Confronting the Crisis of Sustainability and Resource Scarcity

May 14, 2009

The Copenhagen climate conference will be "the most important gathering in human history," said the United Kingdom's environment secretary, Hilary Benn, at the Wilson Center on May 14 (full text of speech). While "an agreement on cutting emissions would be the biggest single step we could take to safeguard [natural] resources," said Benn, "even such an agreement will not—indeed cannot—encompass all of the things we need to do to safeguard our environment."

Climate Change: Not the Only Environmental Problem

"The most glaring threat is that of dangerous climate change. But it is not the only example of the problems we create when we exploit the world's resources unsustainably," explained Benn.

"The spiraling price of food in 2008 was a wake-up call. Riots threatened political stability. Export bans threatened world trade. Wheat prices doubled, rice quadrupled. And another 75 million people were threatened by poverty and hunger," Benn said.

Although food prices have fallen recently, continuing growth in the global population—expected to reach at least 9 billion by 2050—and rising standards of living in poor and middle-income countries mean that world food production will need to double by 2050. This demand for food—especially more meat and dairy products—will put increasing pressure on land and water. Conflicts could erupt over these scarce resources if they are not managed properly, Benn warned.

Already, wealthy governments and corporations are buying farmland in Africa and other parts of the developing world—leading to unrest. Widespread anger at South Korean company Daewoo's proposal to purchase more than half of Madagascar's arable land contributed to the ouster of former Malagasy President Marc Ravalomanana.

Toward a Sustainable Economy

Benn highlighted an apparent Catch-22: "Development is the best way of lowering the rate of population growth and so, in turn, lowering the pressure on resources. But development also increases income, and therefore demand."

The way to free ourselves from this cycle, Benn said, is to create an environmentally sustainable economy, so that economic development does not degrade the environment. He proposed:

    Starting to build tomorrow's sustainable economy even as we work to contain today's economic crisis;
  • Changing the incentives in our economies—through regulation and financial inducements—to promote environmentally sustainable choices;
  • Creating the jobs that will power this new sustainable economy; and
  • Working together as an international community to address water scarcity, food security, and biodiversity loss.

Benn called for U.S. leadership on climate change and other environmental issues: "We need America to apply all of its great energy to the task we, together, face."

By Rachel Weisshaar

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