On opening day at the World Economic Forum in Davos, I moderated a session looking at integrated solutions to food, water, and energy security.
In some ways, the best news was not the substance of the session, but the line of 100 people outside who were not able to get into the packed meeting room. For people who believe that Davos will have a mono-maniacal focus on the failing economy, this was another piece of evidence that sustainability remains important.
The panel included Daniel Yergin of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, Margaret Catley-Carlson of the WEF’s Global Agenda Council on Water, Michael Mack, CEO of BSR member company Syngenta, and Armen Sarkissian, founder of Eurasia House.
Had this session taken place a mere six months ago, it would have been dominated by concerns about skyrocketing prices. Today, the world looks quite a bit different.
Davos 2009 is the year of the perfect storm on food, energy, and water: Twenty-five percent of the world’s population faces energy poverty, 1 million people lack access to available water, and every day, 25,000 die due to hunger—all at a time when there is intense pressure on maintaining employment, bailing out failing businesses, and restoring consumer confidence.
In that context, I asked the panel what they would say to the 40 heads of state or government at Davos this year (who knows, maybe Vladimir Putin was one of the people shut out of the session). Answers ranged, with the most provocative response coming from Sarkissian, who proposed creating a UN Energy Security Council, bringing buyers and sellers into a structured body to ensure more stable flows of energy.
Other ideas were more prosaic—but potentially more immediately powerful. Catley-Carlson called for much wider implementation of water meters. Technology also sparked considerable debate, with nuclear power and genetically modified food getting lots of airtime as tools that have immense power to meet human needs.
All panelists agreed that the answers to our long-term needs involve policy, innovative technology, wiser consumption patterns, and overall, major investments.
The session closed with a good debate. The session was organized around the concept of security: food security, water security, energy security. Doesn’t the reliance on the term “security,” it was asked, distort the debate, and lead to nationalistic approaches that interfere with long-term thinking and international cooperation?
The panel—myself strongly included—heartily agreed. The obvious examples of this are the rush to first-generation biofuels in the United States, not to mention the nationalistic approach taken by some producers (such as those in Venezuela and Russia) during the summer of high prices.
With that in mind, we took a stab at defining “security,” by calling it the “reliable, sustainable, and affordable supply” of these precious commodities. And come to think of it, these things are predicates for the rebound of the overall economy.
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