Research Articles

Geopolitics of the energy transition

  • YANG Yu , 1, 2, 3 ,
  • XIA Siyou 1, 2 ,
  • QIAN Xiaoying 1, 2
  • 1. Key Laboratory of Regional Sustainable Development Modeling, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, CAS, Beijing 100101, China
  • 2. College of Resources and Environment, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
  • 3. Institute of Strategy Research of Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, Guangzhou 510070, China

Yang Yu (1984-), PhD and Professor, specialized in energy geography and regional studies. E-mail:

Received date: 2022-07-27

  Accepted date: 2022-08-29

  Online published: 2023-05-11

Supported by

National Natural Science Foundation of China(42022007)

National Natural Science Foundation of China(41871118)

Youth Innovation Promotion Association, CAS(2018069)


Geopolitics of energy transition has increasingly become the frontier and hot research area of world energy geography and global political science. Different historical periods are characterised by obvious differences in energy connotations, attributes, and geopolitical characteristics. In the new energy era, energy geopolitics becomes more diversified, complex, and comprehensive. In this paper, we compare the geopolitical characteristics of energy in the fossil fuel and renewable energy periods, and provide an overview of current study trends in new energy geopolitics. Recent research shows that the global energy transition will intensify the reconstruction of geopolitical patterns, change the relationship between geopolitical security and conflict dominated by traditional energy security, alter the role of different countries in global energy geopolitical games, reshape national energy relationships formed in the traditional oil and gas era. In addition, geopolitics will be affected by new energy technologies, availability of key rare materials, and energy cybersecurity measures. Despite considerable attention to this research topic, the likely geopolitical impact of energy transition remains uncertain, and there is still room for the development and improvement of the theoretical framework, technical methods, and research perspective. Looking forward to the future, the research into geopolitics of energy transition urgently needs to strengthen its theoretical basis and rely on the scientific and quantitative methods. The practical conclusions of the research into geopolitics of energy transition should strengthen major national energy security decisions, explore the geographical effect of energy transition, and determine the impact of energy transition on energy security. Research into geopolitics of energy transition should be carried out taking into account international academic frontiers such as climate change, “carbon peak” and “carbon neutral” goals, and global energy governance, to enrich the research perspective of world energy geography.

Cite this article

YANG Yu , XIA Siyou , QIAN Xiaoying . Geopolitics of the energy transition[J]. Journal of Geographical Sciences, 2023 , 33(4) : 683 -704 . DOI: 10.1007/s11442-023-2101-2

1 Introduction

This century, the world has undergone significant changes in the generation and use of energy. In the past decade, the third global energy transition from fossil energy to renewable energy has accelerated with the development of renewable energy sources to become a general trend (Wu, 2021). This global energy transition will fundamentally change energy consumption and affect social and economic systems. Energy transition involves changes in energy sources and systems, and it is mainly manifested as the replacement of fossil fuel by renewables such as hydropower, wind, and solar power (Wu et al., 2019). However, energy transition represents not just a change in energy utilisation forms, but it can affect many political issues, such as power, equity, energy governance, state relations, and interest distribution (Zhang, 2020). The exploration and development of unconventional oil and gas, breakthroughs in disruptive energy technologies, and international recognition of the need in low-carbon energy sources are all contributing to the complexity of global energy transition, energy geopolitics, and economic issues. Therefore, the geopolitics of energy transition has gradually become a hot field of global energy research (Yang et al., 2020a; 2020b). In the traditional energy era dominated by oil and gas, owing to the scarcity, non-renewability, and irreplaceability of oil and gas resources, the very tight relationship between oil and gas resources and geopolitics has become the main force shaping the global political landscape, referred to as the “traditional energy geopolitical era” (Zou et al., 2021). However, energy transition will directly change the emphasis on oil and gas in geopolitical games, reshape the new international energy power structure and world energy order, and have a complex and profound impact on global energy security, geopolitics and economic structure. In August 2019, the Royal Institute of International Affairs released the report “The Geopolitical Implication of Future Oil Demand”, which pointed out that in the current energy transition, the rise of new energy sources weakens the geopolitical influence of oil and is likely to change the energy geopolitical pattern dominated by oil (Stevens, 2019). In addition, relevant studies published by the International Renewable Energy Agency and Nature show that energy transition will be one of the main factors to reshape geopolitics in the 21st century, affecting the geopolitical influence of major countries and development trends of domestic politics (Overland et al., 2017; Bazilian et al., 2019).
Energy is not only a resource, but also a network relationship in the power structure (Swyngedouw, 2004). Power is an important perspective for understanding geopolitics, security, and cooperation related to energy use (Yang et al., 2021). In the traditional energy era, Xu et al. pointed out that oil power is the main line running through the geopolitics of oil, and discussed the basis of oil power theory from the background of the times and the political and economic attributes of oil (Xu, 2012; Han et al., 2020; Liang et al., 2020). Energy transition is also closely related to power. For example, an interactive relationship has been revealed between energy transition and a power framework based on the discourse power, mechanism power, and material power (Power et al., 2016). It has been argued that energy transition will trigger the change of power structure, which, reciprocally, will have an impact on energy transition (Power, 2016). Yang (2020) developed the theory of geo-power of energy from resources power, trade and transportation power, capital power and technology power. Energy transformation has promoted the focus of the energy geopolitical game from resource and trade controls to technology and capital controls. The theoretical framework and research paradigm of energy geopolitics in the new era are derived from the distribution law of energy geography, shift of energy power, relationship among energy actors, global energy governance, and decision-making services for national energy security (Yang, 2020; Yang et al., 2021). In addition, a recently suggested theoretical framework of geopolitical research with the technological change at its core indicated that disruptive technologies would bring new energy substitution, whereas control and spatial transfer of new energy technology will change the global energy geopolitical pattern (Cui et al., 2020).
The geopolitics of energy transition has become the hot field of global energy geography and political science research, attracting attention of scholars in different disciplines and stimulating many theoretical and empirical discussions from various perspectives. Reviewing the progress of research into geopolitics of international energy transition is important for understanding the impact of energy transition on geopolitics, boosting global energy transition, ensuring China’s energy security, and avoiding possible geopolitical risks. Taking these considerations into account, in this review, we first compare the distinct features of energy geopolitics in different chronological periods, primarily between oil and gas age and renewable energy era of today. Secondly, we review the progress of research into new energy geopolitics and summarise geopolitical hot topics related to energy transition. Finally, we comment on the shortcomings of the current studies of energy transition geopolitics and propose new research directions. We hope that our review will provide a new research perspective for the development of China’s energy geography in the new era and become a reference point for promoting China’s energy transition and ensuring its energy security.

2 Comparison of the mutual interactions of energy and geopolitics in different historical periods

The geopolitical attributes of energy depends on whether energy elements become the carrier of the game of power, interests, and security among countries (Yang et al., 2020b). According to the changes in dominant energy sources, the world energy history can be roughly divided into four periods: firewood era, coal era, oil and gas era, and new energy era (Table 1). Accordingly, energy connotations, attributes, and relationship with geopolitics were distinct in these different historical periods.
Table 1 Characteristic of energy geopolitics in different periods
Energy era Firewood era (Before the 18th century) Coal age (From the mid- and late 18th century to the early 20th century) Oil and gas age (Since the mid-20th century) Renewable energy era (After the mid-21st
Dominant Energy Firewood, traditional biomass energy Coal Oil and natural gas Solar energy, wind energy and other new energy sources
Core technology None Steam engine Combustion engine Generator, motor
Resource characteristics Ubiquitous, renewable, low energy efficient Centralized distribution, non-renewable and high energy efficiency Highly centralized, non-renewable, and more energy efficient Ubiquitous, renewable and less energy efficient
Consumption characteristics Consume nearby and adjust measures to local conditions Geographical differences between consumption areas and major storage areas Significant geographical differences between the huge global consumer market and the highly concentrated storage areas Consume nearby, adjust measures to local conditions, and combine foreign energy with local energy
Transport characteristics No need for large-scale and long-distance
Long-distance and large-scale transportation by road, rail and sea is required Highly dependent on long-distance and large-scale transportation by sea, pipeline, highway, railway and special transportation modes Highly dependent on trans-regional power grid
International competitiveness Weak Strong Stronger Weaker
Type of conflict Small-scale, non-violent Large scale, violence Large scale, violence Small-scale, non-violent
Geopolitical structure Symmetrical
Asymmetric structure Asymmetric structure Relatively symmetrical structure
Geopolitical type General geopolitics Coal Geopolitics Oil and gas geopolitics Renewable energy
In the firewood era, energy mainly came from traditional biomass and depended on natural processes of photosynthesis and vegetation growth; it did not have independent geopolitical attributes and no clear geopolitical path of energy was evident. In the traditional energy era dominated by coal, oil, and gas, the scarcity, lack of renewability, uneven geographical distribution, and high dependence of economic development on traditional energy sources highlighted the geopolitical and economic attributes of energy. The spatial separation of energy production and consumption locations strengthened international interdependence among countries through large-scale and complex energy trade relations. Countries and regions took part in geographical games via the possession of resources, trade and channel control, as well as via various cooperative and competitive relations that regulated possession, production, distribution, and consumption of fossil energy. The relationship between supply and demand is the key market factor underlying energy geopolitics. The stability of this relationship is not only a direct evidence of energy security, but also an important way to maintain and balance geopolitical relations. The disruption of the balance between supply and demand leads to frequent and large-scale geographical conflicts. Such conflicts are mainly realized as a confrontational game of energy, forming a geopolitical force with asymmetric structure in the traditional energy era (Vakulchuk et al., 2020). The Gulf War, Middle East regional conflict, US-Russia natural gas game, political and military games in the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Hormuz are all typical examples of such confrontational games.
Energy transition has deeply changed the action path of geopolitics in the traditional energy era. The geopolitical game in the new energy era mainly focuses on capital and technology control. The control power over capital and technology plays an increasingly important role in energy geopolitics and are characterised by diversification and complexity. First, compared with the features of fossil energy, renewable energy such as hydropower, distributed wind power, and distributed photovoltaic are characterised by obvious “broad spectrum” and “decentralisation” in geographical distribution, which slows down antagonistic geo-game of energy as a whole. However, the scarcity, non-renewability, and new geographical dependence on critical materials such as rare earth elements, cobalt, and silicon, required for the development of renewable energy sources, become principal reasons for geopolitical games. Secondly, the technology and cost of renewable energy storage, intermittency, and infrastructure management are the key market factors shaping new energy geopolitics. The form, conversion mode, and transportation means of renewable energy are obviously different from those of traditional energy. Renewable energy is mainly transported through the energy grid, which strengthens the interdependence among different countries and regions. However, cybersecurity has become a new form of geopolitical game in the new energy era. In the context of energy transition, regional conflicts in traditional energy-rich areas, such as the Middle East, will be greatly alleviated, and the energy game in key shipping lanes, such as the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Hormuz will also be weakened. However, geopolitical games between China and the United States as well as between China and Europe around new energy technology, infrastructure, and international investment will become more and more prominent. Countries with critical materials for new energy development may become the focus of new energy geopolitics. In general, the geopolitical conflicts triggered by new energy are mainly small-scale, non-violent conflicts. Compared with the traditional energy era, the geopolitical game in the new energy era will be more symmetrical.

3 Progress of research into geopolitics of energy transition

In the 1970s-1980s, American scholars and experts paid great attention to the geostrategic significance of developing and utilising new energy sources, such as solar energy, to American energy security and took a lead in emphasising the geopolitical aspect of new energy (Vakulchuk et al., 2020). In 1972, the National Science Foundation and National Aeronautics and Space Administration pointed out that the development and utilisation of solar energy would inevitably have environmental, social, and geopolitical impacts (NSF/NASA, 1972). In 1977, Williams argued that the large-scale use of solar energy would help to avoid or decrease the international energy crisis related to the consumption of fossil energy (Williams, 1977). In 1980, the California Academy of Sciences submitted a report to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which stated that the American energy system (fuel and electricity) was extremely vulnerable, as it relied on energy imports, and was overly centralised, owing to traditional energy characteristics. It was argued that the decentralized new energy could reduce national vulnerability and the possibility of war by replacing fragile centralised traditional energy (CAS, 1980). Omo-Fadaka also emphasized the positive impact of new energy on the global economy and international security back in 1980 (Omo-Fadaka, 1980). Nonetheless, for a long time afterwards, the research on energy security continued to focus mostly on traditional energy and largely ignored the impact of new energy on geopolitics.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, research into energy geopolitics has gradually evolved into two branches, one of which continues to pay attention to the geopolitics of traditional energy, and the other focuses on the growing geopolitical impact of new energy. Northern Europe is one of the regions where new energy (initially wind and solar energy) is most widely used. After 2010, scholars from Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg have led the research into new energy geopolitics (Krewitt et al., 2009; Casertano, 2012; Scholten et al., 2013; Sweijs et al., 2014). One of the most classic works in this field is “The Geopolitics of Renewables” volume published in 2018 (Scholten, 2018a). This book expounds the geopolitics of renewable energy game and its potential impact on global power relations from many aspects, such as renewable energy revolution, risk of asset stranding, bilateral energy relations between existing energy powers and emerging economies, development of infrastructure for renewables, and energy governance countermeasures. In addition, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Germany and Norway, together with the International Renewable Energy Agency, released the working paper “The Geopolitics of Renewable Energy” in 2017, and discussed future developments of seven renewable energy schemes and how such schemes would affect mechanisms of geopolitics (Overland et al., 2017). In 2018, with the support of the governments of Germany, Norway, and the United Arab Emirates, the International Renewable Energy Agency convened and established “The Global Commission on the Geopolitics of Energy Transformation” to promote the geopolitical research on global energy transition. The released research report “A New World: The Geopolitics of the Energy Transformation” explored the root causes of energy transition reshaping the geopolitical pattern and decreasing geopolitical instability, pointing out that global energy transition would change the global geopolitical structure and international relations, as well as the driving factors of conflict and geopolitical turbulence (IREA, 2019).
Geopolitical research on energy transition has attracted extensive attention of experts in geography, politics, international relations, and natural resources. The hot topics of geopolitical research into energy transition mainly include five aspects: 1) geopolitical security and conflicts associated with energy transition; 2) transformation of geopolitical roles owing to energy transition; 3) reshaping of international relations as a result of energy transition; 4) impact of new energy technologies and critical materials on geopolitics; and 5) cybersecurity in energy transition.

3.1 Geopolitical security and conflicts associated with energy transition

Geo-security and conflicts in both the traditional and new energy periods are always at the focus of the energy geopolitics research. However, compared with the established view on geo-security and conflicts in the traditional energy era, the discussion about these issues in the new energy era is clearly separated between two camps of experts who believe that energy transition will either increase or reduce the probability and severity of conflicts. The “increasing conflict” camp believes that energy transition will exacerbate the conflicts related to energy and make the geopolitical game more intense, whereas the “reducing conflicts” camp believes that energy transition will greatly attenuate the highly tense geopolitical game of the oil and gas era and reduce international disputes caused by energy issues.
The “increasing conflicts” camp insists that although the extensive use of new energy may end the oil wars, it may also cause international economic conflicts in the form of trade wars (Freeman, 2017). The conflicts caused by the new energy system may be as serious as those caused by the competition for traditional energy (Buijs et al., 2011; Laird, 2013; Umbach, 2018). If the energy transition occurs under conditions of sustained high energy demand, it may lead to energy security vulnerabilities similar to those associated with the traditional energy, such as energy supply interruption or geopolitical turmoil in energy-producing countries (Capellan-Perez et al., 2017). In the process of energy transition, new energy sources will replace fossil fuels and become the driving force of new geopolitical tensions (Raman, 2013). In addition, the “increasing conflicts” camp believes that energy transition leads to new types of conflicts and brings greater security risks and geopolitical tensions, mainly related to the supply of critical materials for generating new energy and network attack risks (Rothkopf et al., 2009). On the one hand, the value of new energy technologies and critical materials will be highlighted. Access to technologies and critical materials required for new energy power generation, distribution, or storage forms a new geopolitical dependence on countries that own these materials, which may lead to new types of conflicts and exacerbate geopolitical instability (Hurd et al., 2012; Exner et al., 2015; Habib et al., 2016). On the other hand, the intermittency of power supply, which could lead to cross-border conflicts, increases the risk of cyberattacks. This is seen as a challenge to energy transition (Heinrich et al., 2016; Scholten et al., 2016).
In contrast, the “reducing conflicts” camp believes that geopolitical conflicts caused by the scarcity of traditional energy resources will be obsolete in the new energy era. Because new energy sources are abundant and no longer concentrated in a few countries, energy transition will improve energy accessibility and independence, thus alleviating geopolitical tensions (Francés et al., 2013; Månsson et al., 2015; Escribano, 2019). Compared with the localisation of fossil energy sources, new energy sources have lower density and more uniform geographical distribution, which makes it more difficult to control and cut down new energy supply or manipulate new energy prices. Energy transition promotes the focus of energy supply to shift from outside to inside (Lacher et al., 2011). It has been argued that energy transition would lead to greater energy self-sufficiency, decreased interdependence among countries, and reduced geopolitical tensions and risks (Hoggett, 2014; Smith, 2018). Due to the geographical distribution and technological characteristics of new energy, few countries have triggered conflicts and created geopolitical motives to control it. As pointed out by Peters and others, energy transition will lead to fairer energy distribution and economic development, thus reducing geopolitical tensions (Peters, 2003; Tsao et al., 2017). Overland et al. (2019) also suggested that after the energy transition is complete, geopolitical forces will be more evenly distributed, which would decrease chances of the geopolitical conflicts caused by energy. In addition, Krewitt et al. (2009) proposed that the establishment of international solar energy partnership can create a global market for future-oriented new energy technologies, reduce the economic imbalance between North and South, strengthen geopolitical advantages, and alleviate conflicts caused by scarce resources (Krewitt et al., 2009).

3.2 Transformation of geopolitical roles owing to energy transition

The global energy transition will intensify the reconstruction of geopolitical patterns, change geopolitical roles, and affect the fate of many countries, including the rise and fall of great powers (Sweijs et al., 2014; Mecklin, 2016). Many scholars tend to differentiate between “winners” and “losers” of energy transition by simple dichotomy. Countries that rely heavily on fossil fuel exports and do not adapt to energy transition would face geopolitical risks and lose influence. Such countries would be regarded as geopolitical “losers” of energy transition. In contrast, countries that invest a lot of money into new energy and have advanced energy technologies will become leaders in energy transition, thus becoming geopolitical “winners”. The energy transition will cause traditional energy exporting countries to face the geopolitical risk that fossil energy sources will become stranded assets, which may hinder economic development of these countries and weaken their geopolitical influence (OECD, 2015; Jaffe, 2016; Scholten, 2018b). Traditional fossil energy exporting countries may face higher costs than those faced by other countries during energy transformation. The deep-rooted interests of traditional energy industry in countries’ domestic political, economic, and social systems have caused the situation of carbon lock-up, which prompts traditional energy beneficiaries to resist energy transition and brings the risk that the traditional energy exporting countries may not understand or be unwilling to consider new energy. This circumstance, in turn, affects the continuous change of the demand for their export. These countries often need to make greater efforts than other countries to adapt to new changes and are regarded as the biggest “losers” (Unruh, 2000; 2002). On the contrary, those countries that rely heavily on fossil energy imports will benefit from reducing import dependence and obtain strategic and economic benefits through the development and utilisation of renewable energy (Vakulchuk et al., 2020). Compared with the relative conservatism of traditional energy exporting countries, those taking the lead in new energy technologies and critical materials may become “winners”. New energy technologies and critical materials are the decisive factors of the energy transition success. The production and export of a large number of new energy power generation instruments and critical materials will occupy a broad market and obtain the maximum benefits from energy transition. This, in turn, will strengthen geopolitical influence of the countries involved (Jaffe, 2016; Eisen, 2017; Freeman, 2018; Scholten et al., 2018). In addition, several scholars have analysed the geographical role of resource-poor developing countries in energy transition. For example, De Ridder pointed out that these countries are likely to become “losers,” because they have limited economic strength to buy new technologies (De Ridder, 2013). Joyeeta et al. (2018) noted that developing countries would have the opportunity to go beyond the traditional energy era based on fossil energy and centralised power grid and directly transition to new energy systems. Because of the broad spectrum of new energy and decline in the cost of new energy equipment, these countries would no longer need to invest in fossil fuels and their production, and eventually become the “winners” of the new energy geopolitical games (Joyeeta et al., 2018).
Several scholars hypothesised about the changing geopolitical roles of major countries after energy transition (Table 2) (Pascual, 2015; Stang, 2016; Smith, 2018; Overland et al., 2019). Smith Stegen (2018) defined the “winners” and “losers” of energy transition based on renewable energy potential, political acceptance, and traditional energy richness. Overland et al. (2019) used GeGaLo, an index of geopolitical gains and losses, to analyse the geopolitical situation of 156 countries after energy transition based on fossil fuel production, fossil fuel reserves, renewable energy resources, governance and conflicts. It is generally believed that oil reserves of Brazil, Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela are likely to become “stranded geopolitical assets”, whereas the United States, China, EU member states, and Japan would be the winners in energy transition. These countries will no longer need to import traditional energy and will reduce their large energy burden (IREA, 2019). Since the start of the 21st century, the geopolitics of energy transition has shown an obvious new tone. Traditional energy producing countries began to worry about the impact of energy transition, and their willingness to consider alternative energy sources increased significantly (Ladislaw et al., 2014). Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for example, are aware of the risks brought to them by energy transition, so to cope with their declining international energy influence, they began to take appropriate measures, such as increasing the share of new energy in the existing energy structure, diversifying financial assets and partially privatising national oil companies, and advocating new energy international organizations (Pascual, 2015; Scholten, 2018b). Although the efforts made so far are not sufficient to make these oil-rich countries the winners of energy transition, they may nonetheless reduce the negative impact. Therefore, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will not be the biggest losers in the division of geopolitical roles after energy transition (Table 2). At the same time, some scholars disagree with the view that energy transition will end the influence of oil countries. They believe that energy transition may promote new oligopoly, resulting in fewer crude oil producing countries increasing market concentration (Goldthau et al., 2019). As the global energy system transitions to renewables, it will provide new export opportunities for traditional oil producing countries in the short term.
Table 2 Geopolitical role division of major countries and regions after new energy transition (Smith Stegen, 2018; Overland et al., 2019)
Divided by Smith Stegen Divided by Overland et al.
Winners Losers Winners Losers
Uruguay Brunei Iceland Libya
Namibia Qatar Mauritania Russia
Kenya Bahrain Guyana Nigeria
Mali Kuwait Bhutan Sudan
Sweden Timor-Leste New Zealand Venezuela
Finland Trinidad and Tobago Uruguay Qatar
France Bhutan Central Africa North Korea
Nicaragua Slovakia Mauritius Congo (DRC)
Honduras Belize Singapore Iraq
India Georgia Argentina Yemen
Jordan Bangladesh
Mongolia Gabon
Sri Lanka Samoa
China Puerto Rico

Note: The classification of Overland et al. involves 156 countries, and only the top 10 and bottom 10 countries are listed here.

3.3 Energy transition reshapes relations among countries

Energy transition has emerged as a significant political force, altering the distribution of global energy power and geopolitical influence. It not only changes the geopolitical roles based on the traditional energy, but also reconfigures relationships between regions and countries. Democratisation is one of the consequences of reshaped international relations through energy transition (Laird, 2003; Burke et al., 2018). Because the renewable energy system is more symmetrical than the traditional energy one, energy transition will change the power structure among countries and promote the energy relationship from asymmetric dependence to mutual and horizontal dependence. At the national and community levels, energy transition is expected to stimulate energy independence, ensure national energy security, decentralise power, and improve democratic governance (Haug, 2012; Joyeeta et al., 2018). The broad-spectrum characteristics of new energy reduce the centralised control of political and economic elites and help to realise the power balance between “elites” and “ordinary people” (Powell et al., 2015). In addition, new energy involves more democratic processes in management, distribution, and use compared to those associated with fossil fuels, which is considered to be conducive to “energy democracy”. The energy system with “democratisation” can enhance geopolitical stability and reduce the possibility of global geopolitical risks (Laird, 2003). For example, Casertano (2012) believed that energy transition democratises energy supply and created a new network structure that can be called “Energy Internet”. Rifkin (2012) discussed how to expand the use of new energy, so as to make the global energy system more equal and democratic.
Energy transition will reshape existing alliances between nations and cooperation among countries in energy geopolitics at many levels (IREA, 2019), bringing more complicated geopolitical consequences (Rothkopf et al., 2009; Scholten, 2018b; Overland et al., 2019). On the one hand, the layout and implementation of large-scale new energy projects will weaken existing geopolitical alliances based on fossil fuels and promote the switch to the regional power grid community (Gruenig et al., 2016). Criekemans (2011) pointed out that the investment in new energy technologies is likely to form a new geopolitical power centre, which will lead to a new world energy order dominated by a few large countries (possibly including China and/or the United States) or promote a more equal distribution of geopolitical forces in many countries (Criekemans, 2011). In addition, Criekemans suggested that the existing level of R&D investment in new energy and advantages in new energy technologies and critical materials of China and the United States would play a key role in the establishment of the “dual core multipole” system (Criekemans, 2018). On the other hand, energy transition will shift the international system towards greater multipolarisation (De Ridder, 2013). Compared with the energy system dominated by traditional energy, following energy transition, participants such as environmental non-governmental organizations and energy consumers will have a stronger ability to influence decision-making because of their larger number, higher degree of decentralisation, and more equal distribution (Reusswig et al., 2018). In addition, those countries that deploy new energy on a large scale may benefit from mutual cooperation, with new types of alliances (Gullberg, 2013; Gullberg et al., 2014), initiatives, and new levels of regional cooperation to promote the regionalisation of the international energy system (Huebner, 2016). Guler et al. (2018) put forward the framework of the “regional energy hub”, discussed the advantages of establishing regional alliances, and pointed out that such alliances would invest in and improve the transmission capacity of inter-regional power trade, enhance the interdependence among countries, and have a positive spillover effect on geopolitical stability.

3.4 Influence of new energy technologies and critical materials on geopolitics

With the emergence of a new round of low-carbon technology revolution, new energy technologies are accelerating iteration at an unprecedented speed. Disruptive technologies will profoundly change the prospect of energy development and the global energy pattern. Meanwhile, with the explosive growth of new energy facilities, relevant key mineral markets may be affected by price fluctuations or even risk supply interruptions, which will have a far-reaching impact on global energy geopolitics. On the background of global energy transition, new energy technologies and critical materials are increasingly becoming the focus of international energy geo-economic competition, affecting the trend of global energy geopolitical pattern (Baldi et al., 2014; Pavel et al., 2017; Bazilian, 2018; Wu et al., 2020; Blondeel et al., 2021). On the one hand, the global low-carbon energy transition drives a rapid increase of the demand for critical materials, but the relatively limited resource reserves and production capacity will lead to the risk of supply shortages and intensify the disparity between supply and demand (Dong et al., 2020). On the other hand, due to the scarcity, as well as strategic and geographical imbalance of critical materials, their trade is deeply affected by national trade policies, global economic development trends, and the resource demand changes resulting from technological innovation. If the trade relationship is broken, it may have a chain effect and spread rapidly through the trade network, affecting the supply security of critical materials in other countries in the network, thereby causing geographical risks (Buldyrev et al., 2010). In addition, the uninterrupted supply of key technologies and materials has also created new geographical dependencies and increased risk and vulnerability of geopolitics to technologies and critical materials (Umbach, 2018). Cui et al. (2020) pointed out that new energy technology breakthroughs gradually increase the substitutability of fossil energy, which will change the global energy supply pattern, affecting the geopolitical game of energy powers and application of energy diplomacy. Miao et al. (2020) observed that the focus of the energy geopolitical game in the electric energy era shifted to the key minerals highly necessary for the effective use of non-fossil energy.
The International Institute for Sustainable Development published a catalogue of critical materials in new energy and technologies such as solar energy, wind energy, electric vehicles, and energy storage (Table 3). These key materials are critical to the development of new energy and high-tech industries, but their supply capacity is limited, which may change the traditional geopolitical pattern of world energy and mineral resources (IISD, 2018). Gulley et al. (2018) studied the conflict-prone new energy minerals and concluded that China and the United States might compete for 11 minerals, especially those that cannot be replaced in new technologies (including new energy equipment). Månberger et al. (2019) analysed the global distribution and geopolitical pattern of 14 metal minerals, and pointed out that the geographical concentration of most critical minerals is significantly higher than that of oil, which will bring more severe geopolitical challenges to the global low-carbon energy transition. At present, the research on the critical materials for new energy mostly focuses on rare earth elements. With the rise of geopolitical costs, the world will face new and even more serious dependence on rare earth elements. Competition for these elements may also shift to more common structural materials, which may eventually be more critical to energy transition (Bonnet et al., 2019; Hache et al., 2019). Some scholars also indicated that 57% of the known rare earth reserves are concentrated in China and Russia. Moreover, China controls the core technologies of rare earth mining, smelting, finishing, and deep processing, and is in the core position in the global rare earth industry layout and industrial chain. If China monopolises the mining, separation, and processing of rare earth elements, it may affect other countries (Smith, 2015; Rabe et al., 2016; Kalantzakos, 2017).
Table 3 Critical materials for new energy technologies (IISD, 2018)
Electric vehicles,
energy storage
Electric vehicles,
energy storage
Bauxite and aluminium Manganese
Cadmium Molybdenum
Chromium Nickel
Cobalt Rare earths
Copper Selenium
Gallium Silicon
Germanium Silver
Graphite Tellurium
Indium Tin
Iron Titanium
Lead Zinc

Source: IISD, Green Conflict Minerals, August 2018.

3.5 Cybersecurity in energy transition

As countries develop new energy, increasingly integrate their power grids with neighbouring countries, and establish more extensive regional energy transport channels, new interdependence and trade patterns will emerge. Cybersecurity related to infrastructure, which is the frontier issue of geopolitical research on energy transition, has attracted significant research attention (Qi et al., 2017; Dignum, 2018; Handke, 2018). Miao et al. (2020) pointed out that the energy geopolitical game still exists in the new energy era, but the focus of the game shifted to the field of Global Energy Internet closely related to power use. The innovative application of information technologies, such as smart grid, energy storage technology, and ultra-high-voltage electricity transmission, can effectively meet the demand of new energy power transmission flexibility, making it more intelligent, efficient, interconnected, and sustainable. However, it also makes the new energy grid more vulnerable to network attacks. Network attackers may try to disrupt the management and power distribution of the power grid, interrupt and destroy industrial infrastructure, whereas such actions at the national level may even undermine national relations and provoke geopolitical conflicts. On the one hand, countries that dominate the power grid may maliciously control their neighbours. The national power cuts will become an important diplomatic tool, and the effects of strategic application will be similar to the effects of oil and gas sanctions. Cutting off the power grid will become a new weapon for countries to implement sanctions (O’ Sullivan et al., 2020). On the other hand, most new energy equipment and power grid systems rely heavily on computers to manage the production, distribution, and output of new energy, prompting high requirements for cybersecurity. In the absence of international norms, the development of digital technology in the energy field may bring security concerns, as facilities highly dependent on complex and large-scale power grids have high cybersecurity vulnerability risks and may suffer serious security impacts due to network attacks (IREA, 2019). In addition, the global energy network transmission will produce a “short board effect”, that is, countries with the weakest cybersecurity construction in the whole energy network will easily become the target of attack, which will then produce chain and diffusion effects that may even destroy the energy supply of all countries connected over the internet and thereby seriously aggravate geopolitical risks (Cui et al., 2020). However, some scholars pointed out that decentralised small-scale power generation can reduce cybersecurity risks (Liu et al., 2012; Månsson, 2015). Scholten et al. (2016) introduced the concept of “power grid community”, believing that the grid can ensure community energy security and lay a foundation for regional peace and stability.

4 Reviews and prospects

4.1 Reviews

This paper compares the differences of energy geopolitics in different historical periods, overviews the research into new energy geopolitics, and considers the research topics of geopolitics of energy transition from five aspects: the geopolitical security and conflicts of energy transition, the evolution of geopolitical role of energy transition, the relations among countries reshaped by energy transition, the impact of energy technologies and critical materials on geopolitics, and the cybersecurity issue in energy transition. However, there are many uncertainties about the geopolitical impact of energy transition, and there is still room for the development and improvement of the theoretical framework, technical methods, and research perspective.
(1) In the theoretical research, the current studies mainly focus on the description of historical materials and hot news events, and the prediction of the future is mostly based on hypothetical reasoning. The theoretical framework and complete logical system need to be further improved. New energy geopolitics is an interdisciplinary research field, with the majority of the existing geopolitical studies about energy transition being research reports published by governments or international organizations, which tend to be qualitative descriptions based on historical data and deductive reasoning on future assumptions. In the theoretical framework and logical system, many current studies have never got rid of the thinking and analytical modes of geopolitical research characteristic of the traditional energy era, especially in the geopolitical investigations of new energy technologies and critical materials. Many reports still tend to apply the geopolitical perspective and relevant theories of the traditional energy era, adopting the logic of geopolitical conflict and antagonistic game, and simply replacing oil and gas with new energy for logical deduction. In fact, as mentioned earlier, the geopolitics of energy transition is more diversified, comprehensive, and complicated. The connotation and mechanism of geopolitical security caused by energy transition have undergone profound changes. The role strength, influence scope, master-slave relationship, phased driving mechanism, and the form of force between different renewable energy and geopolitical bodies need to be studied more deeply and systematically, which requires theoretical innovation on the basis of traditional energy geopolitical theory.
(2) In terms of research methods, empirical deduction, qualitative description, and simple statistical analysis are mostly used, and there is a lack of relatively perfect technical method system with strong explanatory power and dynamic simulation. This complicates the analysis of globalisation, capitalisation, and networking. Existing studies mainly focus on empirical judgment, qualitative analysis, and statistical description, and there is a relative lack of quantitative description, scenario construction, and predictive methods addressing mechanisms of action and influence. The following three aspects should be noted. First, the quantitative analysis of geopolitics and geopolitical relations caused by energy transition lags far behind the quantitative expression of the new energy pattern. In particular, the quantitative research on the change of the geopolitical scale and hierarchical structure of energy transition is still relatively weak. Secondly, there is a lack of effective analytical tools to describe the interaction between energy transition and geopolitics. Most of the existing studies combine the qualitative analysis of geopolitical events of energy transition with quantitative analysis of new energy spatial pattern. The research system is relatively thin and lacks the support of systematic technical method, does not consider influencing factors contributing to the pattern evolution, as well as usually fails to address the mutual superposition and offset among factors. Thirdly, the research on energy geopolitics mainly focuses on historical analysis, case studies, with the emphasis on induction, and seldom uses established predictive models and methods. As a result, there are many uncertainties about the geopolitical impact of energy transition, and it is difficult to accurately and scientifically predict the evolution of energy geopolitical pattern in the future.
(3) From the research perspective, most of the investigations focus on the macro-scale research, and there is a relative lack of applied studies. We would like to comment on four specific aspects in this regard. First, the interdisciplinary research needs to be further promoted, and the changes of geographical elements, such as geographical environment, relationship, and structure, as well as the formation of new mechanisms should be considered more frequently by using multidisciplinary theory. Secondly, only few studies provide actual definitions of the “geopolitics” of new energy, and the terms “big power competition” and “international relations” are often used interchangeably. Geographical or spatial concepts related to new energy are rarely defined (Stoeglehner et al., 2011; Bridge et al., 2013), and there is no consensus among different disciplines regarding the geopolitics of energy transition. Thirdly, there is emphasis on the macroscale rather than microscale research. On the one hand, the studies focus on the global and large areas, whereas specific case studies on a smaller scale, such as cross-border, national and important nodes, are relatively rare. On the other hand, there are few specific case studies on the geopolitical impacts caused by different types of new energy and critical materials. Fourthly, the research perspective is biased towards qualitative descriptions, and there is dearth of the application research based on simulation to reveal the dynamic evolution of geopolitics of energy transition, and to provide risk warning and response. To face the major strategic needs of China and serve the development of more effective national energy security strategy, the research on decision-making needs to be strengthened.

4.2 Prospects

In view of the lack of geopolitical research on energy transition at present, future studies urgently need to take into account the theoretical aspects, technical methods, application focus, and specific research directions outlined in Figure 1 to describe geopolitics of energy transition more effectively.
Figure 1 Framework of geopolitical research on energy transition
(1) Based on the theoretical research, a new geopolitics theory of energy transition should be created. At present, the geopolitics research of energy transition covers geography, politics, international relations, sociology, and resource science, integrating the research characteristics of different disciplines. Future studies should pay more attention to the integration and innovation of multidisciplinary theories, and gather multidisciplinary knowledge theories to build a theoretical framework with a complete logical system and strong theoretical explanation. On the one hand, the geo-power of energy is an important theoretical perspective of energy geopolitics research, and the energy transition endows this concept with more diverse and complicated connotations. The power game and evolution caused by energy transition are not only the core issues of geopolitics, but also are the key to ensuring national energy security. Therefore, in the future, it is necessary to continuously develop and improve the theoretical connotation and system of geo-power of energy, build a more perfect geopolitical theoretical system of energy transition with energy power and its relevance as the core, and clarify theoretically the impact of energy transition on geopolitics and geographical mechanisms. Further, as energy transition promotes the connotation transition of energy geopolitics, it becomes necessary to accurately grasp the dynamic changes of research objects and related elements, gradually establish a scientific theoretical framework for research into geopolitics of energy transition, and clarify the multiple factors (environment, facilities, system, etc.), objectives (safety, low-carbon, sustainability, etc.) and scales (global, regional, and national) of geopolitical risk assessments of energy transition. Based on the unified theoretical framework and principles of comprehensiveness and operability, it is critical to strengthen the interdisciplinary integration and complementarity of theories, and gradually establish and improve the theoretical system of geopolitics of energy transition.
(2) With the support of technical methods, a shift in the scientific and econometric research of energy geopolitics should be promoted. The process of energy transition is affected by multidimensional and complex factors, such as social economy, technology, and geographical environment. In addition, there are also complex nonlinear interaction processes among multiple systems, such as energy, human society, and geo-environment. How to accurately identify the geopolitical influencing factors of energy transition and scientifically simulate this complex dynamic process is key to the geopolitical simulation research of energy transition. In the future, a new energy sharing database can be established by integrating ArcGIS, multivariate big data, artificial intelligence, statistical data, complex network, and other technical parameters to strengthen the research on how geopolitics may be influenced by energy transition, promoting the shift from qualitative descriptions to quantitative analyses and from empirical judgment to scientific measurements. It would also be useful to develop the dynamic simulation-integrated technology system to promote new breakthroughs in systematic dynamic simulations. Integrating the advantages of multi-disciplinary technical methods in dealing with complex system problems will gradually strengthen the research on geopolitics of energy transition, and continuously enhance the systematicity, scientific rationality, and credibility of research results.
(3) Empirical research should be used to promote the discipline of world energy geography to meet the national strategic needs. The geopolitics of energy transition is an important subject of world energy geography research, and one of their important outputs is to serve the decision-making needs of national energy security. Therefore, the research into geopolitics of energy transition should be complementary to scientific research and decision-making services. First, energy geopolitics, as the main research topic of world energy geography, should strengthen the knowledge output of theoretical and empirical studies to better promote the academic development of world energy geography. Second, based on the simulation integration, geopolitical dynamic simulation and monitoring, systems of risk early warning and response to energy transformation, development of intelligent human-computer interactive decision support platform, and construction of decision support systems are all major topics that need to be further refined by the studies of geopolitics of energy transition in the future. Finally, more specific case studies of the geopolitical impact caused by different types of new energy, related technologies, and critical materials should be performed to provide scientific support for major national departments to formulate energy security policies.
(4) Future research needs to focus on key topics, issues, and regions of geopolitics of energy transition. On the one hand, future studies should examine the geographical effect of energy transition on the geopolitical reconstruction of traditional energy. The impact of the global geographical distribution and trade of new energy related factors on the geopolitical pattern of traditional energy should be compared to those of the distribution and trade of fossil energy. At the same time, it is necessary to analyse the impact of new energy geopolitics on traditional energy geopolitics, focusing on the competitive relationships related to key new energy technologies, especially between China, the United States, and the European Union. On the other hand, the institutions, capital, technology, infrastructure, and transnational supply chain related to energy transition are increasingly becoming the driving factors of geopolitical expansion. These influencing factors are intertwined, exacerbating the complexity of energy transition. It is necessary to explore the mechanism of geopolitics of energy transition in the future. In addition, energy transition promotes the expansion of energy security towards broader social, economic, environmental, and climate security, covering system security in multiple dimensions, such as energy system stability, technical security, cybersecurity, critical materials security, energy governance, and international cooperation. In the follow-up studies, it will be necessary to focus on strengthening the impact of geopolitics of energy transition on energy system security, and provide strategic support for China’s energy transition and energy security on the scientific research level.

5 Discussion

Global energy transition is the core element of coping with climate change and realisation of global sustainable development. This transition is intertwined with energy security and geopolitics, and profoundly changes the mode of global social and economic development. Against the background of climate change, the geopolitical games related to new elements such as global energy governance, competition for carbon emission rights, new energy technologies, market competition, carbon tariffs, and low-carbon trade barriers are becoming increasingly prominent. China still faces many challenges in accelerating energy transition, promoting the global layout and regional cooperation in the use of new energy, and increasing its influence in global energy governance. On the premise of taking into account the multiple objectives, such as environment, economic development, and social equity, it is urgent to strengthen the research on geopolitics of energy transition and global climate governance, and promote the construction of institutional powers (such as agenda setting, regulation making, and discourse leading powers) in the international energy system to meet the major practical needs of serving the national energy security and relevant departments in energy transition (Wang et al., 2012; Wang et al., 2014).
China is the largest energy consumer and carbon emitter, so China’s energy demand and carbon emission reduction policies strongly affect global energy demand and carbon emission levels. At the same time, China is also the backbone of the initiatives to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement, as it has pledged to achieve peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. “Carbon neutralisation” is the largest orderly human activity in China to cope with climate change in the 21st century, and it is a very complicated systems engineering process. Its implementation is long-term and challenging, as it will lead to fundamental changes in China’s economic system. Therefore, implementation of “carbon neutralisation” policies needs to be put on the firm scientific basis (Cai et al., 2021; Wang et al., 2021). In the process of pursuing the sustainable development of human society, “carbon neutralisation” actions may shape geopolitics via geographical factors and foreign policies, and it is urgent to consider their effects, analyse their consequences, and prevent or decrease possible geopolitical risks associated with them (Zhang et al., 2021). At the same time, the concept of energy security promoted by energy transition has gradually changed from energy supply security to systematic security. In the future, we also need to be wary of geopolitical conflicts caused by environmental security, climate security, and environmental problems caused by energy (atmosphere, water, sustainability, etc.) and climate problems.
Geography is characterised by comprehensiveness, regionality, and interdisciplinary nature, with its research centred at the intersection of natural and social sciences. Geography is characterised by the orientation towards applied practical research and service provision for decision-making (Fan, 2019). The research into geopolitics of energy transition urgently needs to capitalise on its advantages of “practical application” and actively integrate with other disciplines, focusing on the major needs of global and national development. To achieve these goals, future studies of geopolitics should closely combine the international academic frontiers and national macro strategic needs, such as climate change, carbon neutrality, and global energy governance, to provide research reference for enriching the perspective of world energy geography.
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