.[1] Even then, and especially after the surge in oil supply in the US post-2008,[2] the international energy security discourse has mainly centered around oil – crucial to the global political dynamics that shaped the world during the 1970s oil shock for instance.

If we change our perspective to include renewable energy, what might seem surprising is the fact that the US is not the leading force in renewable energy development — China is. According to reports, China spends three times as much money on renewable energy investment as the US.[3] As the top investor in this type of technology, China has been called the “world’s clean energy powerhouse”.[4] In the international scene, the pretty words behind their energy investment are improving China’s image, seducing and attracting the attention of the international community, which only increases the Asian giant’s influence and consequently its geopolitical power.

We have to nuance nonetheless. China is not as “clean” as it claims to be. In fact, it will only reach a 20% share of renewable energy consumption by 2030.[5] Is it only developing eco-friendly energy technology to increase its image?

To go even further, why should we care about renewable energy in geopolitics in the first place? Is its use not negligible in the grand scheme of things (around 12.5% of the total global energy consumption)?[6]

One word, prevention. Beyond the public image, studies have found that the rapid development of renewable energies will result in an “unstoppable” shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.[7] As a consequence, the world economy, currently based on fossil fuels, is likely to shift to renewable energy as well. Right now, whoever controls oil is king. In the future, whoever will control renewable energy, or have an advantage over it, will rule.[8] China’s strategy might very well be taking this prospect into account. Hence, investment into renewables might prevent the dominance of another power like the US.

Not only is the investment in renewable energy a great way to greenwash a country’s image and increase its influence, but in the future, having developed renewable energy infrastructure and research might create a new kind of world hegemony. China, in the process of doing just that, might be better suited than other world powers to be the most powerful actor in international relations.

Victor Pellicero Calvo

[1] O’Sullivan, Meghan, Indra Overland, and David Sandalow. “The Geopolitics of Renewable Energy.” SSRN Electronic Journal, June 2017. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2998305.

[2] Rapier, Robert. “How The Shale Boom Turned The World Upside Down.” Forbes. April 21, 2017.

[3] Huang, and Echo Huang. “For Every $1 the US Put into Adding Renewable Energy Last Year, China Put in $3.” Quartz. April 10, 2018.

[4] Mullich, Joe. “China Becomes “Clean Energy Powerhouse”.” The Wall Street Journal. Accessed 2011.

[5] Pope, Chris G. “China Wants to Dominate the World’s Green Energy Markets – Here’s Why.” The Conversation. March 28, 2019.

[6] “U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis.” How Much of World Energy Consumption and Production Is from Renewable Energy? – FAQ – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). October 3, 2018.

[7] Merchant, Emma Foehringer. “Energy Transition to Reach ‘Point of No Return’ by 2035.” Energy Transition to Reach ‘Point of No Return’ by 2035 | Greentech Media. October 22, 2018.

[8] Pope, Chris G. “China Wants to Dominate the World’s Green Energy Markets – Here’s Why.” The Conversation. March 28, 2019.


Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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