Following the COP28 climate change conference last month, emerging countries have an opportunity to become significant players in reducing dependence on fossil fuels by utilizing cleaner, renewable energy. While most attention is rightfully directed toward tackling potential consequences caused by the world’s most significant polluters—including China, India, and the United States—smaller countries are stepping up to contribute to future solutions. Central Asian countries, in particular, have much to offer in the fight against climate change.
Every Central Asian country is richly endowed with plentiful clean energy sources, including solar, wind, and hydropower. Central Asian countries have acknowledged the need to reduce dependency on fossil fuels and have committed themselves to strategies to transition to renewable energy sources as part of the Paris Agreement.
Despite these positive qualities, there are obstacles that the Central Asian countries will need to overcome in order to realize their renewable energy potential. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, with their sizable energy and agriculture sectors, emit the plurality of greenhouse gases in the region. Additionally, Central Asian energy infrastructure inherited from the Soviet period is decrepit and ill-functioning as the region faces gas shortages despite its abundant natural resources.
Central Asian economies and the international environmental community would have much to gain from an eventual transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources in the region. Despite Central Asian countries only accounting for less than two percent of global emissions, Central Asia can emerge as a potential model for other developing regions in eliminating their reliance on finite fossil fuels.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan should take the lead as they are the largest economies in Central Asia and can control their respective emission output. As of April 2023, nearly 95 percent of Central Asia’s energy output comprises fossil fuels due to Central Asia’s clean energy resources being largely untapped. However, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are showing momentum in launching their low-carbon energy transition by utilizing hydrogen and reducing methane emissions. Turkmenistan also has the potential to make a similar transition with its vast natural gas reserves that can serve as a source of hydrogen.
Expanding clean energy projects, including taking advantage of hydrogen in Central Asia, will likely need to be a concerted multilateral effort. Even though several Central Asian countries have the necessary knowledge to expand clean hydrogen production, support from the international community could enable decarbonization via financing and regulatory frameworks.
In recent years, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have exercised a multi-vector foreign policy in which these Central Asian countries wish to balance Russian, Chinese, and Western interests in Central Asia. Multilateral climate change projects may be an opportunity for peaceful cooperation between the West and regional great powers, namely Russia and China. It will be critical for the West to convey that it does not aim to replace Russian and Chinese influence by imposing cultural values on Central Asia through these clean energy projects. Instead, the West can make the case that climate change affects the entire global community.
The United States and China could potentially enter joint clean energy ventures with Central Asian countries as part of Washington’s and Beijing’s goal of operationalizing the Working Group on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s. China is already a leading player in Central Asia’s clean energy transition with Beijing’s cheap surplus of solar panels, electric vehicles, and wind turbines. However, China has struggled with cleanly extracting the critical minerals needed to create these products. Meanwhile, American and French scientists have made breakthroughs in discovering cleaner and more efficient ways of mining that could serve China and the Central Asian countries.
At COP28, Russia warned against a “chaotic” exit from fossil fuels while welcoming the “compromise” deal, which participants agreed on during COP28. While Russia may be apprehensive about adopting extensive clean energy models domestically, it may be easier to coax Russia into supporting clean energy projects in its near abroad as Russia, along with China, would be most affected by Central Asian pollution given their proximity to Central Asia. Russia is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change from extreme events such as the increase in frequency and duration of droughts, extreme precipitation, floods, forest fires, heat waves, flash floods, coastal flooding, and increased erosion. Collaborative clean energy projects in Central Asia could serve as a first step for Russia to adopt clean energy practices.
Western countries, including France and the United States, have made diplomatic trips to Central Asia, signaling their apparent interest in engaging the region. Creating an open working group where members share the goal of reducing dependence on fossil fuels should be one of the few actions the West takes in its limited but beneficial relationship with Central Asian countries.
Central Asia is a rapidly developing region with economies expected to grow over the next few years. With outside help, Central Asia can finally realize its potential of being a region capable of meeting the challenges posed by the existential threat of climate change.
Alex Little is an MS graduate of Georgia Tech and specializes in Russian and Central Asian affairs.