Energy, water and food security presents an intertwined challenge to the world. Consequently, our strategy to tackle such a challenge must address comprehensive and critical aspects of supply and demand management so as to ensure the security of each resource. The world’s population now counts seven billion people and is projected to grow to nine billion within a few decades. Despite current economic problems, incomes are also forecast to rise, particularly in some of the world’s largest and most populous countries. This will translate into greater demand for all three resources, all central to human activity.
Thinking through the energy transition
As populations increase, those responsible for energy, water and food have to contend with climate change effects. If the world is to move towards effective mitigation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, then major changes will be required in energy production and consumption. Without a doubt, such changes must include higher levels of efficiency in the entire energy cycle and a shift towards lower carbon sources, particularly renewables. Such shifts would involve major changes in energy-consuming sectors as well as a transition on the supply side. Since today’s infrastructure is designed for current patterns of energy supply, several changes must occur so that energy-consuming assets will not be rendered obsolete, but replaced over time. This would allow societies to move along a transitional path without a massive reduction in economic output or employment. .
Acces to energy for all
Differences between developed and developing countries, and between each sector, would dictate how such changes would occur. Assuming a global will to mitigate GHG emissions, we will need to address financing mechanisms, technology access and institutional capacity and capabilities building. It will be crucial to bring those currently outside the modern energy system – the 1.3 billion people without access to electricity and the nearly three billion who use biomass for fuel – into systems that reduce GHG emissions and other pollutants. These changes would need to occur alongside what will probably be higher energy demand, as a warming climate increases demand for air conditioning.
Food security requires water
Looking at water, we note that some parts of the world already face serious water stress. For instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) projected that in 2020, 75 to 250 million people in Africa will be subject to water stress as a result of climate change. Estimates for other parts of the world also provide reason for concern.
We also know that population growth and higher per capita consumption is increasing water scarcity in several parts of the world. Most water used today goes into agriculture. Scarcity, therefore, could lead to reductions in food supply.
Agriculture will be vulnerable to climate change effects that drive changes in temperatures, water availability and the number of insects and other pests. The AR4 has assessed that by 2020, some African countries may face yield reductions of up to 50% because of climate change and variability. Food security, therefore, cannot be measured and understood on the basis of global averages. Rather, it requires a basic, grassroots-level view of supply security for individual households. Many farmers produce barely enough food to meet their own needs. Any reduction, therefore, may not greatly impact global food supply, but would certainly affect the livelihoods of many smallholders and their families. Yet, these farmers have not benefitted from agricultural research that could lead to changes in farming practices, cropping patterns and improved seeds. A major global effort is needed to focus on agriculture in drought-prone areas and in locations highly dependent on rainfall, the patterns of which may also be changing.
In the future, the human condition will depend increasingly on how well we are able to visualize and quantify some of the likely threats to energy, water and food supply, because only then can adaptation measures, new knowledge and technological solutions be acted on early enough to enhance energy, water and food security while reducing the risks of negative changes.