The 5th IPCC Assessment Report highlights the long-term impact of our actions: “Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped”. The much-needed transformation of our energy system is intertwined with a number of demanding challenges our society is confronted with, including global impacts of rapid urbanisation, food security, land degradation, territorial conflicts reinforced by energy security concerns and the rights of children and youth. All these aspects are core elements that need to be addressed in order to build a just society for future generations.
The dynamic between climate change and the need for an energy transition in these areas takes a dual-shape: as the consequences of climate change worsen, these areas will feel the stresses most acutely and reactions, in turn, could further aggravate the original conditions, multiply risks and crises and hamper our efforts to mitigate climate change; yet, conversely, it’s also in these areas that key solutions to avoiding the worst climate impacts are found and large-scale rapid deployment of these solutions could have positive impacts across a range of issues related to peace, justice and development. In short, there is a clear feedback-loop and our actions will decide whether that’s a negative or a positive one.
One area where this becomes particularly apparent is the nexus between climate, energy and peace. The interplay between climate change, energy security, peace and justice is multi-layered and complex but in the last decade, a host of institutions and high-level of officials have begun to recognise how these issues interact with each other.
On the one hand, climate change is a threat multiplier, which could trigger hostility and threaten peace and stability within and between countries; on the other hand, access to and control over fossil fuels has been a major catalyst for violent conflict and military intervention.
A just transition to 100% Renewable energy (RE) can address both challenges and offer alternative paths to peace, justice and development.
Climate change as a threat multiplier
In March 2007, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that climate change might pose as much of a danger to the world as war. The next month, the UN Security Council held its first debate on climate change indicating that global warming has elevated to the top of the international security agenda, rivalling the threat of war. Initiated by the United Kingdom, former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett compared emerging climate change to the “gathering storm” before World War II: “An unstable climate risks some of the drivers of conflict — such as migratory pressures and competition for resources — getting worse”. A Report by the European Commission released in 2008 held that, “The core challenge is that climate change threatens to overburden states and regions which are already fragile and conflict prone”. This analysis has been supported by the defence and security establishments in many countries, including the U.S. Department of Defense, which in a 2015 report stated that “global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national security interests over the foreseeable future because it will aggravate existing problems — such as poverty, social tensions, environ- mental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions — that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries”.
Besides these political statements, the impacts of climate change on security have become subject to research, investigating the impacts of climate-related events on social and political stability on different parts of the world. Particularly unstable are fragile and weak states with social fragmentation, poor governance and management capacity. By altering the natural and social environment, climate change is a potential driver for violent conflict, including civil wars and military interventions that in turn are associated with various negative consequences such as famine and economic crises, forced displacement, resource exploitation and environmental degradation. There is a wide range of possible conflict constellations associated with the effects of climate change on rainfall and water scarcity, land use and food security, migration and refugee movements, extreme weather events and natural disasters, vegetation and biodiversity, which can become conflict factors individually or in conjunction. They may trigger societal tipping points, leading to social unrest, riots, violence, crime and armed conflict.
Control over fossil fuels as a trigger for conflict
There are diverse, complex and often interlinked causes for the existence of conflicts but many of them are tied up with energy security issues, mainly related to access to oil and gas fields. In fact, oil is often considered the main trigger-factor for conflicts following three mechanisms: first, when oil revenues are not legally overseen, corruption is incentivised, which weakens political institutions and is corrosive of public trust in institutions; second, oil is in many cases the main financing vehicle of warfare; third, the high dependence on rents generated by fossil fuels leads to a stagnation of socioeconomic development due to highly volatile market prices of fossil fuels.
Furthermore, tensions and conflicts over the possession and exploitation of oil and gas resources have considerably influenced international geopolitical dynamics. The concern is that in the future more conflicts may arise, especially because the global conventional oil production peaked in 2006 and since then production has been in decline. The risk of new armed conflicts over this valuable natural resource is likely to grow within the next years, especially in specific areas such as the Gulf Region where oil is highly concentrated.
Additionally, there is a growing threat parallel to the related oil-issues, which is the new reliance on nuclear energy, which introduces a host of additional health, safety and security concerns, including the diversion to nuclear weapons development. Furthermore, the continued existence of nuclear weapons means that conflicts between nuclear-armed states have the potential to extinguish life on earth as we know it.
100% RE as path to peace and justice
While the path to peace and justice relies upon different measures, peace and security can be improved considerably across the world simply by decreasing the over-reliance of countries on oil and gas. Unlike fossil fuels, which are characterised by the uneven geographical distribution of natural reserves, RE is abundant across regions and countries. By reducing the over dependence on fossil fuels reserves and instead decentralising the energy structure, a transition towards 100% RE can improve the energy autonomy of countries and reduce current conflicts and prevent the emergence of new ones. In order to ensure this for the long-term however, any 100% RE strategy must be underpinned by considerations of justice and be built on the principle of efficiency and recycling regarding the necessary resources used in the RE technology.
Lastly, a transition to 100% RE can also support better institutions and governance structures through what is known as energy democracy. Energy democracy goes beyond national security of energy supply to bringing energy resources and infrastructure under public or community ownership or control. The term is grounded on the basic understanding that “the decisions that shape our lives should be established jointly and without regard to the principle of pro t” and it is being practiced by an ever-growing number of decentralised community energy initiatives around the world. These communities often reframe energy access as a social right, rather than a pro table commodity. A growing number of experts and communities believe that de-carbonisation of the energy economy is critical not only for mitigating climate change but also for achieving a more just, sustainable and resilient economy. In addition, some experts note that an equitable, ecologically sound energy system should serve the needs of the world’s peoples, and that an energy transition will be advanced by a shift to public and community control. The distributed nature of RE — which theoretically are public goods accessible to all — helps to facilitate this process.
Importantly, a transition to 100% RE will benefit the achievement of all SDGs, which in turn will contribute to the maintenance of peace. A world that is violent and unpeaceful is at the same time unsustainable and unjust, and vice versa. Strategies for preventing the causes of violent conflict integrate a set of measures, including the preservation and efficient use of natural resources, implementing principles of equity and justice, strengthening cooperation and changing lifestyles. Accordingly, concepts of peace that rely on avoiding dangerous conflict, on preventive arms control, the reduction of violence and the abolition of nuclear weapons, and on compliance with human rights and cooperation, will improve the conditions for the co-operative implementation of sustainable development. The inherent linkages need to be further developed in a mutually stimulating way to an integrated concept of sustainable peace.
Rob van Riet is the Director of the Climate Energy Programme at the World Future Council and a regular The Beam contributor. Previously, he coordinated the WFC’s Disarmament Programme from 2010 to 2018. He also served as UK Coordinator for the international network of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament from 2011 to 2018.