The WEF Crisis Report Part 3

Four Emerging Futures

Our first two summaries highlighted newly emerging and rapidly accelerating risks we’re either currently facing or we can expect to face in the next 10 years. However, these present and future risks can also interact with each other to form a “polycrisis” – a cluster of related global risks with compounding ef­fects, such that the overall impact exceeds the sum of each part. Bearing this in mind, now we look to how connections between the emerging risks outlined in previous sections may evolve by 2030. Specifi­cally, we’ll look at Resource Rivalries – a potential cluster of interrelated environmental, geopolitical, and socioeconomic risks relating to the supply of and demand for natural resources.

In the 2030-time frame, two critical fact­ors will determine the trajectory of our ability to match supply and demand for these resources as well as the scale of the associated polycrisis: 1) the degree of glo­bal cooperation that allows the flow of resources across national borders, and 2) the impact of climate change on the sup­ply of natural resources and speed of the low-carbon transition (← see graph).

For the former, by 2030 we’re likely to rest somewhere along the line between having open communication, healthy trade relations internationally, and well-established principles, and facing direct and indirect clashes between global and regional powers, heavy trade restrictions, and breakdowns in cooperation. For the latter, when it comes to climate action, the extremes will be accelerated or slow action. Accelerated action would mean climate action and in­novation being prioritised, with focus on managing climate change, nature loss, energy transition to more sustainable options. The other extreme would be a low focus on climate action, with ineffective and insufficient progress leading to increasing issues with climate, ecosystems, and humanitarian costs.

Hence, the above matrix represents four hypothetical scenarios for our world for 2030:

Resource Competition – In this future, there is accelerated climate action by 2030 but global powers are aiming for self-sufficiency in key resources, leaving many emerging and developing countries compara­tively exposed. Heightened geopolitical confrontation is focused in the most geographically concentra­ted resource: metals and minerals. In anticipation of a deteriorating geopolitical environment, self-suf­ficiency in sources of food production has been scaled up in countries that can afford it. Food producti­vity has been enhanced, in part via technology, such as gene editing of crops, even in the absence of extensive multilateral cooperation on such technology. A sharper focus on productivity of existing farm­lands, dietary shifts and reductions in food loss and waste are being utilised as levers. Efficiency in agri­cultural practices, land-use and food systems have allowed some countries to maintain food security without further threats to biodiversity. Also helped has reducing the estimated wastage of 33% of global food production through unsustainable production and consumption.

While this would lead to enhanced food production overall in many advanced economies, the benefits have not been widely shared, with significant divergence in the level of food security between countries. Even as some global trade in protein has continued, shortages and higher prices have hit lower socioec­onomic groups, and developing and emerging countries the hardest, particularly those least able to scale food production in the absence of international support. Global poverty, climate-sensitive liveli­hood crises, malnutrition and diet-related diseases, and involuntary migration would all rise, elongating and spreading instability and humanitarian crises.

Critical metals and minerals are a key area of geopolitical confrontation due to their geographic concen­tration. These resources are not only essential to renewable energy capture, storage and efficiency, but also continue to be leveraged for a wide range of other industrial applications, including technological and military end-uses. The resulting demand-supply gap would be exacerbated in this future because of geopolitical rivalries, exposing the brittleness of global supply chains with limited opportunities for geo­graphic diversification. For example, in the early half of the 2020s, the United States was 100% net im­port-reliant for 14 critical minerals, including gallium, natural graphite, indium and vanadium.

With a trend towards remilitarisation, these strategic resources have become one of the primary fronts of economic warfare over the latter half of the decade. Despite competing fiscal priorities, more states have sought to diversify supply through domestic extraction where available, although many face en­vironmental constraints. The importance and influence of allied blocs have grown, with countries build­ing and favouring domestic and “trusted” supply chains in their search for resource security. The geo­graphic distribution of numerous metals and minerals has ensured a degree of mutual interdependence.

Yet resource nationalism has also driven cracks in existing alliances – becoming the next Airbus vs. Boeing trade battle – with disputes arising first around the application of state aid to boost domestic mining and processing industries. The expanding use of the national security exemption at the WTO has also increasingly paralysed multilateral trade mechanisms, rendering them ineffective in addressing geo­political confrontation in a world where local resilience and security is prioritized over comparative ad­vantage and efficiency. Shortages artificially inflated by geoeconomic rivalries and price volatility, in­cluding of related products such as batteries and semiconductors, have reverberated throughout the supply chains of multiple industries. Shorter supply chains reflecting geopolitical alliances (trade blocks) have ensued. State intervention has become more common and stringent, with government planning directly and indirectly allocating available resources for prioritised industries; some followed Mexico’s suit by renationalising assets associated with key metals and minerals.

Further, illicit activities and the risk of accidental or intentional escalation into hot warfare over resour­ces has risen, particularly in the border zones and global commons. As the hunt for new mineral sources turns to the ocean, national marine jurisdictions are increasingly contentious, with a growing proportion of territory under dispute.

Resource collaboration – In this scenario the world is subject to more widespread and dramatic climate issues, however, we’re prepared for it. There’s healthy economic movement across borders. Technology innovations, such as CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage), have been implemented and have helped to mi­tigate climate. Climate-driven declines in agricultural productivity have been met with a range of mea­sures in most countries, with climate- and nature-based interventions helping to transform food systems to be regenerative, climate-smart and healthy. Global sharing of data and technologies has allowed more effective pre-emptive adaptation measures to be taken, such as the targeted use of flood- and drought-resilient seeds in some vulnerable geographies. Supply shocks stemming from natural disasters are quickly absorbed by flexible, market-driven supply chains, and global food insecurity continues to slowly trend downwards.

Of course, some risks still remain. Some natural resources will remain scarce, even in a climate-adapted, geopolitically cooperative world. Demand for geographically concentrated critical metals and minerals has risen dramatically, reflecting a push for secure, renewable energy sources in the wake of the war in Ukraine, and renewed urgency of net-zero ambitions over recent years. Environmental concerns will have limited domestic extraction in several advanced and some emerging economies, as well as by mul­tinational mining companies headquartered in the West. Scrutiny from investors, downstream industries and the public have led to longer approval processes and more stringent environmental and social stan­dards. For example, since the early 2020s, the expansion of lithium mining in Portugal and the Republika Srpska has been significantly delayed due to environmental approvals; projects in Canada and Australia have slowed based on concerns relating to indigenous communities; and a rare species of buckwheat has limited domestic mining in key locations in the United States of America.

Higher commodity prices have driven inflation along the wider value chain, encouraging some countries and multinational companies to accelerate efforts to turn towards the circular economy as a means of securing and diversifying the supply of critical minerals and metals, reducing the need for extraction and associated emissions. Industry coalitions are working with future-focused governments to establish the incentives, policy frameworks, standards and certifications, and circularity-focused capabilities that are necessary to scale. In some markets, business models are being transformed to decrease demand and increase both the recovery potential and actual recovery of metals and minerals, partially mitigating the demand-supply gap going forward.

Resource constraints – Geoeconomic cooperation resumes in the latter half of the 2020s, with stronger global trade and efforts on climate cooperation. However, domestic funding – and therefore overall investment – in adaptation measures as well as technological innovation has not kept pace with climate impacts to date. In this future, even international coordination cannot address triple-shortages in food, water and energy in the most vulnerable nations, resulting in extended climate-induced distress, disruptions to trade, and political and economic instability. In the absence of appropriate intervention, water availability is now a concern in all regions. Snowmelt, glacial melt and groundwater availability has diminished, while 10% of global land area has experienced an increase in extremely high and low river flows in the same location.

In the absence of effective adaptation, agricultural productivity is severely impacted by climate change, diverging in intensity between regions. Crop yields have fallen in volume and nutritional value due to heat, changing weather patterns, dry and wet precipitation extremes, and shifts to the distribution of insects, pests and diseases. Ocean warming and acidification has caused broadscale declines in aqua­culture and fisheries, threatening not only food security but also livelihoods in some of the most cli­mate-exposed countries.

High-latitude, high-income and high-tech countries are comparatively less impacted, either due to con­tained climate impacts for now, or leveraging of rapid innovation to address food and water security challenges, such as vertical farming. Free-flowing global supply chains have helped distribute the overall hit to food production levels, but the most resource-insecure countries are those vulnerable to two pro­longed crises: debt and climate change. Green-energy supply is also at risk. Companies mining critical metals and minerals in water-stressed regions face regular interruptions to operations or closures, or are forced to invest in water sources that do not directly compete with human consumption, partially exacerbating shortages. This elevates commodity prices further, slowing the roll-out of green energy infrastructure. In parallel, the frequency and severity of heatwaves and droughts has forced green energy sources – biofuels, hydropower and nuclear – into periodic production cuts.

Even in the absence of geopolitically-fuelled shocks or constraints, continued price pressures on food, water and energy have resulted in an elongated cost-of-living crisis in selected markets, ushering in wage strikes, violent protests and state instability.

Resource Control – By 2030, investment in adaptation measures has not kept pace with climate impacts to date and at the same time, geopolitical dynamics have turned the natural resource crisis from one of affordability to one of availability, creating a cascading economic, environmental, and humanitarian crisis in all but a handful of select countries. In this future, the resulting socioeconomic fall-out exceeds the scope and scale of all other scenarios, and state intervention turns even more aggressive, expanding beyond economic confrontation to secure supply of necessities for populations.

Affordability and availability concerns would widen inequality, and self-sufficient sources of food pro­duction have been scaled up, but with limited sharing of innovation and financing, the tipping point of overall productivity growth in agriculture has already passed. As such, agriculture has become an even larger driver of global emissions. Land-clearance for crops and grazing will have led to deforestation, and an increase in livestock numbers has resulted in even more emissions, including the very potent me­thane.

Water stress would also be widespread, and with more scarcity combined with paralysis of international cooperation mechanisms, a degree of water nationalism would result in prolonged disputes between neighbouring countries. In the face of spreading humanitarian crises and state instability, water infra­structure continues to be used both as a weapon and target, mirroring past water conflicts and terror­ism in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Distrust between global powers would be artificially exacerbating supply crises on a global scale, with resources being weaponised by resource-rich countries. Facing actual or perceived shortages, states continue to quickly and regularly exercise control over key resources to protect their own population, which will fracture alliances, deepen conditions of scarcity, and result in escalating trade tensions that restrict the flow of climate technologies. Exposed on multiple fronts, state intervention grows in a broader range of industries, including renationalisation of industries.

Transboundary conflicts and violence would also become more common as one of the few ways in which states can secure supply of strategic resources. Hotspots reflect shifts to biodiversity patterns, heightened competition over terrestrial and marine food stocks, and the pressing need for metals and minerals that underpin secure energy and technological development. Food, energy and water inse­curity becomes a driver of social polarisation, civil unrest and political instability in advanced and developing economies alike.

In this future, there will be little incentive – or fiscal room – to invest in climate change and en­vironmental protection.

So How Could We Prepare?

As we enter into a low-growth, low-investment, and low-cooperation era, how do we fix current prob­lems, while also taking time to think about how to address future challenges. Long-term solutions are never as immediately satisfying as short-term problem solving because it is just that, long-term, and it can be hard to see if what you’re doing is working if you won’t have true results for several years.

Recent and current events such as COVID-19 and the cost-of-living crisis are steadily eroding economic, educational and health-related gains in a widening proportion of the population, with a growing diver­gence within countries, and between advanced and developing countries. This in turn is interacting with a multiplicity of environmental and geopolitical risks – climate change, ecosystem collapse, multi-domain conflicts – to further threaten the security and stability of societies around the world.

Each risk requires concerted, specific and customised efforts but several cross-cutting principles can support preparedness across themes. The WEF suggests there are four principles for preparedness in this new era of concurrent shocks:

1) strengthening risk identification and foresight

2) using the conceptual approach of an accounting concept (NPV; Net Present Value) to quantify the impact of future costs of climate change today. This will help to replace the current approach to climate change mitigation that is overly influenced by the cost and benefit of short-term measures

3) investing in multi-domain risk preparedness

4) strengthening preparedness and response cooperation.

Above all else, actually being aware of future crises and issues is the first step toward trying to implement possible solutions while it’s smoother to do so.

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