Navigating the Perfect Storm: the international challenge of food, water and energy security

In 2009, Professor John Beddington, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government, used the term ‘perfect storm’ to describe the critical combination of food shortages, water scarcity and insufficient energy resources facing the world’s population, predicting these would come to a head in 2030 resulting in significant social unrest and destabilisation. A conference last week, jointly hosted by WWF-UK and Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) , provided an opportunity to consider the solutions available for ‘Navigating the Perfect Storm’.

The well-attended event opened with an introduction by Prof. Beddington who commented that the three years since his oft-quoted statement has been a period of significant and rapid change in factors such as food prices, energy and water demand, and population. It is the latter issue which has really drawn Prof. Beddington’s attention and has emerged as a crucial concern which ‘we haven’t thought enough about’. Projections are for 1 billion more people in just 13 years, meaning that the timetable for action it is incredibly short. Already at current population levels, millions are without access to food, water and electricity. According to Prof Beddington, tackling these issues in a sustainable way is the ‘biggest challenge we’ve got’, yet the international community has so far ‘failed to get to grips’ with it. However, he said, these acute challenges also create opportunities for exciting and important innovations.

Ivan Lewis, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, reiterated that the current period of ‘momentous international change’ presents both both major challenges and potential opportunities in his keynote speech. He stated that the range and scale of current global challenges mean the ‘business as usual’ paradigm is no longer acceptable or sustainable and a ‘new covenant for development’, replacing the paternalistic relationship between developed and developing countries with a ‘tripartite, dynamic network’ for international cooperation, will be necessary. In this holistic approach, he stated, sustainable development will need to become the foundation of any development framework rather than the ‘bolt on’ it has often been. This change in approach will require strong political leadership and commitment to international development which Mr Lewis feels the current government is lacking but that the Labour party has begun to address in its formation of a ‘Road to Rio’ joint working group, bringing together ministers from various teams ahead of the Rio+20 conference in June this year. Mr Lewis stated that international conferences and agreements have often proved ineffective in the past due to the influence of strong individual interests. However, international binding targets drive action, even if they are not met. Mr Lewis concluded that a one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate in policy making and that scientists and politicians should play to their strengths and break down the barriers between them to cooperate on forming policy.

A call for a new policy approach was identified by Professor Bill Adams of University of Cambridge as one of the main topics of conversation surrounding the upcoming Rio+20 conference. Some people have high hopes that the summit will address many of the major global issues and argue that the process is ‘honing in on a solution’. However, others see it as simply a ‘spiral of talk’. Prof. Adams put the upcoming conference in the context of 40 years since the publication of ‘Limits to Growth’ in 1972. Since then, he stated, we have made progress in some ways but are at a point in what he called ‘the Anthropocene’ where ‘the rates, scales, kinds, and combinations of changes occurring now are fundamentally different from those at any other time in history’ (quoted from Vistousek et al). Consequently, we need new policy approaches and innovative solutions which holistically address the needs of society, the economy and the environment. Prof. Adams argued that this will require a transformation of production and consumption to reduce resource demand and improve equity. This ‘contraction and convergence’ will be ‘profoundly difficult’ due to the challenge of persuading populations in both developed and developing to adjust their material aspirations. Prof. Adams concluded that the current situation is ‘an uncomfortable place to be’ but exciting too as important political figures are beginning to recognise that a change in lifestyles and consumption is necessary to address the ‘perfect storm’ of issues facing the world.

Providing a different perspective, Dr Sejal Worah shared observations from her work as Programmes Director for the WWF in India, a country where there has been considerable economic development recently but where acute poverty and inequality, environmental damage and resource depletion persist. Dr Worah stated that efficiency and innovation offer ‘low hanging fruit’ in the pursuit of sustainable development, but that radical transformational changes are also necessary; India ‘has no choice but to develop differently to how industrialised countries developed’. She described a project in the Sundarbans which demonstrates the opportunity for technology ‘leap-frogging’; creation of a solar power station in the region resulted in community empowerment and a reduction in its reliance on unsustainable net-fishing whilst bypassing the use of unsustainable fossil fuels. Another project in the Himalayas restored depleted freshwater springs through various technical solutions developed in partnership with local communities and after a 100-110% increase in stream discharge, the Indian government scaled the approach up to a national scope. The lesson from this, Dr Worah said, is that it successful local solutions are possible and suitable for scaling-up, providing local communities are engaged and technical solutions are matched to the culture, society and economy.

The conference was rounded up with a brief panel discussion involving the four speakers alongside Katie Critchlow of BigGreenChange, Miguel Petana, Vice-President of Global External Affairs at Unilever and Chris Whaley, Head of European and International Co-ordination Division at Defra. The panel agreed that tackling the resource issues facing us will require accounting for the natural environment within economic meaures. Mr Whaley was of the opinion that there is a need to ‘trim down’ on the number of international conventions and review current objectives to focus on feasible goals. Prof. Adams agreed that alongside international policy, there is need to focus on scientific research into specific issues such as crop disease. Mr Petana said consumer education will play a role in reducing the impact of consumption whilst Ms Critchlow suggested a move towards legislating rather than persuading may be necessary.

In answer to a final question as to whether the panel felt optimistic about the current situation, two answered ‘no’, but the remainder were positive about our chances of navigating the perfect storm.