World Resources Forum 2012: Just Keep Smiling

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I cannot stress the grandeur of the China National Convention Centre. It sweeps  you off your feet and mops the gleaming floor with your flabbergasted face. I’ve been to smaller airport terminals and I have visited a sheikh’s palace that would fit five times over. Should the might of the late great leader ever be lost among Beijing’s smog and active lifestyle, the buildings will most definitely remind you of what you so gravely forgot.

Walking past a gargantuan hallway, stumbling in and out of doors you do eventually end up in what happens to be the World Resources Forum 2012. I start typing intently and document the stream of optimism that seems to be coming off stage. This however begs the question as to what exactly we’re being optimistic about.

The regular roll call of welcoming speeches from presidents of the organising committees ensues. During his speech, the President of the World Resources Forum, Mr. Edelmann hammered home an important truth. Using a chart with a graph of ecological footprints, he points out that we are currently using one and a half times “earth”. That is, at the rate of consumption we would need one and a half Earths to sustain it. Very soon more than two. And that on August 22nd, 2012, the human race used up its “Earth budget” for the year 2012 – any resources used up at this point, any waste streams put back into the earth are all putting us in debt.

Of course, no conversation on resources can be complete without bringing up the dichotomy of the developed versus the developing, as Mr Edelmann does now. There seems to be a distinct correlation between resource use and income. Brazil, India, China etc., use fewer resources as of now and thereby have a lower income per capita. This is in comparison to countries on the other end of the spectrum, such as the United States, Switzerland and France which have higher resource use relating with a higher income per capita. But with development taking it’s path and incomes rising, the low income countries will increase resource use and moreover, they have a right to do so.

It’s rather interesting to see someone representing the west to state such as a fact given the drive towards sustainability, green economies and also since they were in the World Resource Forum.  Mr. Edelmann brought on the concept of decoupling, a very interesting one I might add. A quick definition in case you aren’t familiar –

“Decoupling is the act of delinking or rather, decreasing the link between environmental impact and economic growth, i.e., more economic value for every kilogram of resource used.”

He finishes off with the main challenges faced by the world in the environmental field:

  • Physical Limits
  • Political Risks
  • Prices and Environmental challenges

A quote to end with, “green economy not green washing.”

Amory Lovins is speaking at the World Resources 2012 opening session in Beijing, China. Source: StudentReporter

Amory Lovins brings an interesting insight and gives a brilliant presentation. I would tell you more but that would detract from an upcoming interview Aishwarya Nair has with him which would tell you more than words ever could. After Professor Lovins steps off stage, the audience is greeted with Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, a Dutch politician from the relatively left Democrats 66. Gerbrandy dives into how resource crises deserve priority. Not entirely unsurprising given the leftist background, but perhaps more concrete than others. He identifies two elements – resource efficiency and geo-political challenges. In easier words, the same message – use less resources and then lead the west out of the industrial revolution into the era of the circular economy. Conflicting examples from the European Union (EU) followed, wherein the EU parliament, immediately after embracing a resource efficiency road map, voted down an electronic waste disposal plan citing costs.

The lack of concrete solution (or paths, even) yet again left behind a feeling of vague unease.

The reasons to cooperate seem to be missing. If it were an utilitarian social welfare, then how does one go about convincing every other country to cooperate in what can only be a very, very complex game. Gerbrandy goes on to speak of how countries tend to secure resources, with bilateral deals, land grabbing techniques and closing borders. All economies need resources and some have an abundance which they turn into monopolies. Lately there has been a maximization of national mining activities especially for rare earths. There has also been a trend of buying mines from developing countries. (Writer’s note: I have tried to fact check this and give a source, but I can’t find anything specific, if you’re interested dear readers, do not hesitate to go ahead and enlighten yourselves.)

Then Gerbrandy shocks the world, or at least everyone who’s listening at this point.  China bought the London Metal Exchange (LME). In the summer of 2012, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange purchased the LME for 2.1 billion dollars.

All of a sudden, the politician has made it political and things get a little more interesting. The divergence of the goals between the west and the east are suddenly brought into the spotlight. While the west focuses on short term profits, the east is interested in long term security and has been on a quest for resource accumulation. And understandably so, when the Chinese long-term strategy is necessary given that it must secure the interests of over 1.3 billion people.

Gerbrandy ends with a call to transparency on all fronts, especially that of the market. Given how secretive commodities can be and how speculation occurs on hidden information. As highlighted by the speaker, it is a little-known fact that the very firms that trade on commodity markets are the ones who have the hidden information on which they speculate. The inherent incentives are problematic given the lack of transparency.

Mohan Munasinghe, Nobel Peace Prize winner, was up next but more on that later and an interview, so let the suspense build up.

Given that it was my first conference, I didn’t know what to expect. Being the inherent cynic, I perhaps came out all critical about everything including the retina searing power point slides (red does not reflect well when projected on a giant screen). Everyone who spoke, was optimistic. They spoke of things to come, things they wished to see and things that were the problem but don’t worry they can be solved. Concrete information or past policy measures were missing and this is slightly disturbing. Granted this was just day one and we haven’t even begun to dive into the workshops but it does make one ponder: are conferences such as these just an excuse for academics to gather and clink coffee cups, and patting themselves on the back when it’s all over? The case for it can be made rather strongly.

It all seemed rather circular, rather repetitive. A tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme.

But that is a cynical note to end a summary of the opening ceremony. There are a myriad of people in this forum. The variety, the thoughts and the backgrounds will ultimately intersect and in those intersections, there will be sparks. Among these sparks, one will flame, and that fire will consume the world in a glorious idea. That’s what the optimism is for. That somehow, something fruitful will rise out of this.

If that doesn’t happen, well, we just went crazy on our carbon footprints flying here.

4 thoughts on “World Resources Forum 2012: Just Keep Smiling

  1. Love your style of writing! I can’t wait what Mr. Amory Lovins told my friend Aishwarya Nair. I wonder what the key focus area of this conference is…energy resources? Population growth and lack of natural resource to meet the growing demand? Or is it really comprehensive? I will keep following your feeds.Thanks!

  2. Dear Joanne,

    Cheers for the flattering and insightful comment.

    The conference stressed on (atleast to my understanding) sustainable consumption and production (SCP). Unlike most buzzwords I’d like to think this is an actual driver of a concept. Given that it encapsulates development, climate change and financial issues.

    So yeah I guess you could say that it was pretty comprehensive.

    Will keep you updated with the follow up posts, Have a good one.

  3. “All of a sudden, the politician has made it political and things get a little more interesting …” Yes, indeed, he did, and that’s why we are so pleased with parliamentarians in our conference. We give them inspiration and new or improved knowledge, we bring them in contact with our renowned scientists and business and civil society leaders .. so that they can do their work as parliamentarians even better. Gerben-Jan can! And as we saw in the highlight panel his recommendations have made it into the chairmen’s summary (which will be posted in a few days from now).

  4. Bas, I must admit, he was one of my favourite speakers. The political side of resources is often left to the politicians which is unfortunate. As you mentioned it really is necessary to involve the political circles with the scientists and civil leaders while still accounting for their differences and potential disdain for each other.

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