How Renewable Energy Could Fuel Future Conflicts

How Renewable Energy Could Fuel Future Conflicts

Renewable energy technologies promise to help our world avert some of the worst impacts of climate change. However, some of the minerals and metals they require could contribute to conflict. 

In the past, fossil fuels were the primary link between energy and conflict, as control and transport of oil and gas drove political unrest, wars over territory, and interventions by powerful countries concerned with securing their supply chains.

However, the energy landscape is changing rapidly, with cleaner sources of electricity swiftly replacing fossil fuels. The energy transition now seems inevitable, with renewable energy technologies forecasted to constitute almost half of global electricity generation by 2050. While the global transition to clean energy promises a more sustainable energy future, the switch also creates new challenges through the control of critical minerals used for clean energy technology. 

Investment in clean energy technologies totaled over $330 billion in 2017 and is expected to accelerate over the coming decades, which will cause the demand for minerals critical to these technologies to change accordingly.For example, the global lithium-ion battery market could more than quadruple to $93 billion by 2025. Driven by the booming electric vehicle market and expanding energy storage sector, demand will increase for lithium, cobalt, and magnesium.

Clean energy minerals and metals, similar to fossil fuels, are concentrated in certain geographic areas, and may be subject to similar contests over their control. As the world continues to transition from oil, gas, and coal to solar and wind, policymakers must take careful steps to ameliorate the risk of negative externalities from the changing landscape of mineral extraction.


Clean Energy Risks Multiple Forms of Conflict

Growth of clean energy technologies may increase the risk of at least three types of conflict: outbreaks of violence in states with weak institutions, competition over global resource commons, and weaponization of minerals essential to these technologies in trade disputes. 

First, reserves of metals and minerals for clean energy technologies can motivate violent conflict in states with weak institutions and rule of law. Similar to the “resource curse” of many oil-rich states, developing nations with large natural resource endowments often experience corruption and violence as different groups vie to control wealth-generating extractive operations. For instance, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) produces more than 60 percent of the world’s cobalt, a key component of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and electricity storage. The country already suffers from widespread violent conflict, perpetuated by mining wealth, that has driven the creation of at least seventy armed groups, resulted in massive humans rights violations, and displaced millions. An increase in demand for cobalt for electric vehicles and grid-scale battery storage could further intensify conflict in the country.

Second, these minerals could also increase competition among states over the global commons. The Arctic Ocean and the South China Sea, two contested maritime areas, both contain considerable mineral and metal deposits along undersea fault lines. As ice retreat opens up more of the Arctic Ocean, exploration for deep-sea deposits of minerals useful for clean energy technology could drive countries that claim territory in the region to assert their claims more forcefully. In the South China Sea, Beijing has begun to develop deep sea mining capacities, which will contribute to its effort to establish control of the mineral-rich seabed. China has demonstrated its willingness to flaunt international law and violate other countries’ sovereign claims to the seabed. Conflict over deep-sea minerals would aggravate these disputes.

Finally, China’s hegemony over the global mining operations of many of these critical minerals creates a risk that it will use these elements as trade weapons. China produces 95 percent of rare earth elements and leads production in many other minerals and metals critical to clean energy technologies. This control is highly centralized within specific Chinese companies – one Chinese firm, Tianqi Lithium, controls nearly half of the world’s lithium. As part of China’s strategy to become the “center of the clean energy universe,” these minerals are integral to its economic future. Past trade disputes, including China's withholding of rare earths from Japan in 2010, should cause concern, as they show Beijing is willing to ignore international trade norms surrounding critical metals and minerals. As the trade war between the United States and China escalates, there is a risk that China may leverage these minerals’ geopolitical power and restrict their export to the United States. 


Avoiding Pitfalls through Supply Chain Diplomacy

Though increasing dependence on minerals for the energy transition poses risks, renewables do not have to create the same geopolitical problems as fossil fuels. Global policymakers can use past conflicts over dirtier forms of energy to guide best practices and policy for the future. The United States can lead planning for our energy future through investment in global governance measures and focused research into technologies such as rare resource recycling.

The United States should invest in promoting good governance initiatives like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which upholds a global standard for good governance in mining and drilling. The Trump administration’s withdrawal as an implementing country from EITI last November was a mistake, and the United States should focus on reentering the initiative. EITI has been instrumental in shifting incentives away from corrupt practices and toward more equitable policies that alleviate instability. 

In addition to reentering the EITI, the administration should reinstate requirements for companies to audit and report sourcing of potential conflict minerals, which the Securities and Exchange Commission withdrew last year.bThe administration must refine and broaden these disclosure requirements to encourage responsible practices by international corporations.

The United States can take further steps to secure supplies of clean energy minerals free of conflict. The government must first reduce dependence by investing in research and development for clean energy technologies which rely less on the most critical minerals and metals.The U.S. Department of Energy currently funds research at two national labs to create new batteries that reduce or eliminate the use of what they have called “blood cobalt,” replacing it with more common metals.The United States should expand funding for initiatives like this one to help drive alternatives for critical minerals or to expand recycling programs to reduce demand for imports.

Some change must also come from the private sector. Apple, for example, has begun to counter human rights concerns surrounding its supply of cobalt by buying cobalt directly from miners, rather than through a third party, and BMW is preparing to follow suit. Several other companies have also reduced their dependence on problematic minerals, including Tesla, which recently announced it will decrease the amount of cobalt in its batteries. These steps are promising, and ensuring transparency in these bilateral agreements is essential to their success. 


A Path Forward

The potential for the minerals critical to our energy future to motivate conflict will change the ways in which energy and national security intersect. Increasing demand for these minerals could stress already low levels of governance, raise the prospect of conflict between large countries in new frontiers, and risk degrading free trade principles that have encouraged global prosperity. Rather than limiting its energy policy to countries with a wealth of fossil fuels, the United States should expand its scope to include countries with strategic mineral reserves. 

The demands of a growing shift to clean energy do not need to contribute to conflict. Instead, renewable technologies can offer avenues to increase international stability by expanding energy access through distributed renewable generation, reducing pollution, and limiting the ability of climate change to drive natural disasters. 

An energy transition is underway which will reshape much of the modern world order. Missing the opportunity to establish a solid foundation for the era ahead would be short-sighted. The United States should embrace the rise of renewable energy while taking initiative to counter the negative externalities these changes provoke. 



Madison Freeman is a research associate for energy and U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and an energy and environment fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

Morgan Bazilian is the executive director of the Payne Institute and a professor of public policy at Colorado School of Mines. He is also a non-resident fellow at the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy and a non-resident senior associate with the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.