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January 9, 2009 / Mridul

NIC “Global Trends 2025” Report: Great Environmental Challenges Ahead

A new report prepared by the National Intelligence Council has projected that the world would be witnessing severe water and food shortages by 2025 and the changing climate would further strain the already fast depleting natural resources. In an attempt to boost the economic growth countries would put immense pressure on highly strategic and essential resources like energy, water and food.

Depletion of Natural Resources

The new report paints a very grim picture of our future. While it states that the world would see “unprecedented economic growth” it also states that it would come at a hefty cost. The demand would outstrip supply and easily available natural resources would be stretched to the limits of their carrying capacities.

The already stressed resource sector will be further complicated and, in most cases, exacerbated by climate change, whose physical effects will worsen throughout this period. Continued escalation of energy demand will hasten the impacts of climate change.

The report also warns of the hasty and forceful transition from fossil fuels to renewable energysources. Although the developed countries like US and Europe might succeed in partial transition it would adversely effect the economic growth of developing countries like China and India, more so because their populations would largely comprise of middle class which would seek to emulate western lifestyles.

Food Shortages and Water Scarcity

As the world would try to find solutions to tackle the problem of rising carbon emissions new energy alternatives like biofuels would acquire greater importance. Increased use of agricultural land for growing fuel crops combined with the changing climate would further escalate the problem of food shortage.

A switch from use of arable land for food to fuel crops provides a limited solution and could exacerbate both the energy and food situations. Climatically, rainfall anomalies and constricted seasonal flows of snow and glacial melts are aggravating water scarcities, harming agriculture in many parts of the globe.

The report further warns of tremendous increase in populations numbers, especially in developing countries, equally matched by increasing demand for food. The food prices would increase to unprecedented levels partly due to the demand-supply imbalance and partly due to the increased production of biofuels in the developed countries.

In the major grain exporters (the US, Canada, Argentina, and Australia), demand for biofuels—enhanced by government subsidies—will claim larger areas of cropland and greater volumes of irrigation water, even as biofuel production and processing technologies are made more efficient. This “fuel farming” tradeoff, coupled with periodic export controls among Asian producers and rising demand for protein among growing middle classes worldwide, will force grain prices in the global market to fluctuate at levels above today’s highs.

On the brighter side, the report states that the US, EU would join hands with developing countries like India and China to launch a second Green Revolution – in Africa.

By 2025, increases in African grain yields probably will be substantial, but the increases will be confined principally to states in the southern and eastern regions of the continent, which will have deepened trade and security relations with East and South Asian states.

So in a sense Africa and the developing nations of Asia would become the major exporters of food grains to the rest of the world.

While the per capita water consumption would increase by 60 percent in Asia as well as Latin America the world would see a net increase of about 40 percent. The regions which got face mild to severe water scarcity are India, China, the Middle East, Africa, South Eastern Australia, South Western parts of United States and North Eastern parts of Spain. Spanish city of Barcelona had to buy water from France to meet demands and Australia has been facing one of the longest droughts in its history which has led to drying of rivers Murray and Darling.

Climate Change and its Implications

The report suggests that the changing climate would alter not only the geography but also the demographics of the world. People living in areas susceptible to massive changes due to the changing environment would look to move to relatively safer and privileged countries and thus the world would see a huge wave of climate refugees.

The UK Treasury-commissioned Stern Report estimates that by the middle of the century 200 million people may be permanently displaced “climate migrants”—representing a ten-fold increase over today’s entire documented refugee and internally displaced populations. The largest inflows will mirror many current migratory patterns—from North Africa and Western Asia into Europe, Latin America into the US, and Southeast Asia into Australia.

The changing landscape in the Arctic would help Russia tap currently inaccessible resources in Siberia. Melting Arctic ice would open new maritime routes which would prove to be economic and geopolitical bonus for circumpolar countries.

The October Surprise

The report talks of a “worst case scenario” situation termed the October Surprise. Such an event could occur if the governments around the world fail to put environmental concerns before their economic aspirations and fail to act decisively to prevent environmental degradation. Dated October 1, 2020, the report provides a fictional account of the situation from the President’s diary.

The term “October Surprise” keeps recurring in my mind…I guess we had it coming, but it was a rude shock. Those images of the US aircraft carriers and transport ships evacuating thousands in the wake of the flooding still stick in my mind.

The Europeans, of course, have been out in the lead on energy efficiency, but they have been too ready to sacrifice growth, and without economic growth, they have not been able to generate high-paying jobs.

The poorest countries have suffered the most from our hands-off approach to globalization. I know we have talked for some time about not all boats being lifted and the need to do something about it. But I think we thought it best that Bill Gates, NGOs, and others handle the problem.

We all assume technology will come to the rescue, but so far we have not found the silver bullet and carbon emissions continue to climb. The cumulation of disasters, needed cleanups, permafrost melting, lower agricultural yields, growing health problems, and the like are taking a terrible toll, much greater than we anticipated 20 years ago.

This report is a grave reminder of what the future could be holding for us. It reminds us that by finding accuses and delaying action against the deteriorating environmental conditions we are digging up our own graves. Efficient management of resources, transparency and using a mixture of solutions rather than relying on a single solution could be the key to divert the potential environmental disasters that await us in the future.

This article was first posted on Red, Green and Blue

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