Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Is a Green World a Safer World?

Butch Cassidy:
"Kid, the next time I say, 'Let's go someplace like Bolivia,'
let's go someplace like Bolivia."
- Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969)

From Foreign Policy:

Greening the world will certainly eliminate some of the most serious risks we face, but it will also create new ones. A move to electric cars, for example, could set off a competition for lithium -- another limited, geographically concentrated resource. The sheer amount of water needed to create some kinds of alternative energy could suck certain regions dry, upping the odds of resource-based conflict. And as the world builds scores more emissions-free nuclear power plants, the risk that terrorists get their hands on dangerous atomic materials -- or that states launch nuclear-weapons programs -- goes up.

The decades-long oil wars might be coming to an end as black gold says its long, long goodbye, but there will be new types of conflicts, controversies, and unwelcome surprises in our future (including perhaps a last wave of oil wars as some of the more fragile petrocracies decline). If anything, a look over the horizon suggests the instability produced by this massive and much-needed energy transition will force us to grapple with new forms of upheaval. Here's a guide to just a few of the possible green geopolitical tensions to come.

The Green Trade Wars

One source of international friction is far more certain to be a part of our energy future than many of the new technologies being touted as the next big thing. Consider the new U.S. approach in the energy and climate bill recently passed by the House of Representatives, which contains provisions for erecting trade barriers to countries that do not adopt measures to limit emissions. Proponents say these are necessary to reduce the chances of companies relocating to countries with lower emissions standards in order to get an unfair competitive edge. Such tariff regimes are also seen as keeping corporations from relocating to places where climate laws may be more lax, such as China.

Green protectionism is already a growth business. When the European Union considered restricting entry of biofuels based on a range of environmental standards, eight developing countries on three continents threatened legal action in the fall of 2008. In fact, there is a long tradition of such disputes (dolphin-safe tuna, anyone?), but the business community is worried that green protectionism could be a defining feature of international markets in the decades ahead. And of course, the prospect of green trade wars or even just opportunistic fiddling with trade laws to "protect" local jobs suggests a period of related international tensions, especially between developed countries and the emerging world.

National Geographic/Getty Images

The Rise and Fall of the Oil Powers

We're also going to witness the complex consequences of the simultaneous rise and decline of petrostates. First, the soaring price of oil -- which could skyrocket to $250 a barrel, according to some recent Wall Street estimates -- will fill their coffers. Sovereign wealth funds will grow fat again, and with the dollar likely to be weak for years to come, oil fat cats will be buying cheap U.S. assets and making American nationalists uncomfortable all the while.

Those fat cats still have a few good decades ahead of them. Twenty years from now, the world will still be getting at least three quarters of its energy from oil, coal, and natural gas. Today's energy infrastructure took years to develop, and even with revolutionary technological change, the energy mix can shift only marginally in the short term. So, as much as the West may wish to reduce its dependence on the likes of OPEC -- because it's not good to be too dependent on anyone, because oil is dirty and killing the environment, because Providence has seen fit to identify the world's most dangerous regions by locating oil beneath them, and because oil is a drug that has corrupted the character of many of its producing nations -- these countries will have considerable power for the foreseeable future....MORE