The United States will host 40 world leaders this week to accelerate the fight against global warming. In those talks and in the imperative changes to come, officials and advocates must watch for an unintended danger of new policies — their potential to ignite or inflame violent conflicts. A key to reducing this danger is to marry reforms for a cleaner global economy to those for transparent, accountable governance and commerce. Put simply, any successful greening of the global economy will heighten the costs and violence that humanity risks from corruption and authoritarianism worldwide.

Men dig in the Bisie tin mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mine, like many, has been the object of conflict, with residents suffering from the violence and benefiting little from the mine’s revenues. (Johan Spanner/The New York Times)
Men dig in the Bisie tin mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mine, like many, has been the object of conflict, with residents suffering from the violence and benefiting little from the mine’s revenues. (Johan Spanner/The New York Times)

The White House Leaders Summit on April 22-23 aims to revive U.S. leadership, and to accelerate global efforts toward the 2015 Paris Agreement’s goal of holding average global warming to a maximum of 2°C above preindustrial temperatures. President Biden is expected to announce a new commitment to reducing U.S. greenhouse gas output and has urged other leaders to make ambitious commitments to reducing their countries’ emissions. The White House says themes of the summit will include “the economic benefits of climate action” and advancing “transformational technologies” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to protect people and communities from climate change.

Yet a sobering detail illustrates the risks of omitting transparent, accountable governance from the agenda. A global transition from fossil fuels to green technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines, energy storage and electric vehicles will rely on key minerals — 23 of them identified by the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Demand for these, including lithium and cobalt, could surge by 500 percent by 2050 — and many of the known reserves of these resources are in “fragile” states that suffer opaque, often corrupt, governance and frequent violent conflicts. The rising demand for green-economy minerals will drive new rivalries, conflict and perhaps violence, particularly in South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. The heightened competition and its risks to stability are visible in the recent months’ political contest, strikes and a change in government in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia, where the electric car maker Tesla and Swiss interests raced to snag guaranteed access to a major nickel mine. 

The Pattern: How Resources Can Fuel Conflicts

While control of natural resources has forever triggered conflict and violence, more than 40 percent of recent decades’ intrastate conflicts have been linked to natural resources — and these conflicts can be particularly difficult to settle, the United Nations Environment Program notes. The extraction of disputed supplies of oil, gas, diamonds or gold and industrial minerals has triggered and financed conflicts, driven spoilers to disrupt peace efforts and often led to the collapse of peace agreements. The link between resources and wars is not often discussed in negotiations about confronting climate change. But that focus is necessary to address the risk of conflict proactively and to help countries navigate the economic transition to a green economy.

A coal mine in India. Slashing fossil fuel use will include the risks of new conflicts. (Rebecca Conway/The New York Times)
A coal mine in India. Slashing fossil fuel use will include the risks of new conflicts. (Rebecca Conway/The New York Times)

National governments and those who run them value and protect multinational mining operations as easy sources of lucrative taxes and other economic “rents,” yet they may have few incentives to protect local communities from being harmed or even destroyed by mining. Governments may loosen or ignore environmental regulations and land tenure rights to protect those rent-producing mines even where they pollute water, soil and air, and displace indigenous people. Where nations are ruled by narrow power elites, rather than inclusive citizenship, governance is especially opaque and corrupt, and the risk of grievance-driven violent conflict is heightened. Ineffective governance and regulation have led to an increase in conflicts associated with mining operations since the turn of the century. A particular problem is water, which mining typically uses in large amounts. In recent years, about 70 percent of mining operations by the six largest mining companies have been located in countries facing shortages of fresh water.

As the transition to a green economy increases the need for key minerals, it will suppress demand for fossil fuels — and that will risk destabilizing countries that rely on oil and gas exports. Angola is a prime example. In 2017, its crude oil sector provided close to 65 percent of its tax revenues and over 95 percent of its exports. Yet Angola spends only about 5 percent of its GDP on social services, less than many of its peers in sub-Saharan Africa and far from what is required to build human capital and begin to transition its economy away from reliance on oil. The risk assessment firm Verisk Maplecroft predicts that Algeria, Chad, Iraq and Nigeria are among the countries most at risk of a “slow-motion wave of political instability” over the next three to 20 years. They are highly dependent on oil for revenues, have not invested in the necessary institutional, human and infrastructural capacity to diversify, and are less politically stable. Angola, Gabon, Congo, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, all fragile states, have also failed to use the last years to invest in capacity, no longer have financial cushions and now face significant trouble in a transition to a green economy.

The Coming Uncertainties — and Opportunities

While destabilization and new risks of violent conflict are certain to arise amid the economic transitions enforced by climate change, those transitions will include opportunities. Policymakers should use them to encourage reforms in favor of the transparency, accountability and inclusive governance that can promote long-term stability and development in many states that have been historically dependent on resource rents.

Yet the locations, and balance, of risks and opportunities will sometimes be hard to predict. As Verisk Maplecroft and other analysts note, the rents from resources, and changes to them, are likely to be destabilizing when governments are already weak. In other cases, resource rents can reinforce power-sharing among a state’s elite political interests, thus helping to consolidate their cohesion. Myanmar may for now represent the latter pattern, as state-owned firms, their operations opaque to public view, capture oil, gas and mineral revenues to fund the military.

To help pinpoint the hazards and opportunities, and thus better target policies and programming by U.S. and international institutions, USIP is funding research on the political impacts of shifting away from fossil fuels in fragile states.

Solutions: Transparency Is a Start

The Paris climate accord and this month’s White House-hosted Leaders Summit rightly aim to build the global political will required for the hard work of reducing greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. To avoid igniting or inflaming conflicts and violence in authoritarian or fragile states, it is vital that policies also advance the standards of transparency and accountability in business and governance that can help empower local communities, manage conflicts and avoid violence.

Efforts such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative have made some progress in broadening public information about the revenues that go to governments and benefit local communities. This must be greatly expanded to countries likely to be affected by the transition to a green economy — and these issues belong in discussions between policymakers and multinationals shaping that conversion.

Transparency and accountability then must lead to foundational changes — notably more open models of government, which have greater motivation to invest in the institutions and human capacity that support economic diversification. They also must change how governments and companies work with the local communities affected by the coming shifts in mining and fossil fuels. For decades, much of the effort toward those changes has come from the practice of corporate social responsibility. Too often, this practice has sought not what is needed — enabling communities to engage in shaping their own futures — but rather has aimed to pacify local people in the interests of corporate and political elites.

U.S. and international policymakers should embrace the push for transparency and accountability in the transition to a global green economy not as a preference but as an imperative. If the massive economic changes demanded by the ambition of the Paris Agreement are allowed to ignite or inflame instability, conflict and violence, those outcomes will only undermine the political will required to slow our drift toward climate catastrophe.

Chris Collins is a research assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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