Academic Webinar: Energy Security

Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and the Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs, Harvard University


Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Meghan L. O’Sullivan, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Jeane Kirkpatrick professor of the practice of international affairs at Harvard University, leads the conversation on energy security.

FASKIANOS: Welcome to today’s session of the Winter/Spring 2024 CFR Academic Webinar series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach at CFR. Thanks again for being with us.

Today’s discussion is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/Academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We’re delighted to have Meghan O’Sullivan with us to discuss energy security. Dr. O’Sullivan is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Jeane Kirkpatrick professor of the practice of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. She’s served in multiple senior policymaking roles and has advised national security officials in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Between 2004 and 2007, Dr. O’Sullivan was special assistant to President George W. Bush, and was deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan during the last few years of her tenure. In 2013, she was the vice chair of All-Party Talks in Northern Ireland. And Dr. O’Sullivan is a member of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s foreign policy advisory board. And she serves on the board of directors at CFR.

So, Meghan, thanks very much for being with us today. I thought we could begin by having you define energy security, and how the environment has changed over the years as you have worked on this issue, taught it, and made policy, in fact.

O’SULLIVAN: Sure. Thank you, Irina. And thanks to you and all of your colleagues for inviting me to do this webinar. And I’m really looking forward to it. I spend a lot of time here at Harvard talking to my students about these issues, and I’m looking forward to talking to an even broader audience of students and professors.

And it’s interesting. I’m glad to see we have a good group. When I saw the title of “Energy Security,” I thought, like, oh, well, that’s interesting, because usually we don’t talk just about energy security anymore. We talk about it in a broader context. And so what I thought I would do, just in response to your question, is to talk a little bit about how I’ve seen these concepts evolve. And it actually is reflective of the way that I have taught these issues. I’ve been teaching a class here at Harvard that was originally called “Energy and Geopolitics.” And it has evolved. That was back in 2007, I think, was the first time I taught it—maybe 2008. And over this period of time, it’s become probably unrecognizable to my 2008 students. In 2024 I’m teaching it, but it’s really much more about the energy transition and geopolitics.

So, you know, there’s still a very big idea around the whole notion of energy and geopolitics. This whole idea that energy and the international system—kind of the distribution of power, alliances, the impetus for conflict or peace—that all of these things are often wrapped up in energy. And I think we can go through and be happy to talk about many historical examples. I can’t really say exactly where they begin, but certainly we start to really notice them in the historical record around the time that oil becomes a major driver of the global economy. But, of course, this was probably true long before that, where you have big changes in the energy system really influencing the state of relationships among states.

And certainly the histories of World War I and World War II are full of examples of how commanders and leaders made decisions around oil—either strategic decisions or tactical decisions that ended up ultimately feeding into how wars played out. We think about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which was so consequential to World War II, had a lot to do with the oil embargo that the United States had placed on Japan, and on the Japanese really thinking that they needed to neutralize the American force in Pearl Harbor before it made an effort to take over—they made an effort to take over the oil-rich areas in today’s Indonesia. So, that entanglement of energy and geopolitics has been with us a long time.

And I would say fifteen years ago in highlighting what really is a history of international relations, that is about a fight for resources energy is a piece that I often was trying to expose as being a driver of international affairs. And I used a concept, and I still use a concept, which I think is really relevant today. And that is thinking about energy as a means in grand strategy, and energy is an ends in grand strategy. So if you think about energy as a means, is usually we think about producing countries—producing any form of energy, but maybe oil and gas in particular if we’re looking at the last decades. Countries that have this ability to produce large quantities of this energy have used this energy to try to advance non-energy interests.

So, the most obvious example may be the 1973 embargo of the Arab members of OPEC. You know, using their prowess in the energy field to try to advance political objectives. And there are many, many examples of this around the world. We could look at Venezuela, how it used its oil wealth to try to buy the acquiescence of neighboring states and Caribbean states. There are many, many examples. But there’s also another frame to look at it and think about energy as a means of geopolitical ends, which is the flip side of this idea. That there are countries—and the United States is probably the best and most obvious example—that have historically used non-energy power—so economic, political, and military power—to try to ensure that they have sufficient energy. Their goal is to have energy—either to acquire the energy resources, if you think about some countries have looked at it that way, or to ensure that they have access to energy resources, which has been traditionally the view of the United States. And so there we get a lot into the Middle East and American strategy vis-à-vis that part of the world, where energy was a big part of the end goal.

So, again, that was the frame that I had looking at this over a long period of time. Five years ago, I wrote a book called Windfall, which was really focused on how, when you get a big change in the energy system, you should expect a big change in geopolitics. And that book was specifically looking at the energy revolution that came from the fracking boom in the United States, and in some other parts of the world. And just the move of the United States from being a major draw on global energy resources to a major contributor toward it. And how that changed America’s role in the world, how that recreated a global atmosphere that on the whole was more conducive to America’s interests and the interests of its allies, and really moved the world into an age of energy abundance.

So that has been a consistent focus. And energy security obviously fits right in there. I’m now spending more time—a lot more time, maybe all of my kind of intellectual time—or, not all of it. A good portion of it thinking about the energy transition, as both an ends and a means of foreign policy. And the energy transition I define really quite broadly. And to me, the energy transition and companies encompasses energy security and climate action, because the energy transition—some people think, oh, I’m just talking about substituting solar power for coal. And certainly, that’s a component of the energy transition. But when I conceptualize the energy transition, I am thinking about the huge societal movement to get to a net zero economy, to decarbonize the global economy.

And all of the social, political, and in some cases even military, actions that different countries, and companies, and other actors are taking in their quest to get to net zero. And so while I think it, of course, matters a lot from the perspective of a human, the human race, a planetary matter. It matters if the world gets to net zero. The impact of the effort to get to net zero—regardless of whether that goal is reached—the impact of that has already started to really dramatically transform global politics and the basis of power in the international system. And here, I’m developing this idea—actually, working on a Foreign Affairs article on it with my friend and colleague Jason Bordoff—about the energy transition as both an ends and a means.

But for the purposes of this call, I thought I’d just say a couple more things about the energy transition and geopolitics. And this is also reflected in three pieces that Jason Bordoff and I have written for Foreign Affairs over the last two years, which talk about the energy transition as a big driver of geopolitics, and geopolitics a big driver of the energy transition. So that first piece, I think of it as a cycle. And the first piece is how the energy transition is shaping geopolitics because, again, going back to this idea, this is an enormous change in how we generate, use, transport, store energy. We’re remaking the backbone of the global economy. Not just switching from coal to solar. Remaking the backbone of the global economy. And this has all kinds of implications for the way that our global system is organized, and political power, and diplomatic power, and otherwise.

And there’s lots of examples of this. And I imagine that much of our conversation will be talking about this. One example is just looking at how China’s big investments in clean energy technologies are giving it a claim to geopolitical power. So that’s one way we see the energy transition shaping geopolitics. We could look at the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These are all things I’d love to talk about in greater detail if there’s interest. I wouldn’t argue that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was about the energy transition. I think it was about a lot of things, but primarily Putin’s kind of disillusionment and his fixation on Ukraine. But certainly there are real elements of how the energy transition played into that, played into the timing, and even empowered Vladimir Putin in this particular moment. And then we can look at the energy transition as a driver for trade routes and a whole variety of other things, depending on what energy sources end up being dominant.

And finally, I would say there’s also this flip side. So we have the energy transition shaping geopolitics, but—and I think this is something we feel very acutely in the last year, year and a half, is how the geopolitical environment is actually shaping the energy transition. And again, lots and lots of good examples of this. The most obvious one, I think, is just the relationship between the United States and China. And this relationship, you know, going from one of some elements or dominant elements of cooperation to being the most highly competitive bilateral relationship in the world and the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world. So, looking at how that shift from cooperative to competitive has had an impact on a whole range of things, one of them is definitely the energy transition.

And we could talk about a variety of ways in which that has played out. Some of it has been, I would say, detrimental in the sense that some of the international bodies, which are the obvious things to deal with global problems, are hamstrung a bit by an environment of geopolitical competition and great-power rivalry. On the other hand, I think the world is adjusting to the fact that this competitive relationship is the one that’s infusing competition into the global environment. And some of our efforts to pursue the energy transition have shifted to be more competitive. And the Inflation Reduction Act, that was partially in the reading people had for today, that’s evidence of a competitive approach to the energy transition rather than a cooperative one.

There’s also, of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That has had an impact. That geopolitical reality has had a big impact on the energy transition, which we could discuss. I think there are strong arguments that it expedited the transition, and also strong arguments that it has impeded the transition. So with that, I think I will stop there. Hopefully, I put enough on the table to define our topic in a fairly broad way. And I’m really looking forward to people’s thoughts and insights, and any questions they may have.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic. Thank you, Meghan. That was terrific. Let’s go to all of you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

So the first question we have we can take from King Fahd University, our international participants.


FASKIANOS: And you need to unmute yourself. Still muted. There we go. Please say your name—

Q: So my name is Ahmed Hazmi.


Q: My name is Ahmed Hazmi. I am from King Fahd University.

Before I ask the question, I have to let you know that we have multiple students with their own questions. So my question is, what are the recent effects of the energy crisis on the global efforts to move towards clean energy? That’s my question.

O’SULLIVAN: Sure. It’s a great question. And I have some good memories of visiting King Fahd University. So nice to see you on the call and know there are several of you.

This is obviously a central question and a really big question. And I can give you examples of how this geopolitical—this environment of geopolitical crises have moved the energy transition in both ways. As I mentioned very briefly, I think there’s are quite a strong argument to say that the crisis with Russia and the war in Ukraine has expedited the drive, and the commitment, and the ambition of Europeans in particular to try to get to net zero more quickly.

So many of the already ambitious European goals have been made even more ambitious because the Europeans now not only have an environmental drive for meeting their energy—their climate goals, but now they have a very, very real kind of a national security, economic security argument as well. So you could—there’s, I think, a reasonable debate. You know, having more ambitious goals doesn’t necessarily mean that you meet them, but I think there’s a genuine and very authentic desire on the part of the Europeans to move more quickly.

Now, that said, it can also be true that on the whole, if we take a global perspective, that if we just look at that one war, which has had ripple effects throughout the world, that it’s possible that that could slow down the energy transition in other parts of the world. And of course, if we look at the anticipated carbon emissions over time, going forward in the future, I don’t know what the numbers are for Europe but when I look at those numbers and I think of it from an American perspective, 88 percent of future carbon emissions are going to happen outside of the United States.

So it’s absolutely essential that the rest of the world actually is bought into, sees value in, is then supported in an energy transition. Otherwise, it’s not going to happen. So Europe could end up being a carbon-free zone or a net zero zone, but if the rest of the world isn’t there—and I think in a lot of ways the war in Ukraine has by stoking inflation, creating a food crisis, raising the cost of energy, and really deepening the divide between the developed world and the developing world—all of these things, I think, work against the energy transition.

And that’s just one conflict. So, the other geopolitical environment, I could do the net-net when it came to the U.S.-China relationship, or even the war in the Middle East is having an impact on all of this. I would say, just to wrap up, if you asked me on the whole how do I see it, I’m concerned that this deteriorating geopolitical environment is impeding our ability to get to net zero in some significant ways.

It’s not the only obstacle. We need policy. We need new technologies. We need big investments. There’s all of that. But I think what’s often overlooked from the conversation about climate is the fact that the geopolitical environment is really an enabler of a successful transition as well. And right now, the geopolitical environment doesn’t look so good.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to take the next written question from Michael Strmiska, who’s a professor of world history from SUNY-Orange in Middletown, New York: I’m concerned about how right-wing political movements worldwide are converting energy issues into identity politics. I refer to those who denounce green energy transition as a globalist plot and promote continuation of carbon fuel production and consumption as a badge of identity. The “drill, baby, drill” kind of rhetoric. How can those on the side of a green future combat this effort by the right wing to demonize green energy and environmentalism?

O’SULLIVAN: Yeah. This is a great—it’s a great question and a great issue. And I hope that you are writing something on this because I think it’s a relatively new phenomenon in the whole energy transition landscape, but is one that can be very consequential. So I’ll just say one example of where I’ve seen this, and then your real question is, how do we combat it? I was just ten days ago, I guess, in Germany for the Munich Security Conference, which is a very large gathering of people working on national security issues. And being in Germany was an opportunity to talk to some German colleagues and friends about just, like, the political landscape, and just the general feeling among Germans about a variety of things, including the energy transition.

And right now, there’s a movement on the part of the German government to require people to make certain investments in their home, which are costly—or people perceive them to be too costly. And this is in a context of a real weakening economy in the wake of the war against Ukraine and what many people often refer to, like, the deindustrialization of Germany in particular, because of such high energy prices in the wake of the efforts to get off of Russian gas.

And so, there’s a sense among many Germans—not all—but a sense, like, that these requirements are just getting very expensive in an incredibly tough time. And it’s building political opposition to it. That is not just among the right wing. And I think that the question had to do with, like, the right wing and people kind of consciously taking these issues and trying to stoke right-wing ideological agendas. That is certainly happening as well. But I think it’s broader than that. I think it’s leading to—it’s contributing to the rise in populism, which I think we’re going to see most consequentially in Europe with the European Commission elections coming forward.

In terms of what can be done, I mean this is where we get into the piece about energy security and how literally, like, three years ago if we titled a webinar “Energy Security,” nobody would show up because people thought, like, that’s a concept—that kind of puts you in the caveman category, right, or cavewoman category. Like, we don’t talk about energy transition. We just talk about—or, energy security. We talk about climate action. The reality is these two things are not opposite. They are absolutely two sides of the same coin. And so recognizing that energy security is—meeting energy security needs is part of almost, like, a prerequisite for a successful energy transition I think is a very different way of thinking about it than many have in the past.

And I think that is part of what’s required. And the challenge is that, like, that is going to be hard to do and to keep the speed at which we need to go. And the real answer there is just more and more investment into clean energy because there’s the need to meet the energy needs, but to do so with a different kind of energy. And we’ve seen huge increases in investment into clean energy, but those investments are still far short of what is needed not only to meet additional energy demand but to start to displace the demand for coal and then, eventually, other sources of fossil fuels—or, other fossil fuels.


Next question from Benedetta Luccone If you can—there you go. And state your affiliation.

Q: I am Benedetta Luccone, from Lewis University.

And my question is, how can advances in renewable energy technology contribute to changing energy security, particularly in regions vulnerable to geopolitical instability or resource scarcity?

O’SULLIVAN: OK. So, Irina, would you repeat for all of us?

FASKIANOS: Maybe—yeah. If you could—you’re breaking up a little bit, Benedetta. Can you just repeat it again?

Q: Yes. So how can advances in renewable energy technology contribute in changing energy security, particularly in regions vulnerable to geopolitical instability or resource scarcity?

O’SULLIVAN: Sure. OK. How can renewable energy contribute to energy security, particularly in vulnerable areas? So I think there’s enormous capacity for this to prove true. A couple of things I would say about it. So, first, energy security is in its most traditional definition, it is simply having adequate supplies of energy to meet one’s economic needs and to satisfy certain levels of growth, and prosperity, and human welfare. Energy underpins almost everything that humans do on the planet. So energy security is having sufficient energy. And in some of these very vulnerable parts of the world that you talk about, one of the biggest constraints, in many cases the biggest constraint, on growth and human flourishing is the lack of energy.

And so to the extent that we can have more energy meeting the energy needs of a wider swath of the globe, that is going to be beneficial. And if that—particularly if that energy is renewable. If it’s not renewable, then it brings with it a whole new set of problems related to the climate. But the basis of your question is how can renewable energy assist in these countries? And I think there’s a very real sense that if the world could meet the energy needs of these populations with renewable sources, that it would be very beneficial.

A couple of—a couple of just nuances here, or smaller points from that very high-level point. I would say, you mentioned countries that were geopolitically vulnerable. And I think there’s probably a lot of different ways to define that. One of the things about renewable energy—it’s not true for every form. But if you’re thinking about really renewable energy—solar, wind, and a variety of other types of energy—a lot of that energy is produced where it’s consumed, for the most part. So that has the benefit of diminishing the requirement to be dependent on outsiders in the way that importation of natural gas through big pipelines has been an issue. That just trade and oil flowing through choke points, all of these things. If you’re producing the energy where you’re consuming it in your own country, then I think it does kind of enhance self-sufficiency and energy security.

The downside, I would say, and then I’ll stop here—not the downside, but one of the things—or, a couple of things that we have to be cognizant of. And one is the fact—this is known to everybody on this call, probably—but renewable energy is still intermittent. There’s a variety of ways to address it. We’re much better at it than we were before. But it is still very hard to have renewable energy as, like, a baseload for industrial development. So, if you have a source of energy that comes in and out over the course of the day, either when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, it’s much harder to build a factory and expect that you’re going to get that kind of development.

Sure, you can charge your cell phone, you can watch television, and there are—there are enhancements to the quality of life. But in terms of, like, the kinds of development that a lot of these countries want, we either need to make—continue to make big advances in battery storage, or we need backup, which tends to be natural gas and coal. Or we need new sources of green energy, like green hydrogen. So there’s still some technology that is required in order for the benefits to be realized in the way that many of us envision.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to take the next written question from Genevieve Connell at Fordham IPED: Given that new technologies can be quite expensive to develop and distribute to emerging economies, what political strategies would it take to allow for developing countries to be able to sustain economic growth while adapting to energy transitions?

O’SULLIVAN: OK. So, I think the answer to this question really gets into the whole question of climate finance and how to help ensure that countries around the world, not just wealthy Western countries, are able to benefit from clean energy technologies. And this, of course, has been an issue that has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. And that attention is almost—I don’t know that it’s crescendoed. because I think it’s still building, but it certainly was one of the really big foci of COP-28 in Dubai, which I had the privilege of attending.

So, really seeing the focus on getting that clean energy finance not just to different parts of the United States, or Europe, or even Japan, but how can—how can that money go and flow into countries that are developing? And here, the need is clear. The volume of investment that has to be found and facilitated is enormous. I’d say the last annual numbers we have for clean energy investment globally is about 1.1 trillion dollars. And the sense is that that has to grow to about 4 trillion dollars a year to kind of put the world on track. You know, 4 trillion dollars per year for decades, on track. And that the majority of that needs to go to the developing world.

And so when the—when the person with a question mentioned the high cost of these renewable energy, I would say there’s been enormous advantages—or, not advantages—enormous strides made in bringing down the costs of many of these clean energy technologies. Some of them are cheaper depending on their location than certain kinds of fossil fuels. The challenge is in many developing countries there are other things that make it costly to develop these clean energy projects, political risk being one of them. So, again, you have money. You want to invest in clean energy. It tends to flow to Europe or the United States rather than to Africa. And there are reasons for that that people are trying to figure out how to minimize those risks, how to create new mechanisms of political insurance, how to have blended finance where you have a big loan, part of it is from a government or government public sector entity that kind of de-risks the rest of the loan for the private sector.

And then the last thing I would say, which is really important and maybe it’ll come up, again, is just this whole idea that that finance ideally will flow to these countries to help them build the capacity to be part of the clean energy supply chain, rather than just give them finance so that they can buy solar panels from China or electrolyzers from the United States. You know, not just to buy products that are made elsewhere, but to create investments in places in the supply chain, which makes them part of the green energy transition in a way that their economies and their people can really benefit.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Next question from Wilson Wameyo. There you go.

Q: Hello. Thank you for talking here. I wanted to ask some question—OK, I’m going to introduce myself—

FASKIANOS: Wilson, can you identify yourself?

Q: Yes, I’m Wilson. I come from—I come from Poland—Jagiellonian University in Poland, but I come from Kenya originally.

My question is, how is rivalry between China and the U.S. affecting energy transitions? And how can we overcome it?

FASKIANOS: Can you repeat it again? Because I think you broke up, Wilson. I don’t know, did you hear it, Meghan?

O’SULLIVAN: No, I didn’t.

FASKIANOS: OK. (Laughs.)

Q: OK. My question is, how is rivalry between China and the U.S. affecting energy transition, and how can we overcome it?

O’SULLIVAN: I’m sorry, Irina, were you able—do you think Wilson could put it in writing, just so that—because I wasn’t able to discern that.

FASKIANOS: Right. We heard your name clearly. And then all of a sudden it muffled when you started asking your question. So I don’t know if you change positions, or—

Q: Can you hear me now?


Q: OK. So my question is, how is rivalry between China and the U.S. affecting energy transition? And how can we overcome it?

O’SULLIVAN: Yeah. OK. Thank you, Wilson. And thank you for persisting. This is a really great question.

So, I think there’s a number of ways. As I referenced earlier but I’ll say a little bit more about, we have this global challenge. I think everyone appreciates it’s a global challenge. That this is not something that one country can solve, but is a challenge that needs to be met by many countries, adopting—and, in many cases, fundamentally changing their behavior. So when you have a global problem, the ideal way for dealing with it would be through global cooperation, because, again, we need multiple actors to bring about a solution. And I think that the COP, the Conference of the Party, mechanisms that have been in place for almost thirty years were reflective of that analysis. You know, basically we’ve got a global problem. We need a global solution. And we’re going to cooperate until we find one. And so over nearly thirty years, that has been—not the only approach, but that’s been a center point of the approach.

Where that has worked the best I think is when we’ve seen the U.S. and China cooperating together. So probably the most consequential COP—I think we could debate this, but that’s not the point—I think one of the most consequential COPs was Paris—the Paris COP in 2015. And a large part of that success was that a big agreement between China and the U.S. on climate kind of greased the wheels for the rest of countries to come forward. So this was the COP in which countries decided that they would—almost all of them—would come forward with a nationally determined contribution. That they would assess their own economic situation, they would assess their own carbon emissions, they’d make goals, that ideally would be consistent with keeping global temperatures, at that that time, under two degrees. And they would present those ambitions to the global mechanisms. And the idea was that every few years or so the world would reevaluate these goals and make them more and more ambitious.

And really, the fact that President Obama and President Xi got together in 2014 and came up with a bilateral agreement where both countries really advanced their ambitions, made them clear, made them public, set the stage for a lot of other countries coming forward and doing the same. So, you had meaningful U.S.-China cooperation, which helped catalyze greater global cooperation. And that U.S.-China deal in 2014 wasn’t just the product of Presidents Obama and Xi sitting down and talking. It was months of negotiation at multiple levels of government. So that’s an example of how cooperation can really be helpful. And if you look at a map of global emissions, the U.S. and China really stand out as the countries that are putting the most carbon emissions in the in the air. China more so than the United States, but the United States, historically probably a larger amount than China.

So now that kind of cooperation is hard to imagine. I think our diplomats—you look at Secretary Kerry and others—continue to pursue it, continue to hope that persistent efforts to get climate cooperation between the U.S. and China have continued. And certainly that is a noble pursuit, and one that should continue. But the overall relationship is one that is so sour that it’s very hard to imagine that both countries are going to put aside all of the issues that they have on completely other issues—non-climate issues—and come up with some kind of joint strategy.

In fact, the Biden administration, that was its approach for the first couple of years, was simply saying: we’re going to disagree about all these things. We’re going to argue about all these things. But we’re going to cooperate on climate because it matters to the whole world. And the Chinese approach was, well, we understand why you want to do that, but we also understand how important climate is to you. And why would we give you something without getting something in return? And, why would we divorce this issue from the rest of the relationship? So if you want to come to Beijing and talk about climate, we want to talk about Taiwan.

So, there was this real block. There’s been some progress. Saw a little bit of a joint statement on methane, something about some progress over the last year or so. But in general, what has happened is that in the United States the real impetus for climate action has shifted away from thinking we’re going to get these big cooperative mechanisms to competitive approaches, like the Inflation Reduction Act, which is this very large piece of American legislation—the biggest action on the part of the United States ever taken in the climate space.

And I can tell you, that that would have not happened in the absence of U.S.-China cooperation because members of Congress and of the political establishment are now so concerned about China having a competitive edge in a number of technologies that it decided, hey, it’s worth us putting hundreds of billions of dollars into American capacity to develop these technologies. And if China wasn’t on this planet, I don’t think we would have at all seen a consensus for such an enormous investment in climate, but really that investment was also in American competitiveness in the face of this very, very competitive bilateral relationship.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to go next to a written question by Gavin Rolle, who is a senior international business major at Howard University: Could you talk more about how large multinational corporations play a part in the geopolitical implications of the energy transition?

O’SULLIVAN: OK. So large multinational corporations—I mean, that could mean so many different things. So I’ll make a general point and then maybe put forward a few examples. I think there’s no question that corporations in the private sector are now a big part of what is perceived as the solution. They’re also, of course, if you think about corporations as oil and gas companies, they’re part of the problem. So I think there’s that dual component of it. First, let me just talk about part of the solution. So multinational corporations, we think about all kinds of things. But the ways in which they’re going to be central to a solution is manifold.

So, one, I would say think about big global mining companies and the role that they have in trying to meet this really, really staggering growth in demand that is anticipated for critical minerals which are needed for clean energy technologies, particularly batteries and large, offshore and onshore wind. So on the one hand, those companies, some of them, might be state owned—or, are state owned, from China and other places. But a lot of them are big, multinational companies that have mining operations all over the world. And so suddenly the energy transition rests to some extent on these companies being able to produce a lot more critical minerals than it was anticipated in the past.

On the solution side, think about corporations, the private sector more generally, I mentioned about the need for more climate finance. Most of that new climate finance is going to have to come from the private sector. And so, again, there the question is how to mobilize that finance. But it’s not going to come from governments. The gap is just too large to be met by governments alone.

And then on the contribution side, I think shifting to oil and gas companies here, you do have companies that have the ability to make very big investments in new technologies. And so, what you do see is some companies investing heavily in carbon capture and storage technologies, trying to see if those technologies can—the costs of them can be brought down and the scale that they can be exercised at can be increased. There’s some controversy around those technologies, and the idea of oil and gas companies being the funders of it. But I think on the whole, if you look at any of the scenarios of what the global energy mix looks like in a net zero global economy, there’s a big element of carbon capture, right, that we really can’t get to those goals without having that technology play a bigger role than it is today.

Now, in terms of multinational companies, on the downside there is—I would say there’s this intense focus on the role that these companies play in producing oil and gas, and the role that those energy sources play in creating carbon emissions. And that—I mean, those links are very well known to all. And here, I think what I would say—this is obviously a long and complex situation—but I think we need to look at the entire energy system and see the role of energy companies in the global energy system, and to think about their supply, and think about their investments, and moving those investments into more renewable energy areas, which some of them are doing.

And we also need to think about demand. That as long as global demand for oil and natural gas are rising, as they are today, you have companies that are going to be interested in meeting those goals. And when the supply falls short of the demand, what also happens is that prices go up and you have politicians trying to get companies to produce more oil. So I think it needs to be tackled from both the supply side and from the demand side. And we rightly focus on supply, but we often overlook demand. So I think whenever we’re thinking about that, we should keep both in mind.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Next question from Benjamin Schmitt, who has a raised hand.

Q: Hi. Benjamin Schmitt. I’m an affiliate at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Harvard Ukraine Research Institute.

One of the questions I have is, there’s been a—first of all, Meghan, thank you for doing the, quote/unquote, caveman energy security discussion today, because it’s really been lost, as you said, in some of the good—very good discussion over the energy transition. What I want to ask about is the extent to which physical energy infrastructure attacks that we’ve seen across Northern Europe in particular, but more broadly, whether it be Nord Stream, or Baltic Connector, or some of the telecommunications cables, including that in the Red Sea that we’ve seen. How does this impact the thinking of the global energy transition?

Because when I was at COP-28, I tried to talk to folks as much as possible about the need to have physical infrastructure as a part of an energy security strategy. But it’s oftentimes overlooked as a key element of this, because if you don’t have energy security of the physical infrastructure, you might end up with energy poverty. And that would reduce the support for electorates to support the energy transition, which we obviously need. So want your thoughts on that. And thanks, again, for doing this great event.

O’SULLIVAN: Thank you very much. And it’s always great to meet a colleague over a webinar of another institution. So nice to meet you. And I hope I’ll get to benefit from your work.

You know, I think you’re hitting on an extremely important point. And it is one that I do think is very much underweighted in the conversation around climate. And that is the security of energy infrastructure. And, of course, we had some of those—some of those failures of energy infrastructure here in the United States a couple of years ago, that really made people nervous, woke people up to the importance of pipelines and energy security infrastructure. But seemingly not as much attention sustained over a long period of time.

There’s no question that this is going to be part of the vulnerability of an energy transition. So it’s not just a fact today. You mentioned Nord Stream and some other pieces of infrastructure in place now which have been or were vulnerable. But this vulnerability is going to intensify dramatically as the energy transition progresses. And, again, just make more vulnerabilities with energy transition around things like electric grids, and other transmission modes, and storage.

So one of the big things about the energy transition is that in a successful energy transition world, so much of what we do on a daily basis will be electrified. So I think now 20 percent of global economic activity is electrified. That number will be more like 50 percent. And so at first you think of all the additional infrastructure that is going to be needed to support the electrification, not just of the transport sector but of many, many other places. And that that electricity is going to need to be almost fully decarbonized, which is a big step up. I think, now it’s about—globally, about 38 percent of the energy flowing through to electricity is of a decarbonize nature.

So you’re going to have a lot more infrastructure that is going to be sustaining a much greater proportion of global economic activity. And with that is going to come all kinds of vulnerabilities. Now, some of the vulnerabilities will be, as we’ve just been discussing, kind of like attacks, cyberattacks, physical attacks, like we saw on Nord Stream. But some of them will come from other sources. So if you think about climate change and look at just how climate change has affected the generation of clean energy in the last few years, whether it’s in France, where a very hot summer made it hard to cool the nuclear reactors of France, or in Brazil where droughts have made hydropower very hard to sustain. But then we think about increasing vicious weather systems and the impact that that’s going to have on energy infrastructure. So you have kind of manmade threats, but you also will have climate change—all of these things making this infrastructure more vulnerable.

And then finally, I’d just point out, if you look at the government’s assessment of kind of cybersecurity vulnerabilities, one of the areas where I’ve had friends and colleagues who are in government kind of point out to me—this is public information, but public information that they feel nobody has focused on—is just how concerned the U.S. government is about the Chinese penetration of energy infrastructure in the United States, and presumably other parts of the world. Which is just a dormant capacity, but the sense is that if the United States and China were to get into any kind of conflict, that there’s actually a latent Chinese capacity to do some significant damage to our energy infrastructure.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Next question from John Francis, who’s at the University of Utah: Regardless of the outcome of the war in Ukraine, do you think that lasting impact on Europe will be an increased and sustained commitment to renewable energy?

O’SULLIVAN: Great question. I touched on it a little bit at the beginning. Since it’s asking for my opinion, I’ll give my opinion. And as I said, I think there are some reasons why this is a good source of debate. In fact, I had this as a debate in my class not too long ago, a few weeks ago.

I do think, on the whole, if you’re just talking about Europe—and I understand the question was directed towards Europe—on the whole, I do think that this is probably going to lead—not probably. I think we’re already seeing it, and I believe it will continue, which is this enhanced commitment to energy transition. So keep in mind that Europe was already there. Europe was already the most advanced in terms of reining in its carbon emissions to any other region in the world. So it already had that commitment. And this goes back to the whole caveman question. And it generally was not focusing so much on energy security, because it saw Russia as a reliable supplier over the course of decades. And so there was a desire to transition away from natural gas and fossil fuels, but there wasn’t seen to be a national security imperative at all. And that has changed. And I think that has really meant that you’re going to have this intense, intense commitment to it.

Some people have asked me—I think this question was prefaced with “regardless of the outcome in Ukraine.” Some people have asked, well what happens if, when Putin is no longer in power in Russia? Are the Europeans going to go back to importing Russian natural gas? And my answer there would be, I don’t really see that happening even remotely to the scale of European dependence before the war. Even in the face of a different kind of Russia. I think the effort that the Europeans are taking to move away from Russian natural gas is not going to be easily reversed, even in the face of a different kind of government in Russia—which I’m quite skeptical about happening in the short term in any case.

So I think we could certainly imagine a future in which Europe is importing more Russian gas than it’s importing now—and it still is importing Russian gas, a lot of it liquefied natural gas. But I don’t see it reverting back to the volumes in which the Europeans were importing Russian natural gas before the war. I see more of this commitment to meeting energy needs through renewable energy. What I see is really slowing it down, to some extent, is what we talked about earlier, which is the rise of populism and that, again, if energy security becomes a rallying factor for European politics, I think it could influence some of the initiative and energy and resources that exists to go into it. But I don’t think the political commitment is going to disappear.


I’d like to go to Ken Bernier at Central New Mexico Community College, with a raised hand.

Q: Yes. Thank you, Irina and Dr. O’Sullivan. I am with Central New Mexico Community College, in the political science department.

I had a relatively simple question, and it’s a follow on to Nord Stream. I’ve read Seymour Hersh’s article and I’m trying to figure out, was this an attempt to convert Europe to green energy quicker or was it an attempt to stymie Russia’s influence on providing natural gas and reaping the benefits of all that money? Thank you.

O’SULLIVAN: So I haven’t read Seymour Hersh’s article, so I’m at a disadvantage. And when somebody says, I’m asking a relatively simple question, I always think, Ken, hmm, that’s not going to be simple. So it’s hard. I haven’t read the article. And to be honest, I think there’s a lot of uncertainty around the motives and the particular actors, and who ordered it, and all of that. So I think it’s a little bit hard to answer your question in a very specific sense.

I think what was happening—if you look at the graph of how Europe was getting off of Russian energy before the explosions in the Nord Stream pipelines, it was moving pretty rapidly away from Russian natural gas. And the flows through the Nord Stream pipelines had diminished greatly but were still substantial in some way. I suppose—again, I could speculate on the motives of potentially various actors, but I think that the trend line away from Russian energy was very, very clear. And if we keep in mind—we kind of go back to—the IEA had this report that came out. I think it came out in March 2022. And it basically was an assessment. This is the International Energy Agency in Paris.

It had this assessment of what does Europe need to do to get off of Russian energy by the end of the year? I think that was their timeframe. And they had ten steps. And these were really hard steps. They had to do with curbing European demand for Russian energy, or energy generally. Had to do with diversifying supply. Had to do with reigniting politically controversial nuclear power plants. Had to do with building new LNG capacity. All of these things, to get away from Russia natural gas.

And I looked at that plan and I thought, like, well, that’s great. It’s good that there’s a path forward. But I was deeply skeptical that it would be able to be achieved. And I think for the most part the Europeans outperformed even their own expectations. And I think that would have happened regardless of whether that pipeline had been destroyed or not. So I don’t know that that particular act had a fundamental effect on the direction of Europe weaning itself away from Russian gas.

FASKIANOS: So thank you, Meghan.

I’m going to take—there are lots of written questions and raised hands, and I’m sorry that we can’t get to them all. But I wanted to take the opportunity. If you could just give us a little bit—we have professors and students on the call. You’ve worked in—you’ve worked in the government. You’re now heading up the Belfer Center. And just talk a little bit about your career choices and encouraging students, what you would like to say to students and professors who are teaching students, what you would like to leave with them about career opportunities.

O’SULLIVAN: Sure. So, first of all, I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you all, and wish we had more time to go through your questions and hear from you.

I’ve been at Harvard now for about sixteen years. And before that, as Irina mentioned when she was introducing me, I served in the U.S. government. And I served at the State Department. And I served at the Pentagon, and overseas. And most of my time at the White House. And I sort of feel like there are different stages in life and different delights out of different career paths. And I think that many of the professors on this call will share with me the real sense of privilege to be able to teach young people, and inspire young people, and to learn from young people. It’s a great thing to be in an environment that is filled with people with lots of energy to change the world.

But being in government was a certain kind of extraordinary privilege as well. And in many respects, the ability to combine both of those things I feel has been a true professional gift, but one that that many people are able to create because there’s a real synthesis between thinking deeply about things and then deciding that you’re going to take the deep thought that you have had the opportunity to indulge in and try to turn it into action. And to me, that’s just been one of the greatest satisfactions of my career, is to have an idea and work with others in a government setting to try to put it into action.

Of course, there are other settings where you can put ideas into action—the private sector, that world of philanthropy. There’s lots of places to do that. In government, the beauty and challenge of it is, one, you can never do it on your own. So it’s inherently a collaborative effort. And two, the government can be very hard to maneuver, very hard to get an aircraft carrier to shift course. But when it does, it’s so powerful and your impact is magnified.

So, I would say that if you’re interested in public service it is still a very noble career. And it is one that I think you’ll find enlists every part of you. You’ve got to be smart, but you also have to know how to cajole people and convince people. You have to be persuasive. You have to have a certain amount of stamina. You have to be able to look at the long term, but also not lose track of the details. So, if you like to challenge yourself and you’d like to wake up and never ask yourself the question, what am I doing, then I definitely would consider a career in public service.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much, Meghan. That was terrific. Again, Meghan O’Sullivan. If you haven’t read her book, Windfall, you should, as well as go back to those articles that she mentioned coauthoring with Jason Bordoff in Foreign Affairs. We have already sent out—shared at least one with you, but you should go back and look at those. And thank you for serving on our board. We look forward to seeing how you’re shaping the Belfer Center as the new leader of it.

To all of you, thank you for your questions and written questions. I’m sorry, if we could not get to you. We will just have to have another webinar on this topic. The next one will be on Wednesday, March 6, at 1:00 p.m. with David Scheffer, who is a senior fellow at CFR. And he’ll talk about complex humanitarian emergencies. In the meantime, I encourage you to learn about CFR paid internships for students and fellowships for professors at CFR.org/careers. You can follow us at @CFR_academic on X, and visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for research and analysis on global issues. So, again, thank you all, and thank you, Meghan O’Sullivan.

O’SULLIVAN: Thank you.


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