Access to natural resources is strongly linked to geopolitical power, particularly when it comes to energy. As such, the energy transition, which inherently alters demand for raw materials will in turn heavily impact the global geopolitical balance. Dubbed as “science of the State by Rudolph Kjellen in 1899, geopolitics “studies the way politics or ideologies can be explained by means of geographic variables, such as location, size, population, resources or technological development” (Leigh, 2014)1.
Oil: a source of dispute
Unsurprisingly, when it comes to defining geopolitics of energy, oil is the most debated case. Since the First World War, the decision of the then First Lord of Admiralty Winston Churchill to change the fuel source of the Royal Navy warships from coal to oil, in order to make the fleet faster than its German counterpart, marked the start of a new era. The shift from secure coal supplies mined in Wales (UK) to uncertain oil supplies from what was then Persia, led to the Middle East becoming an important epicenter of global geopolitics – not to mention, oil becoming a key issue for national security (Campos and Fernandes, 2017)2.
In the second half of the 20th century, control of oil played a central role in numerous disputes: the Biafra War (1967–1970), the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), the Gulf War (1990–1991), the Iraq War (2003–2011) or the conflict in the Niger Delta (ongoing since 2004). During these decades, tensions between oil-producing and oil-consuming countries increased, culminating in the oil crises of 1973 and 1979. As a result of these events, in 1980 the price of oil stabilised at $32 per barrel, a level ten times higher than before 1973.
Geopolitical tensions linked to oil continued in the following decades, as shown by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Over just a few months it led to the oil price doubling, triggering for the American economic recession of the early 1990s. Since then, the ballet of oil prices has never stopped. The price of oil “rose from $21 a barrel at the beginning of 2002 in the run-up to the Iraq war, to $29 at the start of hostilities on March 19, 2003, to $48 at the start of President Bush’s second term in January 2005, to $145 in July 2008; an overall rise of over 400 percent. Prices then fell during the recession in late 2008, hovering at about $50 a barrel in the spring of 2009 with decreased consumer demand” (Brookings, 2017)3. And in the last decade, oil price continued to skyrocket.
Independence via renewables
In Europe, another fossil fuel that continues to play a very important geopolitical role is natural gas. Mostly imported from Russia and Norway, gas began to be considered one of the main geopolitical threats to Europe between 2006 and 2009. At that time, gas pricing disputes between Russia and Ukraine led to the interruption of Russian natural gas supplies to Europe through Ukraine. Security of gas supply, as defined in the European Regulation 2017/1938, is an important pillar of the European energy policy goal. For instance, the Gas Corridor linking the Caspian region to Europe via Turkey is a recent example of diversification of natural gas supplies.
But there is another way to reach energy independence: increasing renewable energy. Renewable energy has many advantages over fossil fuels, fostering both decarbonisation and security of supply (Vakulchuk et al., 2020)4. However, it also exacerbates security risks and geopolitical tensions related to the critical materials required for renewable technologies. Meanwhile, the decline of fossil fuel investments is also creating new frictions among States that rely on them and those committed to a fast transition.
Finally, with renewable technologies set to transform energy supply systems, relations between states will change while economies and societies are undergoing structural transformations (Oxford Energy Forum, 2021). For example, China has become a big player in the geopolitics of the energy transition, both because its growing energy consumption and the rare metals in its possession which make up the crucial materials needed to produce renewable technologies and batteries.
Stabilising energy geopolitics
Fundamental changes are taking place in the global energy system which will affect almost all countries with wide-ranging geopolitical consequences (Irena, 2019). The energy transition has been the global future of energy since the Paris Agreement was signed. The target for getting there is net zero carbon by 2050, a goal already stated by the European Union, Britain and Japan, among others, and very recently the US, back again on track with their climate ambitions.
As a consequence, the traditional view of geopolitics of energy is evolving towards that of a low-carbon world and, as such, becomes even more complex with global climate change5. Therefore, geopolitics of energy encompasses new and challenging dimensions, as the papers in this issue illustrate. We propose a broad variety of topics: the role of carbon pricing in polarising different energy but also industrial policy objectives between European Countries; lithium as well as the other raw materials that are crucial for the energy transition, which shifts the attention from the old oil producing countries to other places, like Latin American countries.
Furthermore, the new strategies of oil majors, especially in the aftermath of the Covid crisis, as well as the ambition of gas producers to reshape the industry to embrace the challenges of the energy transition are excellent examples of new facets of the modern geopolitics of energy.