Brice Lalonde was the guest of GéoPragma on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. On the agenda: present a geopolitical inventory of the climate issue, at a time when a new IPCC alert highlights the negative acceleration of climate disturbances. Environmental activist and former French Minister for the Environment (1988-1992), Brice Lalonde was also executive coordinator of the Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio + 20). In that regard, this exchange echoes a particular moment in the journey of the Dunia platform since it was born ten years ago in the wake of the fifth Earth Summit held in Brazil, in 2012.
The former coordinator of Rio + 20 does not fail to recall that this conference was a diplomatic success. On the one hand, a multilateral agreement was reached in connection with the Sustainable Development Goals, in line with the objective-based methodology launched by Kofi Annan from the Millennium Goals. On the other hand, some equivalence between themes was attained in a multistate forum replete with positions as compartmentalized as national interests. The 2015 Paris Agreements were a continuation of this approach. Far from being a “Westphalian” turn for climate regulation, Rio + 20 and the Paris Agreements probably condensed the best possible consensus in a period of multilateral disintegration and new strategic competition.
In this respect, the words of Brice Lalonde, an “extended” ecologist who has put himself to the test of facts and realism, are useful because the geopolitical angle, often undervalued or sometimes devoid of ecological sensitivities, provides a framework suitable to set ideological biases aside and understand the balance of power. The post-Covid19 revival that we are witnessing is accelerating the integration of the climate imperative into the regulation of the world economy. The climate summit held by Washington in April 2021 has confirmed this trend. The climate issue is reinvested after Donald Trump’s withdrawal. Climate activists are part of the new US administration. Exxon Mobile sees its directors take measures to decarbonize its activities. The International Energy Agency, traditionally pro-fossil fuel, is embarking on a zero carbon agenda by playing on both levels of emissions reduction and energy consumption. As Pierre Charbonnier has also pointed out, the pandemic has stimulated a return to productivity in a more modernist and neo-productivist way than post-productivist or environmentalist. The internalization of global boundaries by the most powerful actors in the international community thus becomes a reinvention of productivity, a new pact between labor and markets and technical cooperation presumably seeking to guarantee global security.
This overview by Brice Lalonde contains a briefing on the main aspects of climate change, in particular physical changes, human migration, energy and resources, as well as the transition agenda, all punctuated by facts and geopolitical rifts.
Climate and Change of the Earth’s Surface
The former minister dives into the subject referring to the tangible physics of climate change: the rise in average temperatures, accompanied by the melting of around 10,000 tons of ice per second and a rise in sea level of 3 mm per year. This trend has led to a disruption in the Arctic with the modification of relations between Russia, Canada and the United States. Russia, historically protected by ice, has incurred substantial expenses for the creation of ports on its Arctic coast and the mobilization of new maritime resources (submarines and icebreakers). This new passage in the north will gradually compete with the Suez Canal as it will halve the sea distances between Europe and Asia.
He then refers to the changes in the water cycle, with a global decrease in the amount of snow and glaciers, and conversely an increase of rains in winter. As a corollary, there is a higher frequency of extreme weather events affecting the situation of major agricultural countries, in particular the USA, Canada, Russia, Ukraine, Argentina, Brazil and Kazakhstan. In 2010 in particular, Lalonde recalls that the peat fires in Russia and Ukraine destroyed a third of the crops, causing the suspension of exports and panic in food prices. We will also recall the rise in food prices in 2006 which stirred up protests in Arab and African countries.
In this area, China is taking control over the great rivers in Asia by occupying the Tibetan plateau, which sometimes puts the communities on the banks of the Mekong in a delicate position. A similar situation can be seen with Turkey building dams upstream of the Tigris and Euphrates, putting Iraq and Syria in an uncomfortable situation. In general, access to water has become a more sensitive political issue. While international law provides agreements for the sharing of surface water, there are currently no agreements for the sharing of groundwater. In fact, there are conflicts, for example, between Ethiopia and Egypt on the Nile, or between Jordan and Israel.
Migration is already one of the most spectacular geopolitical consequences. Three hundred million people currently live on the low coasts of Asia and Africa and face the risk of marine submersion. In 2020, one million people were forcibly displaced, mainly in China, India, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Some projections predict a mass of 143 million climate migrants by 2030.
On the energy side, the keystone in climate change, inertia is the rule. The former minister recalls that coal, oil and natural gas still amount to 80 % of the world’s energy consumption; in other words, the same proportion as ten years ago. Only coal consumption has fallen very slightly, with China in the lead representing half of this consumption and which continues to build power plants at the option of contradictory announcements (Beijing officially announced a peak in CO2 emissions in 2030 and carbon neutrality in 2060). Europe has reduced its consumption of coal in relative terms, with reluctance from Germany and Eastern countries which are turning instead to Russia to move from coal to nuclear.
The central issue in terms of geopolitical arrangements is the energy autonomy of the United States vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. This is what allows the United States to ease its burden on the Middle East and turn to the Indo-Pacific region. The Chinese rival, now the world’s largest energy consumer, has started sourcing from Iran and is investing its oil assets in several countries. At the same time, gas is becoming a global market due to its geographical distribution and packaging in the form of liquefied gas (LNG). The USA, Qatar, Russia, Australia and Algeria are among the leading producer countries, hence the current tension for supplying Germany with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The same goes for nuclear power, wrongly excluded from decarbonization solutions, whose market for developing countries is driven by Russia, South Korea, China and India.
In addition, it is recalled that in Europe, 40 % of gas and 30 % of oil come from Russia, which makes it a central energy partner of Brussels. How to explain then the “scarecrow” adversity of Europeans with respect to Moscow? Lalonde also refers to Germany’s influence in ambiguous European choices, which seem to revolve more around the anti-nuclear than on the fight against climate change. It should be noted that Christian Harbulot is one of the few in France to describe the US influence and the German offensive in this area, through the manipulation of minds, which conceals the defense of power interests behind a facade moralization of the environmental transition. In fact, it is no coincidence that nuclear power in France has become entangled in a confused and contradictory debate. Although nuclear energy has a strong strategic importance and shows better carbon/energy performance (a report by the Joint Research Center of the European Commission has demonstrated the viability of nuclear as green energy), it remains under the fire of ideological frameworks built in other times and reluctant opinions.
A further issue to follow in this overview is cybersecurity and the vulnerability of industrial control systems, with the recent paralysis of the American pipeline (Colonial Pipeline), which brought this question more clearly into the strategy level.
The Transition Agenda
What about the actions to fight against climate change? For Brice Lalonde, beyond the multiplication of local and national efforts to respond to the challenge posed, the course globally taken inexorably leads to an aggravation of climate degradation and a procession of destabilizations (food, economic and energy insecurity), which brings security issues back to the fore. He underlines the contradictions in all fields, including that of transitions in which there are no simple and linear solutions. The adoption of a pragmatic stance seems to him a priority, in particular that of prioritizing the reduction of emissions before reducing energy consumption. This prioritization is justified by the fact that reducing energy consumption is just window dressing if we admit that with the limitation or even the upcoming ban on greenhouse gas emissions, it is the need to capture CO2 and decarbonize the economy which in practice will create an increased demand for clean energy.
Therefore, the electrification of energy sources becomes a political priority for decarbonization. Electricity networks, which make it possible to integrate carbon-free energy sources or renewable energies, work closely with IT for the co-management of networks. This point brings water to the mill of the strategic dimension of the semiconductor industry and cyberspace.
In this blurred transition, the renewable energy market is growing rapidly, solar being currently the cheapest but remaining for the moment out of reach of the needs. Batteries and conductors such as copper are becoming strategic resources for mobility where 30 % of the added value of vehicles is no longer in the heat engine but in the voltaic battery. It is no more and no less than a technological reversal that will put Korean, Japanese and Chinese manufacturers at the forefront (China is the largest producer of refined copper). From this perspective, supplies of manganese, lithium, nickel and graphite, as well as the refining plants that will be the focal points of the extractive effort, will acquire even more strategic significance, as will the resources that will allow the production of clean synthetic fuel (or CO2 capture processes).
Finally, the former diplomat concludes his remarks on the multilateral stage by raising the question of the new forms of cooperation that are necessary for transitions and the conflicts that will emerge or intensify. Transition or adaptation policies are obviously costly. Desalination or marine protection processes, for example, are mechanisms reserved financially for rich countries and which involve forms of cooperation with less developed countries. We know that multilateral negotiations involving nearly two hundred states are long and tedious. It took twenty years to put together the Paris Agreement, with the representative group negotiation formula appearing in some ways to be more viable.
Brice Lalonde adds a final note of optimism: if the transnational scale is clearly the weak link of the moment which forces us not to give up on all the questions raised, the transition initiatives, once in operation, are likely to create synergies with potentially rapid and resilient effects.