International relations have been viewed through a variety of lenses, introduced over the past century as a way to analyze and explain contemporary events.
In 1899, Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellen coined the term geopolitics to describe the activities of hyperactive European states who frequently found themselves competing with each other for territorial gains.
Almost a century later, commercial competition replaced territorial contests as economics took center stage in a post-Cold War world. A state’s geographic location became a significant determinant of its economic potential and the idea of geoeconomics was popularized.
With a globalized world facilitating rapid technological advancements, changes in the international system have been drastically catalyzed. Newer threats like climate change, pandemics and cyberwarfare have pushed states to adopt policies that increasingly shape their behaviors in the international arena.
One such policy currently being pursued is decarbonization of the global economy and adoption of renewable energy to make future growth sustainable.
Until now, apart from economic and political constraints, energy has been universally accessible around the globe. States in one continent import fossil fuels from states in another over land and sea routes.
However, the adoption of renewable energy tends to upend this arrangement.
Unlike fossil fuels, which can be transported over long distances in chemical form, renewable energy is static. The electricity produced from it cannot be efficiently converted into chemical energy, meaning that renewable energy will have to be transported in electric form.
As electric lines replace oil and gas pipelines, geographic location will significantly impact a state’s ability to access energy — electric lines face greater energy losses over long distances.
Traditional approaches to energy have often viewed it as one of many factors that influence geopolitics: how a state uses its control over energy resources to exert influence abroad. However, as the dynamics of global energy distribution change, a new approach is required that considers energy access as an endpoint rather than means to an end.
Geoenergy tends to fill that gap. Simply put, geoenergy is the analysis of the effects of a state’s geographical location on its access to energy and energy resources. This access can be based on a state’s control over raw energy resources, its ability to generate functional energy from them and its geographical proximity to energy exporting states. While the concept can be crudely applied to traditional energy, it gains greater importance in a world that has transitioned into the use of renewable resources.
At present, there are numerous instances around the globe that can be analyzed through a geoenergic lens. In the case of fossil fuels, the dispute between Turkey and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean can be specifically studied in terms of geoenergy.
The contention over geographic boundaries of their respective exclusive economic zones have direct effects on each state’s access to energy resources. Another example is that of the Arctic “cold rush,” where littoral states are competing with each other to access buried oil reserves. Similarly, China’s recent oil investment deal with Iran can also be viewed as an attempt to improve Beijing’s geoenergic standing.
When it comes to renewables, geoenergic conflicts mainly exist over hydroelectric resources at present. The dispute between India and Pakistan over the Indus River and its tributaries has been observed from a geopolitical lens for decades. While there are security threats associated with it, the dispute can also be analyzed in geoenergic terms since India’s hydropower projects on these rivers inhibit Pakistan’s ability to generate electricity from them. The issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam between Egypt and Ethiopia also exhibits a similar dynamic.
As states transition from traditional energy to renewable energy, emerging electrostates are likely to replace present petrostates. However, unlike petrostates — which are based on control over fossil fuel reserves, electrostates would have to meet certain criteria before they truly dominate energy production in the future.
First, a state would have to be geographically located in a region that naturally has a high quantity of renewable resources like wind, solar, bio, or hydroelectric energy. Apart from a few exceptions, most states have access to such resources, meaning that this aspect would not be the primary differentiating factor between renewable energy exporters and importers.
Second, a state would require advanced technological capabilities that enable it to efficiently convert renewable energies into electricity. Efficient energy conversion would enable states to not only meet their own energy demands but also export electricity to others. China, Germany and Denmark are among the current global leaders in the development of clean energy technologies.
Third, a state would need access to critical minerals used to manufacture renewable energy technologies. At present, China and Russia control the majority of known reserves of rare earth minerals. These depletable mineral resources are likely to replace oil as a premium global commodity, providing such states with immense geopolitical, geoeconomic and geoenergic advantages.
With the combination of these factors, electrostates are predicted to play a more central role in international relations than current petrostates. Given that the electricity produced from renewable resources cannot be efficiently transmitted over long distances, energy distribution in the future is likely to be regionalized around electrostates.
Electrostates will act as energy hubs that produce and export electricity to geographically proximate countries connected through electric lines. These regional electricity grids will promote economic and security integration, translating the effects of geoenergy into geoeconomics and geopolitics.
In the context of geoenergy, the adoption of renewable energy provides significant leverage to transit states. Taking a longer route to circumvent them would have grave implications in terms of energy losses, making diverted projects impractical.
Given that future electrostates are likely to emerge in Western Europe and East Asia, transit states in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and South Asia would have an ideal opportunity of converting their geoenergic potential into geopolitical gain.
Energy is predicted to become a central element in international discourse of the coming decades. On one hand, the emergence of electrostates will intensify the geopolitics of energy. On the other, it will make geography all the more relevant in determining access to energy by states.
With the advent of globalization in the late 20th century, policymakers turned their attention to economics and saw the world from a geoeconomic perspective. As the world transitions into the use of renewable energy, scholars and professionals would need to take a similar approach and explore the idea of geoenergy.
Saif Khattak is a writer based in Pakistan whose work has appeared in The Diplomat, TRT World and the Express Tribune.
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