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The Green Peace Dividend – Why green technologies matter for international security

Violent conflicts and security crises around the world have many different causes and effects. The vast majority of them, however, are in one way or another related to energy policy. Yet making this link apparent to policy makers has been challenging. Experts from the foreign policy, security and energy communities have been reluctant to fully grasp the security implications of promising green energy technology and market developments, argue Rebecca Bertram and Charlotte Beck.

Their worlds are still far apart: national security and foreign policy experts have traditionally thought of energy mainly in terms of the need to secure access to energy resources from abroad while avoiding strategic dependence on the suppliers. Energy dependence on a Russian or Middle Eastern supplier, for example, is seen as a major security risk. Energy experts, on the other hand, have often failed to grasp the security and foreign policy implications of certain policies, and have mainly looked at energy policy as a domestic issue. Advocates of clean energy in particular have failed to make a good argument on how new green technologies can yield positive effects on international security and conflicts around the world.

In recent years, green technologies have made significant technological advances and considerably decreased in cost. Already, global investments in renewable energies have overtaken investments in conventional fuels, and, for the first time in history, new renewable energy installations surpass that of new conventional energy installations. Take one example: In the United States, solar technology costs have decreased by 80 percent, and wind technology by 60 percent over the past five years. No longer are green technologies solely regarded – and at times dismissed – as idealistic; they actually make economic sense.

These dramatic changes in energy technology and market developments have serious implications for national security strategy. Here are five reasons why green technologies make sense not only for economic and ecological but for security reasons as well, and why they need to be taken seriously by national security experts:

1. Green energy is home-grown and increases a country’s energy independence.

Germany, for example, still imports almost 90 percent of its hard coal and natural gas needs, as well as almost 100 percent of its petroleum and uranium demands. Concerns about the resulting vulnerability to “energy blackmail” by supplying countries are not new, but they have reached new heights in light of the ongoing conflict at Europe’s eastern border to Russia. Germany’s energy transition – or Energiewende –that calls for wind, solar and biomass to make up 80 percent of the country’s power supply by the middle of the century will directly strengthen the country’s independence from the pressure of suppliers and transit countries. Energy experts from the Fraunhofer Institute predict that if the energy transition is managed well, including greater diversification of home-grown clean energy sources and energy efficiency measures, Germany could, in fact, be independent of Russian gas imports by 2030.

2. Green energies avoid the strategic lock-in effects of pipeline and LNG infrastructure.

Due to the rapid build-up of clean energies and shifting demand centers from Europe and the United States to Asia, global energy markets will look completely different in 2030 and beyond. It makes little sense, therefore, to invest heavily in new pipelines and LNG terminals today which will be in operation for the next fifty years and will lock in client and supplier in huge investment commitments. Europe is rightly attempting to diversify its oil and gas supplies from Russia, but in doing so builds new “old” infrastructure for energy supplies from other regions, such as Central Asia and the Gulf countries. Instead, the EU and its member states should aim for energy security through a stable clean energy infrastructure that can adjust flexibly to the energy market realities of the future.

3. Green technologies help to mitigate the security threats of climate change.

Security experts warn that climate deterioration and related resource scarcity are becoming one of the main sources of violent conflict – be it over food, water or land. A dramatically changing climate would have the most severe impact on already fragile states and regions that would be destabilized further and turn into wider security concerns. This scenario can best be prevented by drastically reducing global carbon emissions within the next decade. The world needs to find ways to decouple economic growth from carbon emissions and fossil fuel consumption – for both ecological and security reasons. Green energy offers a clear solution to this.

4. Green technologies avoid the “resource curse”.

In resource-rich Russia and Nigeria, for example, fossil fuel wealth combined with weak public institutions have drastically exacerbated poverty, inequality, corruption and undemocratic governance. By contrast, decentralized green energies strengthen domestic stability through citizen involvement, transparency and accountability – a fertile ground for security as well. This partly explains the widespread reluctance by policy makers to pursue clean energy in many parts of the world. Economic and political elites often risk losing considerable windfall profits when transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy sources, as these are typically smaller, more decentralized and less conducive to rent seeking.

5. Green technologies strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime by busting the myth of profitability.

Despite widespread claims to the contrary, nuclear energy is not economically profitable compared to affordable green energy. If the myth of cheap nuclear energy were to be recognized as such, it would be harder for states to claim that they pursue nuclear power solely for civilian or economic purposes. Exposing the fallacy of governments’ arguments for nuclear energy thereby indirectly strengthens the nuclear non-proliferation regime. The current negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran show how difficult it is to ultimately make a distinction between a purely civilian and a potentially military nuclear program. Recognizing that it does not make economic sense to pursue nuclear energy would help the international community to more easily determine when a state builds a nuclear program with the intention of acquiring nuclear weapons.

These energy and security links need to be emphasized and further explored in critical discussions between energy and security experts on both sides of the Atlantic. But one thing is already clear: The nature of renewable energy and its rapid advance are bound to affect the way in which both disciplines have so far analyzed the challenge of energy security. Anyone drafting energy and security policy needs to take them into account now.

This article originally appeared in Energy Transition. The article is based on discussions held at a recent conference convened by the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as part of a Transatlantic Energy Security Dialogue. The views above are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the institutional position of the Carnegie Endowment or the Heinrich Böll Foundation. With special appreciation to R. Andreas Kraemer for his conference contribution that inspired this op-ed.

Rebecca Bertram is the Director of the Energy and Environment Programme and Charlotte Beck is the Director of Foreign & Security Policy at the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Washington office.