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Effects of low-carbon energy development on foreign policy, poverty and migration

Effects of low-carbon energy development on foreign policy, poverty and migration

Dependency on fossil fuels for energy also presents significant challenges for sustainable development. With the emission from burning oil, gas, and coal being a major driver of climate change, these forms of energy are increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and tsunamis, as well as droughts and other slower processes of environmental degradation, which exacerbate water, food, and livelihood insecurity 2. Around 18.8 million people were displaced by disasters in 2017, compared to 11.8 million displaced by conflict and violence 3, and climate change impacts are estimated to push an additional 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030 if countries do not show greater ambition in pursuing low-carbon development 4.

The links between energy and foreign policy

SDG 7 interlinks strongly with a range of key foreign policy priorities. This holds true for preventing conflicts and instability, for building the resilience of vulnerable communities and countries, and for reinforcing international cooperation through stronger trade and investments relations among partners.

Varying national contexts mean that each country will follow a different path as it implements measures to provide universal energy access (target 7.1), the expansion of renewable energy (target 7.2), and greater energy efficiency (target 7.3). As such, these varying transition path-ways will differ significantly in their relevance for foreign policy and require appropriate responses. A nation’s energy mix, its economic dependence on its fossil fuel industries, and the potential impact of moving away from domestic high carbon energy sources for energy independence and imports all have significant implications for how different domestic and international players and stakeholders will respond to the implementation and therefore to the peace potential of SDG 7.

Most countries will have to make structural changes to their economies to diversify and decarbonise their energy supplies. These will not only go hand in hand with significant shifts in policy, politics, and society at the national level – which could have implications in more fragile, conflict-prone regions. Whether a country is a net importer or exporter of fossil fuels, we can also expect the process of decarbonisation to reconfigure their energy relations with other countries, and therefore have a significant impact on foreign policy. Moreover, reduced consumption of fossil fuels has the potential to reduce the overall relevance of oil and gas in the present and the future conflicts. However, the expansion of renewable energy technologies is generating major demand for new types of raw materials and resources – mainly with the establishment of new infrastructure– and this could create new conflict constellations if governance processes to manage the transition process are lacking.

The critical importance of energy for core foreign policy objectives

Achieving the targets under SDG 7 can serve core foreign policy objectives by strengthening humanitarian responses, reducing forced migration, and strengthening trade and investment – all of which have implications for the stability of fragile countries and regions.

Regarding humanitarian responses, increasing access to clean energy sources can help vulnerable communities to become more self-sufficient, and thus play a role in bridging the gap between humanitarian aid and development cooperation by improving livelihoods, health, safety, education, food security and nutrition, and the environment. Providing access to renewable energy sources can empower communities. From off-grid solar systems for remote rural villages to reduced fossil-fuel import needs for small island nations, installing renewable energy technologies creates opportunities by providing people with independent energy access and, potentially, new sources of income.

These clean energy technologies also create a variety of co-benefits alongside improving energy access and reducing carbon emissions. To take two examples, compared to fossil fuels, they produce minimal air pollution and therefore improve the health of the surrounding population. In communities that have traditionally burned wood for cooking and heating, energy efficient cooking stoves reduce the need for fire-wood and prevent deforestation.

Improving access to clean energy can also significantly improve the lives of migrants – both by improving the conditions in refugee camps and other types of temporary accommodation and by alleviating pressures that may force them to leave their homes in the first place. Kelly T. Clements, the Deputy United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has noted that: “Universal access to clean energy could vastly improve the health and well-being of millions of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons.” For example, solar-powered street lighting systems have been installed in many refugee camps, improving the safety, living conditions, and livelihood prospects of those residing there.

Further, reducing energy sector GHG emissions is crucial to climate change mitigation efforts, and therefore to reduce the role of environmental changes in decisions to migrate. With both sudden and slow-onset impacts, climate change can be considered the ultimate “threat multiplier.” More frequent and severe extreme weather events will displace people in greater numbers, while more gradual environmental degradation will intensify competition for resources, such as water and fertile land, thereby increasing livelihood insecurity, the potential for conflict and other drivers that force people to move. German Foreign Minister Maas has stressed that Germany’s campaign “around the world for a shift towards sustainable energy production” is a response to the adverse impacts of climate change on many societies.

Energy relations often form a core component of the ties between countries (see target 7.a). The transition to low-carbon energy supply is therefore highly likely to reconfigure existing partnerships and create new mutual interdependencies. For example, countries that have already developed significant expertise on clean technology and innovation can come together with those urgently looking to increase access to clean energy (see target 7.b).

Illustration: exporting the energy transition made in Germany

The ambition that Germany has shown in expanding the use of renew-able energy technologies at home has also had a profound impact on its foreign policy interests. In pioneering and promoting an innovative new regulatory mechanism for boosting renewable energy financing, the feed-in tariff, the country rapidly increased the diversity of its energy mix, decreased its dependency on energy imports, and gained an early economic and technological advantage in core sectors for low-carbon energy transition. These steps have provided new avenues for developing long-term trade and investment partnerships with other countries. Further, in significantly expanding renewables, it supported the decentralisation of its energy infrastructure, thus reducing Germany’s vulnerability to external shocks, such as interruptions to gas imports and blackouts as a result of extreme weather events or terrorist attacks.

Illustration: using renewable energy to support stabilisation processes in South Sudan

Although renewable energy technologies are rapidly becoming more affordable, they largely still have not reached fragile, conflict-prone countries like South Sudan (see target 7.b). Humanitarian operations may offer entry points to help the country reduce the use of fossil fuels like diesel and take advantages of the benefits and co-benefits of renewable energy sources instead. As explained above, by expanding and diversifying its energy sector and reducing its dependence on the fossil fuel sector, South Sudan could achieve significant development gains. These could, in turn, play a role in stabilising the country, providing a peace dividend. Alongside humanitarian organisations, small-scale off-grid renewable energy systems can strengthen the operations of health facilities and NGOs hubs that work in conflict-prone areas.

International efforts to promote sustainable energy

There is no global regime for energy transition processes yet. However, there is a broad spectrum of governance arrangements to guide or inform this process. The international climate negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – including the important Paris Agreement – have been a significant reference point for energy transition targets for decades. Given the significance of sustainable energy targets for achieving the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), the climate-energy nexus has been embedded in many national policy processes and can also help to address some of the financing challenges for investing in sustainable energy infrastructures. However, sustainable energies have become a primary focus of international initiatives beyond the climate policy arena – a prominent example being the establishment of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), which has led to increasing international recognition for the topic. The Clean Energy Ministerial for key economies covers different elements of the energy transition process including energy efficiency. Finally, various dialogue formats have been used to systematically raise awareness about the foreign policy co-benefits of improving clean energy access, and to explore the potential for bilateral partnerships and other models for strengthening cooperation. These include the SEforAll Forum, the International Forum on Energy for Sustainable Development, the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week and the Vienna Energy Forum.


Conflicts over energy or a lack of access to it – whether at individual and state level – can affect foreign policy priorities. Both prevention and resilience building can be strengthened by carefully considering the foreign policy entry points for supporting low-carbon energy transition. Foreign policy has a critical role to play in overcoming a lack of access to energy and enabling beneficial cooperation, by supporting processes of energy diversification and transition. Investments in clean energy sources and expanding energy access not only help to improve governmental legitimacy and strengthen the social contract; they may also support the foreign policy and trade interests of countries like Germany, which are in a position to offer technological solutions and are willing to enter into bilateral and multilateral cooperation to pro-mote economic interdependencies.

[This article appeared as part of adelphi’s Policy Brief “A foreign policy perspective on the SDGs” (2018) and its comprehensive annex.]


  1. IEA – International Energy Agency 2018: Energy Access. Retrieved 10.07.2018 from
  2. Rüttinger, Lukas; Gerald Stang, Dan Smith, Dennis Tänzler, Janani Vivekananda et al. 2015: A New Climate for Peace – Taking Action on Climate and Fragility Risks. Executive Summary. Berlin/London/ Washington/Paris: adelphi, International Alert, The Wilson Center, EUISS.
  3. IDMC 2018: Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID) 2018. Retrieved 10.07.2018 from
  4. Hallegatte, Stephane; Mook Bangalore, Laura Bonzanigo, Marianne Fay, Tamaro Kane, Ulf Narloch, Julie Rozenberg; David Treguer, Adrien Vogt-Schilb 2016: Shock Waves – Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty. Climate Change and Development. Washington, DC: World Bank.