Dr. Stephen J. Blank, Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, discusses power competition in the Caspian Sea region.
The European Union is searching for energy sources around the world to replace the role that Russia once played. They are looking towards Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, including Azerbaijan. A trans-Caspian pipeline would need to be built to get energy from Central Asia to Europe. However, this would be met with opposition from Russia and Iran, who would try to destroy it, making a security guarantee necessary.
Interviewers: Fabrizio Napoli & Davide Gobbicchi - Russia & the Post-Soviet Team
In sub-Saharan Africa, less than half of the population has access to electricity and this number has dropped by 4% since 2019 due to many brownouts, blackouts, and load-shedding. Even in the industrial powerhouses of South Africa and Nigeria in sub-Saharan Africa,electrical networks regularly fail to sustain the region's current generation capacity, making it impossible to fulfill demand. The situation is similar in the north of the continent, where Egypt, one of the largest economies of the continent, suffers the same destiny. A study conducted under the Bank’s New Deal on Energy for Africa, shows a financial deficit of between $17 billion and $25 billion, with the abovementioned economies counting for around 33% of this gap.
Moreover, despite having the least culpability for the issue, Africa is already more severely affected by climate change than most other regions of the globe. Africa has the lowest carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per capita of any continent, contributingless than 4% of global energy-related CO2 emissions, while having about one-fifth of the world's population.The adverse consequences of climate change, such as water stress, decreased food production and an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events, are already being felt disproportionately by African populations.
The Paris Agreement targets of keeping average temperature increases well below 2ºC and trying to not surpass 1.5ºC by 2050 with respect to pre-industrial levels set a roadmap to follow to fight climate change. This was to be achieved through National Determined Contributions (NDCs), that is, every signatory country would pledge to set a roadmap for cutting emissions, theoretically, following science-based targets. Despite being a move in the right direction, it does not come as a surprise that African economies yet to blossom are reluctant to curb their emissions at the same pace as developed countries.
This proposal would expand VCM which has not yet exploded as a result of an untapped demand and a disorganized supply. However, these markets have been plagued with critics due to the lack of monitoring, and some of them apply to ETA’s proposal as well. The most notable issue is the lack of additionality that these projects may have. This means that the installation of renewables would occur given the plunging cost of wind and solar power, regardless of the credit's existence. Secondly, unless proper monitoring is enforced, companies may end up earning credits for building climate resilience, i.e. building walls for rising sea levels, a well-intended action which, however, deviates from the principle of one credit equivalent to one tonne of carbon sequestered.
All in all, African investment needs are immense, particularly in the area of infrastructure, making it imperative to seek cooperation between the public and private sectors. Furthermore, attending these needs requires from developed countries to understand the African context. Years of failed aid should have taught us that much. In this sense, even though it has some flaws that should be corrected before its implementation, ETA may be determinant to guarantee the proper transition of the African continent towards renewables without compromising the continent’s growth. Successive COP rounds have failed to address this issue, and dealing with global climate change through the achievement of national decarbonization targets seems to be a battle that will be fought by governments on domestic ground. ETA’s proposal may make the giant non-state polluters step in, and in doing so, unlock millions of private capital in the right direction. In the hypothetical case where environmental integrity is compromised as a result of some credits being earned by fostering climate resilience, this still would allow the African population to combat climate change consequences which they are mainly not responsible for, and in turn, allowing some compensation for centuries of injustices.
The main result that Putin has achieved until now with the aggression of Ukraine is a solid stance from the European Member States to halt gas imports from Russia. This and other green commitments have pushed the EU and the whole world to give renewed impetus to renewable energy. Moreover, the relation between climate and industry policies is increasingly evident. In a broader context of power competition trade, investment policies in the energy and climate sectors play an ambivalent role: energy dependencies have been conceptualized as mutually benefitting; yet, the current war unveils their risky nature. After a brief description of the renewables’ geopolitical dimensions, this article outlines what is at stake for the EU’s primary areas of energy cooperation.
The Impact of Renewable Energy on Geopolitics
Renewable energies have the potential to transform interstate energy relations. Renewables have fundamentally distinct geographic and technological properties than coal, oil, and natural gas. Sources are plentiful but intermittent; their production is increasingly decentralized and utilizes rare earth resources in clean tech equipment and, lastly, their distribution is predominantly electric and entails tight management standards and long-distance losses. This contrasts sharply with fossil fuel resources’ geographically fixed and finite character, their reliance on massive centralized production and processing facilities, and their ease of storage and transit as solids, liquids, or gases worldwide.
The energy transition provides a chance to rethink and revise long-standing trading relationships. It also allows countries to engage in previously closed energy value chains. Significantly, the future of the energy world will likely redefine the concept of energy security. However, in this society, the impulse to produce things domestically will collide with the logic of size and global supply networks. The energy transition will rewire the planet, but how much of it will transcend international borders is still unclear. A crucial element will be the commerce of minerals, distinct from that of oil, gas, and coal in terms of location. Nonetheless, such business will follow a familiar pattern: resources will be harvested in one region of the world, transported to refineries and processing centers, and then transformed into final goods. Diversification, bottlenecks, extraction disputes, and rent-seeking dynamics will all be present, although with different details.
Such developments will require a significant shift in energy strategies, indicating that areas pursuing industrial policies rather than decarbonization may reap climatic advantages. The previous energy map established a link between natural resources and markets. Yet, the new energy map will be much more complex.
The Geopolitics of the Energy Transition and the EU
Bringing together the words ’geopolitics’ and ‘renewables’ leads to the study of renewables and related security risks, the effects of the energy transition on traditional energy relations, possibilities of mutually beneficial ties, and windows of opportunity for countries to move up in the global power hierarchy. The energy transition is indeed a process where the industrial advantage is likely to bring with itself political benefits and leadership status. In the context of the current war in Ukraine, this is becoming clearer every day. Yet, the energy transition is expected to become part of power competition as the most impellent challenge – posed by the war as well as climate change and the security risks with it – of our times and will likely create amities and enmities.
While it is difficult to predict an essential role played by Russia nowadays, given the progressive isolation it is forced to, the energy wire will see China having high stakes in renewable developments and geopolitics. Concerning relations with the EU, some have argued that the energy transition is likely to be the determinant of the future of EU-China relations. Energy in EU-China relations does not play the same role as relations with Russia. While the renewable sector has encouraged interdependence between the two powers in the past, more recently, nationally oriented policies have hindered the precedent path.
Overall, the current war is not only highlighting the strategic value of energy resources and energy ties but also how the transition to new energy systems is likely to rewire the world. In a context where the main political divide on the global stage is between liberal and illiberal forces and strong energy dependences revealed security threats, future systems of alliances will have to account for this. For the EU, the energy transition will have to deal with Russia, act as cohesively as possible, and strengthen its strategic thinking concerning big partners such as China and the Gulf States. The transitions’ stakes entail a strategic opportunity to avoid past errors.
The United States proposes solutions to Europe, while oil and gas producers in the MENA act controversially, and China remains cautiously in the background, carefully observing the evolution of the situation without intervening directly or taking a clear position. Where will the current energy decisions drive us?
The European Union
The EU is a substantial energy importer, largely reliant on Russia's supply. Accordingly, due to sanctions imposed to punish Russia, the EU has set about to make a significant course correction. The European Commission has proposed an outline of a plan to make Europe independent from Russian gas before 2030: REPowerEU. The main goal of this ambitious plan is to diversify to the greatest extent possible the gas suppliers of the EU by increasing LNG Imports and constructing alternative pipelines. To do so, a strong political will by the Member States to follow the correct route and avoid uncoordinated actions is needed.
Currently, there are not sufficient LNG terminals in the Eastern EU, although growing investments have been undertaken in recent years by the Union; it is, therefore, crucial that such countries have access to regional gas hubs. In addition, even the construction of alternative pipelines prompts some issues. Unsurprisingly, European customers are unwilling to commit financially to long-term gas purchase contracts, which would be necessary to sustain pipeline development, due to EU green obligations. Furthermore, authoritarian governments like Azerbaijan's, Turkey's, and the Gulf monarchies' influence on the gas trade would remain, leaving the door open for political exploits of energy flows. Besides, the existing alternative sources of natural gas to the EU appear to be already at the highest production level. Therefore, the most likely option seems to import from the Caspian Sea.
Overall, an emphasis is placed by the Commission on boosting energy efficiency and increasing the use of renewables. This is essential since it contributes to terminating the EU's overdependence on a single supplier, even though it does not provide a suitable solution in the short term. Last but not least, the Commission has even undertaken initiatives to mitigate high energy prices.
Conclusion As soon as the shock of the Ukrainian war arrived, the West discovered a hard truth: even in a globally interdependent world, it is not safe to be heavily dependent on a single country. As mentioned above, Europe is moving towards making plans to become energetically independent. Nevertheless, West leaders are conscious that the road to independence will be long and winding, indeed taking years to make it. However, the problem is not only a European matter: as previously said, even a solid Russian ally like China is facing the effect of the energetic crisis. On the other hand, Beijing will probably be seen as the only winner at the war's end, mainly for its ambiguous position. At the same time, the United States is dealing with a different situation: even though it does not depend on energy imported from Moscow, its role as a leader is put to the test. Washington needs to help its allies and, simultaneously, avoid the MENA Region ending up in the hands of China. Therefore, what is at stake is not only the energy question: the current world order could become very different at the end of the day.
The tensions between the European Union (EU) and Russia have considerably increased over the last years. In this context, Ukraine has become a crucial geopolitical flashpoint. Ever since the annexation of Crimea and Russian military intervention in Ukraine in 2014, the relations between Russia and the EU have deteriorated progressively with the adoption of severe sanctions by the latter.
In addition to the Ukrainian crisis, both the Russian intervention in the Syrian war and the attempted poisoning of the former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skipral and his daughter by Kremlin agents in 2018 are worth recollecting. Besides, the use of targeted actions to influence and to destabilise European countries such as disinformation, cyber-attacks and support for pro-Kremlin political parties and NGOs, and in the end, the attempted murder by poisoning of Alexei Navalny, one of the most fearsome opposition leaders of Vladimir Putin, have imposed EU to take further countermeasures.
The Russian threat can be subdivided into the following three categories:
Military threat: The high-risk level of Baltic States to be invaded by Russian troops in just a few days and short-range Iskander missiles stationed in “the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad” with high capacity to deliver nuclear warheads attack and to reach Poland and Eastern Germany in 2013. In this regard, it is worth highlighting that the repeated NATO airspace and sea space violations have often provoked several skirmishes between the Russian and NATO planes and warships in the Black and the Baltic Seas. In addition, more than 100,000 Russian troops have been deployed to the border between Russia and Ukraine and Russia’s navy presence around the whole Crimean Peninsula, including also the Sea of Azov, are not absolutely less alarming for Ukraine, NATO and European allies.
Hybrid threat: This is meant as financial and political support for pro-Kremlin parties and NGOs, also spreading disinformation. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning the cyber-attacks to influence and cause instability within European Countries and borders. For example, Moscow was able to build strong ties with populist and mostly far-right political parties such as Rassemblement National (RN) in France, Lega in Italy, Alternative für Deutschland(AfD) in Germany, Vlaams Belang (VB) in Belgium and Catalan independence movement in Spain. Among Russian hybrid tools, the state-owned RT news channel and Sputnik news agency, are considered propaganda instruments, which disseminate anti-establishment conspiracy theories, aim at creating divisions on sensitive issues such as migration and Islamic terrorism. At last, it is worth recalling the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the St. Petersburg-based “troll factory”, specialized in fake social media profiles on Facebook and Twitter.
Energy threat: Russia supplies a third or more of EU oil and gas demand and “a large share of this is delivered via pipelines crossing Ukraine, a country whose relations with Moscow are even more problematic than the EU's, raising the possibility that Europe's gas supplies could be held hostage to geopolitical tensions”. Indeed, the energy crisis in 2006 and 2009 created serious warnings for gas supplies.
Numerous countermeasures have been taken by EU countries to counter Russian disinformation. For example, media literacy training has been introduced in school curricula by several countries and “regulators have clamped down on pro-Kremlin outlets such as RT for failing to comply with media standards”. In 2015, EU created a special task force as East StratCom Task Force for a weekly publication of Disinformation Review identifying and unmasking disinformation from pro-Russia sources. Moreover, it has the purpose to cooperate with Eastern Partnership countries for building resilience to pro-Kremlin disinformation, for example explaining EU policies to audiences from the region by producing Russian-language materials and training journalists. In 2018, the disinformation Code of Practice and the Action Plan were both adopted by the European Union. Several media companies signed the Code of Practice, committing to remove fake profiles and allowing users to see who pays for online political adverts.
The EU has taken meaningful measures to mitigate energy shortage. For example, it has started to build new energy infrastructures - such as interconnecting pipelines enabling EU Member States to share gas, building terminals to import LNG from USA and Qatar and storage facilities to keep gas in reserve. In this context, NATO plays a fundamental role as well, establishing “three main priorities regarding energy security. The first is to enhance allies’ strategic awareness of the security implications of energy developments. The second goal is to support the protection of critical energy infrastructure, including tankers and offshore energy installations. Third, NATO has prioritized enhancing energy efficiency in the military”.
The EU will have to support Eastern European member countries politically, military and economically to counter Russian threats. It will have to promote major policies of economic development, social inclusions fighting inequalities created by pandemic, more cooperation and investments in counter-intelligence and cybersecurity technologies. Additionally, it will have to invest more financial resources to rebuild the economy based on renewable energies, being less hostage by the Russian oil and gas. In the end, it will need to be more independent from the American influence and speaking with a common and single voice. If Europe does not follow this path, it would put at risk the foundations of European democratic institutions, causing their disintegration, paving the way to antidemocratic and populist political parties and lastly it would continue to be subject to energy blackmail of the Kremlin.
What is sure for now is that Russia is still perceived as a real threat to the whole Western world, as also demonstrated by the UK and USA. Indeed, concerning this last one, in spite of the constructive U.S.-Russia Summit in Geneva on 16th June 2021, the deep underlying tension between the superpowers seems less than solved.