As the largest landlocked country in the world, Kazakhstan has relied on its abundance of natural resources used in energy production to become an upper-middle-income economy. In particular, between 1991 and 2019, the country saw vast improvements in development and well-being for its citizens. For example, the average life expectancy has increased by 6 years within only a few decades. As well, compared to other countries reliant on fossil fuel extraction to fund development, there have been few conflicts tied to Kazakhstan’s fossil fuel resources. This promise of upward economic growth and stability has improved the quality of life for many Kazakhstanis. 

However, as Kazakhstan depends on fossil fuel and mineral wealth to make these advances, it is thus vulnerable to global economic shifts towards renewable resources. From 1989 until 2019, former president Nursultan Nazarbayev had the advantage of a world dependent on fossil fuels for energy production. However, since his resignation, Kazakhstan’s new president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev now faces a world that is shifting away from fossil fuels. What has the country’s new government done to tackle the climate crisis created by fossil fuel use? 

Kazakhstan’s Recent Path to Renewable Energy

Kazakhstan is accompanying the many countries that are seeking to “decarbonize” their energy consumption through the use of renewable resources and sustainable practices. If international businesses and other countries are no longer investing as much in fossil fuels extraction, then Kazakhstan’s government must change its approach to bring in foreign investment. As such, the Kazakhstan 2050 strategy sets out to diversify its fossil fuel-centered economy and source half of all consumed energy from renewable resources. To do this, the country can take advantage of its expansive plains for the development of wind-powered energy. However, as of 2018, only 1.4% of energy production came from renewable resources. Further progress must be made to meet its targets while simultaneously balancing its goals of continued economic development.

Currently, renewable energy in Kazakhstan has yet to be seen as a worthwhile investment by outside businesses. This is compared to fossil fuels which could be exported and sold to other countries. The 2050 strategy does outline the development of other industries outside of the energy sector to lessen the dependence on fossil fuels. Thus, most investment in developing renewable energy resources in the country has come from intergovernmental partnerships. 

So far, partnerships with government development-focused organizations like USAID and UNDP have paved the way to the Kazakhstani government’s plan for a green economy, defined as “ low carbon, resource-efficient, and socially inclusive.” This is very different from previous international business investments in fossil fuels, which hardly considered the environmental cost. As seen in places like the EU, government action is required to begin progress on cutting emissions. Thus working with other countries could help to reach the goals set by the 2050 strategy.

International Relations at the Center of Eurasia

Kazakhstan lies within the Eurasian continent which includes Europe and Asia. Since independence, Kazakhstan has worked to promote good relations with investing countries in Eurasia. China, Russia, and the EU are the largest Eurasian investors in countries like Kazakhstan, making investments that are crucial for the development of its renewable energy resources and other industries. 

Firstly, Kazakhstan’s trade relationship with the EU is significant, as the EU receives 41% of Kazakhstan’s total exports. Kazakhstan’s oil fields are largely found in its portion of the Caspian Sea and can be exported easily throughout Europe, justifying its inclusion within the EU’s goals to diversify its fossil fuel imports beyond Russia. Given the EU’s own efforts to cut emissions, there is the possibility of collaborating on investments in renewable and sustainable energy sources. As previously highlighted, this is achieved through government organizations as opposed to private business investment. 

Secondly, Russia’s willingness to engage in conflict with neighboring countries has made it very important to keep relations with the Russian government stable. Both Russia and Kazakhstan are part of the Eurasian economic union that has close to 20% of the world’s production of natural gas. Therefore, diversifying Kazakhstan’s economy away from fossil fuels would mean separation between Russia and Kazkhstan, the two largest fossil fuel-producing countries in the union. As seen in Ukraine, changes in policies can bring direct action from Russia.

China is a leading investor in Kazakhstan with over 700 joint enterprises between the two countries. Kazakhstan and China also share interests in making business and investment more accessible to outside investors. With this substantial number of economic ties and investments, the goal of diversifying Kazakhstan’s economy could be a Chinese Belt and Road focal point. The Belt and Road Initiative is a project from the Chinese government meant to further improve trade through investing in infrastructure projects in other countries throughout Eurasia. 

However, many governments have expressed concern over the treatment of the Uighurs in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. The Kazakhstan state authorities have stated little criticism towards the Chinese government’s choices in Xinjiang, which borders Kazakhstan. When other governments and businesses have highlighted the mistreatment of the Uyghurs, it has often led to economic retaliation from China. Given that President Tokayev used to be a diplomat working in China, it’s likely that he does not seek to disturb the economic relationship between the countries he worked to shape. 

What Lies Ahead

Kazakhstan’s significant fossil fuels exports and growing partnership with other countries to diversify away from those exports is important to sustain the progress of development made in Kazakhstan. Given that the current president is only the second since independence, Kazakhstan’s opportunities to further its investments lie in its ability to collaborate with current partners to produce a new portfolio of exports.  Kazakhstan’s progress thus far has also shown that the action of government organizations, rather than private companies, has greatly boosted its economic development and the wellbeing of its citizens. 

Solomon Johnson

Solomon is a resident of Albuquerque and a recent graduate of the University of New Mexico, where he studied Political Science and International Studies. His research mainly focuses on the European Union...