scale and slows progress towards decar-
bonization. Fossil-fuel exporters rush to
produce as much as they can, despite fall-
ing prices and constraints on trade.
Power rivalries marginalize the UN and
undermine multilateral institutions such as
the UN Framework Convention on Climate
Change (UNFCCC). EU nations disagree,
weakening joint policies. This wrecks the
Paris climate agreement and the mecha-
nism of voluntary emission cuts underpin-
ning it. With climate change unmitigated,
food prices rise as a result of droughts and
tariffs. Water and other shared resources
are fought over as climate change amplifies
stresses and multiplies risks.
4. Muddling on. Business as usual results
in a mix of energy clubs, with little cooper-
ation. As unit costs keep declining, renewa-
bles claim an increasing share of the energy
mix by 2030. But fossil fuels remain domi-
nant. The speed of the energy transition
is too slow to mitigate climate change, but
too fast for the fossil-fuel industry to adapt.
Some national oil companies go bank-
rupt and others consolidate into a handful
of global energy giants. Exports concen-
trate in fewer countries and companies,
which compete rather than cooperate.
Exporting fossil fuels becomes a risky
business, revenues falter and OPEC col-
lapses. Oil-producing countries in the
Middle East, Russia and Africa see politi-
cal turmoil as government coffers empty.
Motivated by energy security as much as
climate change, countries pursue diverse
energy strategies. China is keen to improve
air and water quality and build ‘national
champions’ in industry. Europe is more
concerned with climate change, and pursu
ing bilateral partnerships with like-minded
and developing countries. The United
States is on the sidelines.
Because some regions have inadequate
regulation or fail to benefit from these
partnerships, existing economic and geo-
political imbalances (such as global north–
south relations) are reinforced and energy
inequality rises, undermining the SDGs.
What lessons an be drawn from these
First, falling costs of technology — the
focal point of current debates — will not by
themselves deliver a low-carbon world. Poli-
tics will be an essential ingredient in success
or failure. Some economists suggest a global
carbon tax as a panacea. But the pace, scope
and direction of the transition will depend
on domestic political economies, regula-
tions and access to finance and clean tech-
nology. Decisive factors include: the degree
to which powerful fossil-fuel lobbies are able
to resist change; whether incumbent regula-
tory environments hold back the advance of
renewables; and whether low-carbon know-
how finds its way from the global north to
the global south.
Second, a zero-carbon world does not
do away with zero-sum games. It produces
different ones. In the current energy sys-
tem, the struggle is over secure and afford-
able access to oil, coal and gas. The United
States has historically cultivated a special
relationship with Saudi Arabia over oil,
and the EU with Russia over natural gas.
In a low-carbon world, the struggle will be
how to finance the infrastructure and to
control the technology needed to harness
wind, solar and other renewable power
sources, and how to secure access to the
materials required for the manufacture of
Third, the pace of change matters. For
example, should a tech breakthrough bring
such as Venezuela
or Algeria might
not have time to
adapt, and their
internal conflicts could spill over into neigh-
bouring regions. The problem here is not so
much stranded assets
, as it is the degree to
which countries share in the benefits of trans-
Fourth, some pathways might not be
politically palatable to all. For example,
many Western policymakers assume that
technological progress is best achieved in a
liberal market underpinned by free trade.
This is not necessarily the case. China has
scaled up renewable energy through top-
down rule and state planning. Brazil’s suc-
cess story in biofuels is in part a function of
a former military junta seeking self-suffi-
ciency and a more favourable trade balance.
Thus, the ‘one size fits all’ approach based
on Western norms in international organi-
zations should be questioned.
Three steps will help to put geopolitics at the
heart of debates about the energy transition.
First, researchers and decision-makers
need to shift their gaze from targets to
pathways. Logistics need to be considered,
as well as uncertainties. This process will
involve more than green growth, economic
diversification and energy access4. Govern-
ments might link low-carbon technology
with foreign and security policy, as they did
with oil and gas.
Second, policymakers need to draw les-
sons from past and parallel experiences.
For example, digitalization, another deep
transition, is doing more than reshaping
economies and societies; it is throwing up
questions related to individual freedom
and political power. The path from planned
to market economies meant economic
hardship for most of the former communist
bloc; it also showed how elites can hijack
transition processes for personal gain.
Third, abating carbon will create losers. So
far, the policy focus has been on empowering
the early winners of an unfolding renewable-
energy race. It now needs to switch to the
potential conflicts resulting from falling
fossil-fuel demand, and the related economic
and security risks. For example, rich coun-
tries such as Germany can throw billions
of dollars at their coal sector to ease their
transition pain, offering generous financial
aid to lignite-producing regions. Nigeria
or Algeria cannot do the same for their oil
industry. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait might
and should be encouraged to do so.
Who should take the lead on managing
the transition? The G20 is one clear can-
didate. The UNFCCC involves 197parties
but, for all its achievements, it has failed
to slow the growth of emissions. The G20
states account for nearly 80% of global
emissions, and so could provide global
leadership and financial support, building
on their Climate and Energy Action Plan
for Growth and cemented by a tripartite
agreement between China, the EU and the
The journey to zero carbon is fraught
with geopolitical risk. By asking the right
questions, identifying threats and offering
solutions, we can get on the road to a just,
peaceful and effective energy transition. ■
Andreas Goldthau is professor of
international relations at Royal Holloway,
University of London, UK, and research
group leader at the Institute for Advanced
Sustainability Studies, Potsdam, Germany.
Kirsten Westphal is senior associate in
the Global Issues Division at the German
Institute for International and Security
Affairs (SWP), Berlin, Germany. She leads
the Geopolitics of Energ y Transformation
project funded by the German Federal
Foreign Office. Morgan Bazilian is director
of the Payne Institute and a professor of
public policy at the Colorado School of
Mines, Golden, Colorado, USA. Michael
Bradshaw is professor of global energy at
Warwick Business School, University of
Warwick, Coventry, UK.
1. Global Commission on the Geopolitics of Energy
Transformation. A New World: The Geopolitics of
the Energy Transformation (IRENA, 2019).
2. International Energy Agency. Outlook for Producer
Economies: What Do Changing Energy Dynamics
Mean for Major Oil and Gas Exporters? (IEA, 2018).
3. Van de Graaf, T. & Bradshaw, M. Int. Aff. 94,
4. Bazilian, M., Sovacool, B. & Moss, T. Glob. Policy
8, 422–425 (2017).
5. Goldthau, A. & Westphal, K. Glob. Policy https://
M.Ba. and K.W. declare competing interests; see
go.nature.com/2kzsi9s for details.
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