UK government action needed to minimise geopolitical risks to reaching net zero

Matthew Paterson, Professor of International Politics at The University of Manchester and Research Director of the Sustainable Consumption Institute

The benefits to the UK of accelerating the move away from fossil fuels towards clean energy alternatives have been made stark by the invasion of Ukraine, a prominent University of Manchester academic has argued.

But, in an article published by Policy@Manchester, Professor Matthew Paterson warns that “the energy transition raises its own questions for future geopolitical dynamics and conflict.”

These include concerns over the availability of various critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt and copper which are crucial to clean energy transitions. “They are central to wind and solar electricity technologies, as well as to the batteries essential for the electrification of transport,” he writes. “The locations of these resources are already becoming the sites of intense geopolitical competition between major powers just as the location of oil, and more recently natural gas, have been since the early 20th century.”

Professor Paterson highlights that even prior to rises in natural gas prices which started several months before the invasion of Ukraine, “it was already the case that solar and wind electricity were often substantially cheaper than gas and coal.”

And whilst he is critical of “net zero sceptic politicians looking to undermine climate policy,” he accepts that there is “a kernel of truth” in their arguments around cost and the impacts on social inequalities. He writes: “While a renewable energy system would be overall cheaper to run, and limit exposure to geopolitical risks at least in the oil and gas sectors, there are significant upfront costs. This is the case, for example, regarding installing heat pumps across around 22 million homes in the UK; switching from a petrol car to an electric vehicle (EV), although this cost differential is rapidly declining; creating a fully-fledged EV charging infrastructure; and updating the grid for a renewables-dominated system. How these are to be paid for, and who would immediately benefit, are crucial questions.”

The University of Manchester academic argues that more aggressive UK government climate policies have the potential “to play a significant role in improving energy security – both in terms of national security and in terms of the security of individual citizens.” And he makes the case for a range of strategies and policies to counter the potential impact of future geopolitical dynamics and conflict.

These include new measures to reduce energy demand and help wean the UK economy off natural gas, “thus mitigating the price volatility induced by geopolitical crises.” Also, a push to decarbonise housing through more heat pumps and the use of electric rather than gas cookers.

In transport, Professor Paterson proposes additional support to shift people’s habits away from private cars towards active travel and public transport, with the government also providing extra investment in road transport electrification.

And he advocates the acceleration of domestic renewable electricity generation which, over the last 10 years, has focused largely on offshore wind “but there is significant untapped potential both for onshore wind and solar, which have largely been hampered by regulatory blockages that need reversing.”

Professor Paterson concludes: “These measures combined would keep the UK’s transition to net zero on course and enhance climate policy ambition, while focusing on those elements that minimise geopolitical risks – both from continued fossil fuel dependence, and from the new energy economy centred on renewables and electrification.”

‘Freedom energy: minimising geopolitical risks to reach net zero’ by Professor Matthew Paterson is available to read on the Policy@Manchester website.

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