Resource revolution: meeting spiralling demand for resources will be the defining global challenge of this century. finance professionals can play a key role in the solution. Ben Schiller explains.

Author:Schiller, Ben
Position:Economics
 
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With the world's population rising and countries such as China and India undergoing rapid industrialisation, many commentators are predicting an "age of scarcity" where resources we now take for granted are increasingly expensive or, in the worst case scenario, not available at all.

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A recent UK government report, prepared by the consultancy AEA, warns that 25 resources are most at risk: notably phosphorus (used in agriculture), aggregates (construction), fish, indium (electronics), lithium (automotive and batteries), and various rare earth elements (renewable energy and defence).

Last June the European Commission published a similar "critical list" of 14 raw materials it sees as vital for sustaining the EU economy, including cobalt, magnesium, tungsten and graphite.

And numerous studies point to potential problems with water, food and fuel supplies.

By 2025,1.8 billion people will be living with "absolute" water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world could face water "stress" conditions, according to the UN. The World Bank says the global demand for water is doubling every 21 years.

Food prices have recently risen dramatically, raising the prospect of protests in Algeria, India, China and other markets. The UK Government Office for Science says prices could go up by 50 per cent over the next 40 years unless there is a "revolution" in agricultural production.

Similarly, oil exceeded $100 a barrel in February and the price looks likely to remain high. World demand could grow by as much as 49 per cent by 2035, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The UK Energy Research Centre says production will peak before 2030, if not by 2020.

Professor John Beddington, the UK government's chief scientific adviser, has said the world could face a "perfect storm" of food, energy and water shortages over the next 20 years.

Facing the challenge

Of course, some think such predictions are overblown. Technological advances such as genetic engineering and green energy could change the dynamics of commodity markets, making sourcing easier and cheaper. Others point out that Malthusian nightmares have been forecast before. In the 1960s, academics said a "population explosion" would lead to worldwide hunger. And in the 1970s widespread energy shortages were predicted following the oil crises during that decade. In each case the reality turned out to be less apocalyptic than advertised.

Still, things may be different this time. Not only is the world's population rising (the UN's "medium estimate" is for nine billion by 2050, up from about seven billion this year), it is also becoming better off and consuming more per head. To take one indicator, China's oil demand will triple by 2035 (according to the...

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