Low carbon energy and national security: why incoherent policy risks delaying energy transition in Europe

Energy transitions are progressing at increasing speed, stimulated by more ambitious climate policies in Europe and beyond. However, these positive gains are under constant threat from conflict and governance failures, heightened by the global geopolitical and economic importance of energy.

In a new article published in Energy Research & Social Science, we analyse the degree of policy coherence and integration between low carbon energy policies and security policies in three European countries, and find that incoherent policy risks delaying the energy transition in each.

Instead of seeking a balanced approach, national security is too often prioritised over energy transition, while a focus on securing fossil fuel resources fails to reflect the increasing importance of renewable energy in energy security. Meanwhile, the new and different security threats faced by renewable energy sources too often go unrecognised.

We argue that, to reduce barriers for speedy emissions reductions and to increase the future resilience of societies, we must acknowledge two things: that traditional security policy may be hindering energy system change and that the energy transition is changing the security implications of energy systems.

Connection and conflict

Energy and security are connected in many ways. Connections include the need to safeguard energy supply and to defend critical energy infrastructures against attacks and environmental disasters. At a global level, energy resources influence the balance of power between states and relate to other security risks because of their climate change effects.

There is a functional overlap between energy and security policies, but conflicts arise as low carbon energy transitions require new ways of safeguarding energy supply. These conflicts are shaped by countries’ energy profiles and attitudes towards the energy transition.

It is therefore likely that policy strategy addressing low carbon energy transitions on the one hand, and national security on the other, may not be coherent. This is problematic for several reasons: incoherence is likely to create conflicting policies, it reduces the efficiency of public spending, and it may slow down the energy transition.

Overhead power lines at sunset

Out of line? Policy coherence and integration in Finland, Estonia and Scotland

Our study examines both policy coherence and integration. Policy coherence implies attempts to reduce conflicts and promote synergies between different policy areas. Policy integration, a related concept, means that specific policy aims – such as climate change mitigation – are integrated across policy areas.

Looking at Finland, Estonia and Scotland, we reviewed 72 policy strategy documents published between 2006 and 2020.

Although Scotland’s security and energy policies are administered in Whitehall, Scotland’s independence efforts brought an interesting angle to the analysis. Unlike UK energy policy, Scottish energy policy has opposed new nuclear power due to security risks caused by radiation and terrorist attacks. Our security policy analysis mainly drew on UK National Security Strategies, apart from Scotland’s focus on cyber resilience.

Our analysis of the policy strategy documents from these countries identified key themes and findings across all three, the wider implications of which are summarised below.

First, sufficient policy coherence and integration between low carbon energy policy and national security policy is lacking in all the studied countries.

Policy strategies contain conflicting statements regarding fossil fuels, renewable energy, energy security and carbon emissions. For example, UK security policy has contained objectives to safeguard oil platforms in its territorial waters and abroad, while aiming for low carbon transition in the economy. National security is generally prioritised and there is no balanced consideration of low carbon energy transitions and national security. Traditional energy security thinking still dominates.

Second, the advancing energy transition combined with various global developments has led to an increasingly complex landscape for climate and energy policy. There is increasing global competition for energy. Climate change is creating new risks, including disruptions to energy supply, and tensions and conflicts which may cascade elsewhere. Electrified energy systems are at risk of cyberattacks. Russia’s use of energy for geopolitical means in international relations has not diminished. Melting ice in the Arctic has given access to new oil and gas reserves, which only risks worsening climate change in the future.

In this policy landscape, pursuing coherence between energy and security policy is harder than before. Thus, policymakers will need to undertake more careful and detailed assessments of how policy coherence can be advanced in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.

Third, while the energy transition is advancing, we were surprised by how little attention the policy documents paid to the potential security implications of renewable energy and other new sustainable energy developments.

Renewable energy was seen to increase security of supply, but the policy documents addressed few of the security issues identified in academic literature. Issues ignored include the availability and supply of critical materials and rare earth minerals for renewable energy, the impacts of renewable energy on peace and conflict, and potential reactions of the far-right to climate policy and renewable energy.

To improve future policy coherence and societal resilience, both the positive and negative security implications of the energy transition must be openly acknowledged and prepared for.

It is therefore vital policymakers pay more explicit attention to the security implications of new low carbon technologies and smart energy systems in their official strategies. Furthermore, it should be noted that security risks are not similar across different energy niches and in different countries and, thus, require more specific analysis beyond the scope of this study.

New ways of thinking about energy and security policy

Our analysis highlights a significant risk; that by giving stakeholders conflicting signals and neglecting the security implications of renewable energy, the current national security framing that prioritises fossil fuels is likely to delay the energy transition. An increasingly complex policy landscape serves to heighten this risk and the challenge it presents, and increases the need for careful consideration of policy coherence.

To meet emissions targets and address the climate emergency as well as improve future resilience, new ways of thinking about energy in national security and security in energy policy are urgently needed.

This blog is based on the article Interplay between low-carbon energy transitions and national security: An analysis of policy integration and coherence in Estonia, Finland and Scotland – Energy Research & Social Science, Paula Kivimaa and Marja H. Sivonen.

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