The Year in Review

The New Geopolitics of Energy

Foreign Policy’s five best reads on the dramatic shift in energy policy in 2020.

By Keith Johnson, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia meet at the Al-Yamamah Royal Palace in Riyadh on Oct. 14, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia meet at the Al-Yamamah Royal Palace in Riyadh on Oct. 14, 2019. Mikhail Metzel/TASS via Getty Images

A year that began with a climate-change-denying U.S. president doing everything in his power to aggravate the climate crisis, eventually opening up an Arctic wildlife refuge to unwanted and unneeded oil drilling, ended with a president-elect who has committed to putting a green revolution at the heart of his domestic and foreign policy.

In between, an oil-price collapse fueled by the coronavirus pandemic threatened new alliances and old certainties, shaking the foundations not just of a 60-year-old oil cartel but the very underpinnings of the modern economy. In the midst of it all, China, the world’s worst polluter, made the biggest and perhaps most far-reaching promise of all on climate change, while India, long a laggard in cleaning up its energy sector, emerged as a surprising green champion.

It has been, to say the least, a revolutionary year when it comes to energy and climate change.

This spring, the world’s oil producers tried, and failed, to come to grips with the scale and scope of the pandemic that was just emerging. Russia and Saudi Arabia, which had forged an unlikely partnership to rule the world’s energy markets, suddenly found themselves at loggerheads. Their disagreement didn’t just tank oil prices, but also tanked Russia’s chances of rebuilding its Cold War-era influence in the region.

And then, stepping neatly into America’s absence, China improbably took the lead on global climate diplomacy, pledging to zero out its emissions by 2060. Now, for the first time, the globe looks to the developing world to find solutions to a climate emergency that has only accelerated. India, surprising many, seems to have risen to the occasion, ditching coal and embracing renewable energy.

The ball is now in U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s court. He has pledged to curtail fossil fuel production and has embedded the fight against climate change inside the National Security Council in the person of former Secretary of State John Kerry. That may not mean the end of oil, but it does spell a respite from an oil-fueled energy policy.

Not that the coming transition will be neat or tidy. Countries with coveted goods, like rare-earth minerals, will gain more influence—China, in particular. Petrostates will shudder, then retool. Renewable energies will reshape how—and whether—countries battle over access to energy. The geopolitics of energy that have prevailed since that gusher burst forth in Pennsylvania a century and a half ago are, like the Titusville well, spent.

Here are five of our best stories this year on energy and climate change.

1. Russia Is Losing the Oil War—and the Middle East

by Steven A. Cook, April 9

Earlier this year, as the pandemic threatened to take a toll on global oil demand, the OPEC oil cartel had a fatal showdown, with Saudi Arabia pressing for cuts, even as Russia was leery of giving American producers a break. In the end, the two oil giants fell out, with disastrous consequences for oil producers everywhere. Steven A. Cook laid out just how badly Russia miscalculated in this year’s oil-price war—and what that will mean for its long-term influence on the region.

2. Welcome to the Final Battle for the Climate

by Adam Tooze, Oct. 17

Even as the Trump administration pulled out of the landmark Paris climate deal, China officially ramped up plans to tackle climate change, pledging to end decades of fossil fuel-powered development by 2060. China’s goals remain far off, and Western countries have done a better job so far at curbing pollutants. But Adam Tooze explained why China’s bombshell announcement about tackling emissions is such a big deal, and why that changes the calculus about bending another disturbing curve.

Mark Harris illustration for Foreign Policy

3. Surprise! India Is Leaping Ahead in Clean Energy

by Vivek Wadhwa, Oct. 22

A few years ago, India was all-in on coal, shrugging off demands to deal with global warming. Like China, India sought to prioritize economic growth by tapping cheap, if dirty, sources of energy. But, due to public outcry over air pollution, as well as technological advances that have dramatically lowered the price of wind and solar power, India is suddenly an unlikely champion of clean energy, Vivek Wadhwa wrote.

4. The End of Oil Supremacy

by Edoardo Campanella, Oct. 29

While U.S. President Donald Trump governed, and ran, on the promise of ever-more oil drilling, Democrats have been pressing for an end to the controversial practice of fracking. President-elect Joe Biden never promised as radical a course as some of his colleagues, but he has vowed to shift America’s center of gravity when it comes to energy. Biden’s win might mean oil’s days are numbered, if he can usher in some version of a Green New Deal, Edoardo Campanella argued.

5. Everything You Think About the Geopolitics of Climate Change Is Wrong

by Jason Bordoff, Oct. 5

One of the biggest questions in the energy and climate world is how the climate fight will affect the geopolitics of energy. For more than a century, oil and gas—and who controls them—have determined who has the upper hand in war and peace. But a growing global consensus for clean energy, coupled with rising new oil powers, is redrawing the whole map. The new geopolitics of energy won’t amount to a clear break with the past but will be a messy hybrid, playing out over decades, argued Jason Bordoff, with petrostates clinging to influence and new technologies determining who has the upper hand.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP