Traumatic Decarbonization


How will traumatic decarbonization affect peace processes and political settlements in fragile oil-producing states in Africa and the Middle East?

Political settlements in such states are ‘carbon compacts’: oil revenues are central to national economies, the functioning of political systems, and provide the discretionary funds needed by politicians to secure and retain power. Peace agreements may be structured around allocating revenue streams to those who have leverage over oil production and funds, and when oil revenues dry up, these states are plunged into turmoil. We call this ‘traumatic decarbonization.’

As the world transitions away from fossil fuels, political funds available in oil-producing states will be dramatically reduced. Our particular focus is on these as-yet-unexamined topics: how the reductions in oil revenues will impact political management and political budgets. This is particularly concerning since just as the cash income available from oil production lubricates peace processes it also leads to unsustainable and/or inflationary loyalty payments. In addition, control over oil production and sale currently determines who has sufficient leverage in order to obtain a seat at the negotiating table, whether an actor/group must use violence to substitute for cash, or whether actors/groups are excluded completely. Most importantly, under the current political settlement models, if political funds dry up violence becomes more likely. Efforts to find substitutes for oil rents may lead political elites to other forms of dependence: on other minerals, mercenarism, foreign patrons, etc., all of which have complex implications for peace and political settlements.

Carbon Compacts, Decarbonization, and Peace in Fragile States in Africa and the Middle East

This project has three main components:

  • We will examine the role of mineral resources in the wealth-sharing components of peace agreements and in the political budgets of the leaders who sign peace agreements. We will examine the substantive content of the wealth sharing components of peace agreements and the relationship between budgetary expansion and the timing of peace agreements.
  • Second, we will examine the actual experiences of countries that have experienced ‘traumatic decarbonization’, i.e. a massive forced reduction in revenue from oil. We will focus on the cases of Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan and Iraq, but also bring in experience from other countries including Venezuela and Yemen.
  • Third, we will commission comparative studies to examine the dynamics of carbon compacts under different political circumstances. One question will be, how do (broadly) democratic political systems change with the availability of oil/gas/coal production? A second will be, how can the sustainable energy transition also be a democratic transition? In this regard, we will explore whether there are other modes of peacemaking that minimize the need for rent-based structures of political financing, either through alternative sources of political funds or through a different logic of political agreement that does not require expanded political funding.

The goal is to develop innovative peacebuilding/mediation models not based on allocation of oil rents as a way of ‘buying’ peace. To that end, the primary objective of this project is setting the agenda for that conversation. Current global energy-related academic and policy efforts emphasize and encourage the shift from a carbon-based energy to sustainable sources, and many attendant issues (shifts in labor markets, economic impacts, scientific and technological gaps and shifts, environmental consequences, etc.). However, there is little to no attention on the political impacts of shifting to sustainable energy sources, especially in fragile states that do not have the fiscal or institutional capacity to plan for the impacts of the energy transition. This is a crucial oversight since theory and experience suggest that unplanned or traumatic decarbonization will impact political dynamics in violent monetized political systems, likely in ways that have negative implications for the use of violence, and undermine the prospects for peace and the durability of political settlements. We seek to explore these issues and frame the necessary conversation around the risks and implications of decarbonization on elite politics in these countries.


Video: Promoting Stable Green Transitions in Oil States: Traumatic Decarbonization and Instability in Fragile Contexts USIP hosted a panel of experts to discuss the issue of unplanned decarbonization in Africa and the Middle East (January 20, 2023)

Blog Essay: Can the World Go Green Without Destabilizing Oil-Pumping Nations?” by Benjamin Spatz, Alex de Waal, Aditya Sarkar and Tegan Blaine. USIP Analysis and Commentary (June 23, 2021).


Energy Transition in Fragile States: A Critical Primer

There is increasing global recognition of the need to move away from carbon-based fuels towards renewable energy sources in order to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. What are the distributional implications of this transition? While there are numerous analyses focused on Western and developed countries, how will it impact fragile states, especially those which produce fossil fuels? This is the driving question we seek to answer in this paper.

Tarun Gopalakrishnan and Jared Miller

Making Markets: South Sudan’s War Economy in the 21st Century

From 2005-13, relations between competing elite actors in South Sudan were organized through a political marketplace in which payments derived from oil rents were used to purchase the loyalty of armed men. During the same period, marketization, urbanization, and the politics of state-building remade South Sudan’s underlying political economy. With the outbreak of civil war in 2013 and the collapse of the country’s oil revenues, it was this transformed political economy that enabled the state to maintain its grip on power, as the government distributed positions and licenses to local actors, who then used such prestations to tax, raid, and otherwise immiserate the populations under their control. A shift from a political economy predicated on the distribution of oil revenues to one based on the apportionment of positions and licenses has intensified inequality in South Sudan and enabled continued elite domination.

Joshua Craze

The Politics of an Oil Crash; How the 2020 Oil Shock Affected Political Settlements in Nigeria and Implications for Future Shocks

From the Nigerian people to scholars, and even Nigerian government officials, the Nigerian government is often described as an elite cartel focused on dividing up the immense oil spoils. Oil has historically accounted for 65 – 85 percent of government revenues, but what happens when the oil money dries up? What happens when Nigeria’s rentier state loses its main source of revenue? While this was once a distant question, the 2020 twin demand and supply shocks to oil have not only brought this question center stage but have also provided evidence of how traumatic decarbonization, rapid loss of oil revenues, will affect contemporary Nigerian politics.

Jared Miller

Oil, Gold and Guns: The Violent Politics of Sudan’s Resource Booms

Sudan lost three-quarters of its oil resources after South Sudan’s separation in 2011. This paper explores the consequences of Sudan’s experience with traumatic decarbonization and how this informs thinking on the durability of systems of monetized political governance: political market- places.

Luke Patey

The New Era of Turbulence: Peacemaking Trends in Post-Carbon Times

Based on an empirical comparison of peace processes in carbon-dependent economies over time, this article investigates the impact of decarbonisation and the related decline of political finance in respective political marketplaces on peacemaking.

Jan Pospisil

Report cover photo of bright colored stacked oil barrels

Traumatic Decarbonization in Carbon-Based Political (Un)settlements

This paper synthesizes findings from six case studies that have experienced instances of decarbonization over the past decade: Ecuador, Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, and Venezuela, and two thematic papers – on peace-making during oil shocks, and a broad review of the existing literature on energy transition in fragile states. This allows for examination of what has already happened in contexts which have gone through decarbonization, which yields insights into what might happen in other rent-dependent political systems during energy transitions.

Aditya Sarkar

Report cover with photo of offshore oil rig

Decarbonization and Political Transformation in Iraq: Impact on Politics, Society, and Regional Relations

What happens when a petrostate loses its oil rents? While the oil market continues to go through boom-and-bust cycles, cases such as Iraq provide evidence of how the rapid loss of oil revenues—traumatic decarbonization—may affect the politics and stability of these petrostates. In Iraq, multiple shocks to oil revenues from 2014 through 2020 fundamentally altered the organization and concentration of political power in Iraq with destabilizing and democratic consequences. Using the Political Marketplace Framework as an analytic framework, this paper argues that the successive traumatic shocks to Iraq’s oil revenues bankrupted the government triggering a nominal decentralization process, the fracturing of sectarian power, and contributed to a breakdown of sectarianism among the Iraqi people.

Shahla al-Kli and Jared Miller

Report cover photo of off shore oil rig

Traumatic Decarbonization in Venezuela and Ecuador

When global oil prices fell precipitously in 2014, Venezuela and Ecuador were both ruled by left-populist parties reliant on massive oil rents. And yet their governments responded very differently to the oil shock. This paper seeks to explain why Venezuela and Ecuador took such divergent paths despite their similar starting points.

Katrina Burgess and Javier Corrales

Research Team

Shahla Al-Kli is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. She served as research analysis and knowledge mobilization director at Proximity International, the Middle East deputy regional director at Mercy Corps, a principal development specialist at DAI Global, a senior advisor to the speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, an advisor to the speaker of the Kurdistan Parliament, a former country director for Counterpart International’s Iraq programs, and an auditor at the Central Bank of Iraq. She is a long-term practitioner in the Middle East on issues of politics, governance, security, statebuilding, and fragile states. She finished her Ph.D. at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy/Tufts University; her dissertation about governance and decentralization in Iraq was awarded Fletcher’s Peter Ackerman Award for outstanding scholarly work.

Katrina Burgess is Director of the Henry J. Leir Institute and Associate Professor of Political Economy at the Fletcher School, Tufts University. She is the author of Courting Migrants: How States Make Diasporas and Diasporas Make States (Oxford, 2020) and Parties and Unions in the New Global Economy (Pittsburgh, 2004). In 2019, she wrote and produced Waylaid in Tijuana, a documentary about Haitian and Central American migrants whose journeys to the United States are disrupted by shifts in U.S. policy. Her full list of publications includes books, chapters, and journal articles on labor politics, remittances, migration, and diasporas, including a recent article in Electoral Studies with Michael Tyburski on political party outreach to voters abroad. She has also taught at Brown University, Syracuse University, UCLA, and the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM) and received her PhD in Politics from Princeton University.

Javier Corrales is Dwight W. Morrow 1895 professor and chair of Political Science at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts.  He obtained his Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University in 1996.
Corrales’s research focuses on democratization, presidential powers, ruling parties, democratic backsliding, populism, political economy of development, oil and energy, the incumbent’s advantage, foreign policies, and sexuality.  He has published extensively on Latin America and the Caribbean. His latest book, Fixing Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2018), focuses on Latin America’s penchant for constituent assemblies and their impact on presidential powers and democracy. His co-authored book Dragon in the Tropics:Venezuela and the Legacy of Hugo was chosen both The Financial Times and The Guardian as essential titles to understand the crisis in Venezuela. His research has been published in numerous academic journals and Corrales is a regular contributor to The New York Times and has also written for The Washington Post, NPR, and Foreign Policy

Dr Joshua Craze has worked as a researcher in South Sudan since 2008. He has a Ph.D. in socio-cultural anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, and was otherwise educated at St Peter’s College, University of Oxford, the University of Amsterdam, and L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris. Over the last decade, he has done fieldwork in South Sudan, primarily in Greater Upper Nile and the Bahr el Ghazal region, while carrying out research projects for Small Arms Survey, Human Rights Watch, the Norwergian Refugee Council, and the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, amongst many other organizations. His research reports include Displaced and Immiserated: The Shilluk of Upper Nile in South Sudan’s civil war, 2014–19 and–together with Jérôme Tubiana–A State of Disunity: Conflict Dynamics in Unity State, 2013-15. His work has also been published by the GuardianForeign PolicyWashington MonthlyN+1, and many other venues. In 2014, he was an UNESCO Artist Laureate in Creative Writing, has exhibited at the New Museum, New York, and had artist’s residencies at Art OMI, New York, and the Embassy of Foreign Artists, Geneva, amongst other locations. He is currently working on two book projects: one is a literary essay on a decade of working in South Sudan, entitled The Report: A Report; the other, a political anthropology of state creation and international intervention in South Sudan, is entitled The State Against Society

Alex de Waal is the Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Professorial Fellow at the London School of Economics. Considered one of the foremost experts on Sudan and the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, HIV/AIDS and governance in Africa, and conflict and peace-building. Following a fellowship with the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard, he worked with the Social Science Research Council as Director of the program on HIV/AIDS and Social Transformation, and led projects on conflict and humanitarian crises in Africa. During 2005-06, de Waal was seconded to the African Union mediation team for Darfur and from 2009-11 served as senior adviser to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and its Alternatives. He is also he author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine and The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa (Polity Press, 2015) He was on the list of Foreign Policy’s 100 most influential public intellectuals in 2008 and Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “brave thinkers” in 2009.

Tarun Gopalakrishnan is a Ph.D. candidate at the Fletcher School focusing on the rules, norms and policy processes around finance for climate adaptation and resilience. He is a Junior Fellow at the Climate Policy Lab.
He previously worked with The Energy and Resources Institution (New Delhi), the World Trade Organization and the Centre for Science and Environment (New Delhi) on diverse climate policy issues including coal taxation, compensatory afforestation, cross-border energy markets, climate services for agriculture and operationalising the Paris Agreement. 
He holds an undergraduate degree from the NALSAR University of Law (Hyderabad, India) and an M.A. in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School.

Jared Miller is a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at the Fletcher School at Tufts University focusing on electoral politics and corruption in Nigeria. Jared has also conducted research on election manipulation, corruption, and elite politics in the United States, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and Sudan.  Previously, Jared worked in Nigeria with Search for Common Ground, an international peacebuilding nonprofit, to support community-based peacebuilding programs.  In Nigeria, he worked on issues ranging from human rights accountability and governance reforms to violent extremism and community security.  Jared holds an MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a BA in International Relations from the College of William & Mary. 

Dr. Luke Patey is a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies and Lead Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, University of Oxford. He is author of the new book, How China Loses: The Pushback Against Chinese Global Ambitions (Oxford University Press, 2021) and The New Kings of Crude: China, India, and the Global Struggle for Oil in Sudan and South Sudan (Hurst, 2014). He has published inThe Extractive Industries and Society, the Journal of Contemporary ChinaAfrican Affairs, Middle East Policy, and other academic journalsHis articles have also appeared in The New York TimesFinancial TimesThe GuardianThe HinduForeign Affairs, and Foreign Policy. He holds a doctorate and MSc from the Copenhagen Business School and a bachelor degree from Queen’s University. 

Jan Pospisil is Associate Professor (Research) at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University and co-investigator in the Peace and Conflict Resolution Evidence Platform, PeaceRep (University of Edinburgh). From 2018 to 2022, he was research director at the Austrian Centre for Peace in Stadtschlaining, from 2015 to 2017, he was researcher at the Edinburgh Law School, from 2006-2015 researcher at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs. His work engages with processes of enduring transition in armed conflict, investigates alternatives  to liberal peacebuilding, and is concerned with the transition processes in South Sudan and Sudan. He is the author of Peace in Political Unsettlement: Beyond Solving Conflict (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) and numerous articles.

Aditya Sarkar is a PhD student at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and an independent researcher. He has been a fellow at World Peace Foundation since 2017, and has advised the ILO and the Governments of Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia on developing National Employment Policies, and has consulted with the World Bank, and the Open Society Foundations. Aditya is qualified as a lawyer in India and in England and Wales. He previously worked with Linklaters LLP (a global law firm) in London as well as the Ministry of Commerce in India. He holds a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and is a graduate of the National Law School of India University in Bangalore, India. His research focuses on the political economy of transactional political systems, labour, and migration/displacement.

Dr Benjamin J. Spatz is scholar-practitioner focused on conflict, sanctions, corruption, and African politics. He is a Fellow at the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and co-director of the project “Carbon Compacts, Decarbonization and Peace in Fragile States.”  His academic work has received awards from the U.S. Institute of Peace, Department of Defense, Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, Eisenhower Institute, and Harvard University, and has been published or is forthcoming in the Journal of DemocracyExamining African Intelligence and Security Services (Rowman and Littlefield), and Accountability for Mass Starvation (Oxford). The UN Secretary-General appointed him to the UN Panel of Experts on Liberia where he led sanctions investigations into embargo violations, arms traffickers, militia, and financiers. He has also served as an embedded assistant/advisor to the Government of Liberia. He has authored high-level reports for the UN Security Council and his commentary has appeared on television, radio and print, including in The New York TimesWashington PostThe Wall Street JournalChristian Science MonitorUS News and World Report, and Marketplace. He holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, an M.S.F.S from Georgetown University and undergraduate degrees from the University of Washington. He is a Truman National Security Fellow and a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. 

This program is funded by a grant from the U.S Institute of Peace.

The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Institute of Peace.

Photo: Oil Barrels, Baron Reznik, January 13, 2015 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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