Jan 11, 2019 - Energy & Environment

China wins, Libya loses in new energy geopolitics

China is poised to gain global leverage with its dominance in clean-energy technologies, while poorer, fossil-fuel dependent nations like Libya are likely to be on the losing end in the world’s shift to cleaner sources of energy, according to a new report out today.

Adapted from "A New World" report by Global Commission on the Geopolitics of Energy Transformation; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Why it matters: Fossil fuels, particularly oil, have been shaping history for the better part of the last century. Less well-known are the anticipated geopolitical impacts of the world’s slow, but clear shift to renewable energy sources, a transition set to play out unevenly around the world for decades to come.

Driving the news: The nearly 100-page report is coordinated by the International Renewable Energy Agency with input from experts and governments around the world. The United Arab Emirates, a major oil-exporting nation, has taken a leadership position on renewable energy by — perhaps ironically — hosting IRENA and the launch of this report.

The big picture:

“The renewable energy transformation goes hand in hand with a dispersion of power. The modern nation state and the fossil fuel economy have evolved alongside one another. The decline of the fossil fuel era and the advent of decentralized power generation in an increasingly electrified world may have profound implications for the role of the nation state.”


  • China is poised to benefit the most in the clean energy transition because of its leadership in renewable energy patents and its dependence on imports of fossil fuels, which would decline over time.
  • All nations heavily dependent upon fossil fuels are on the losing end, but some more than others. Less stable nations like Libya and Iraq are particularly vulnerable given they are less able to handle the transition than their richer, more stable counterparts that are similarly dependent on fossil fuels, like Saudi Arabia and Norway.
  • Renewable energy, particularly wind and solar, is inherently less vulnerable to geopolitical exploit given it’s not a tangible commodity like oil. Other concerns could arise, however, like clean tech dominance by countries like China.
  • Security choke points for oil, such as the Strait of Hormuz, could become relatively less important. Meanwhile, electricity as a potential geopolitical weapon or target for cyberattacks grows.

But, but, but: Many of the potential repercussions laid out in the report may only occur if there’s a relatively rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewables. Some caveats...

  • Such a fast transformation would be likely if the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement is implemented and expanded upon, as stated rhetoric suggests. But so far, actual realized ambition to cut greenhouse gas emissions is not living up to those stated goals.
  • In 1987, fossil fuels accounted for 81% of the world’s energy consumption. Thirty years later, that figure hasn’t changed, reflecting fossil fuels’ staying power even amid rapid renewable-energy growth.

Go deeper: Brookings: The economic case for staying in the Paris agreement

Go deeper