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An age of scarcity

October 14, 2010

Yesterday I was invited to a workshop on Africa for journalists and media professionals(thanks, Lia) and heard some good presentations about resources and leadership in Africa, and suddenly realized that, until now, when we talked about “resources” was always with minerary or oil resources in mind.  But how much things have changed in last couple of years if we now consider also land and food/commodities as strategic resources?

A couple of years ago I found this very interesting paper about international politics in the age of scarcity and I still think that it is where we are all going to look at in the next decade:

Resource scarcity issues – above all oil prices, food prices and climate change – are at the top of the world’s agenda. Food prices have risen 83 per cent in three years; oil costs are at their highest level ever, with some experts anticipating $200 a barrel by the end of the year; and climate change impacts are accumulating much faster than anticipated.2 Speaking at a UN food summit held a month before he was due to chair the 2008 G8 summit in Hokkaido, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda set out his assessment in stark terms: the Club of Rome’s 1972 Limits to Growth report “was right”

The author argues that climate change, food security and energy issues are issues inevitably linked together:

A stable climate is essential for global food security, while current food production systems are also a major emitter of greenhouse gases – through both energy use and direct emissions from livestock, cultivation practices, deforestation and so on.

Food security depends on energy security because of its current reliance on energy inputs throughout the food value chain, while the emergence of biofuels (and the arbitrage relationship between food and fuel that they create) further increases the link between energy and food prices.

Finally, climate change and energy security are fundamentally intertwined because of the obvious point that emissions from burning fossil fuels are the principal cause of rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the air.

The paper goes on explaining that, because of the high degree of interconnection, these issues need to be dealt with by a multilateral or international body or mechanism and not at regional or national level. (The national level only is particularly dangerous, as the protectionist measures adopted by some countries during the food prices hike have shown).

It also points at the fact that “scarcity issues” will tend to present themselves in form of crisis (as we have already seen in the past 2 years)

In political terms, while increasing scarcity impacts will open windows of opportunity for comprehensive action, these windows are likely to open suddenly – and to remain open only briefly.(As the economist Milton Friedman once wrote to his fellow monetarists, when they were still voices in the wilderness: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”)

The paper was written in 2008 at the peak of world food prices, and with no foresight of the 2009 financial crisis, that actually closed the window of opportunity for reforming substantially the mechanisms that currently deal with food and energy issues.

One of the results –thought- was that the 2008 “food crisis” prompted the reform of the Committee on Food Security (CFS) and made it a much inclusive and representative body. For how much it will also be efficient, we wait till its first approved declaration on Saturday 16th.

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