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Geopolitical Implications of Global Decarbonization for the MENA

Geopolitical Implications of Global Decarbonization for the MENA

NATURAL GAS NEWS‘ Geopolitical Implications of Global Decarbonization for MENA producing countries by Pier Paolo Raimondi and Simone Tagliapietra, Oxford Institute for Energy Studies (OIES) is an expert’s hindsight in the foreseeable future of the region.

Endowed with half of the world’s proven oil and gas reserves, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region represents a cornerstone of the established global energy architecture. As the clean-energy transition gains momentum worldwide, this architecture might shrink—challenging the socio-economic and geopolitical foundations of the region in general, and of its oil and gas-producing countries in particular.

The picture above is for illustration purpose and is of Natural resource wealth and public social spending in the Middle East and North Africa published back in 2015.

Geopolitical Implications of Global Decarbonization for MENA producing countries

February 21, 2021

This challenge has two dimensions: domestic and international. Domestically, a decline in global oil and gas demand would reduce revenues for producing countries. Considering the profound dependency of these countries on oil and gas rents (the ‘rentier state’ model), this could have serious economic and social consequences. Internationally, the global clean-energy transition might push producers towards a fierce competition for global market share, exacerbating geopolitical risks both regionally and globally.

In 2020, MENA oil and gas producers experienced a situation that some observers have described as a preview of what the future might look like for them beyond 2030, as global decarbonization unfolds. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an unprecedented crash in global oil demand. At the same time, oil prices collapsed (for the first time in history, the benchmark West Texas Intermediate entered negative territory) due to a lethal combination of falling demand and OPEC+ coordination failure. All this generated a perfect storm for MENA oil- and gas-producing countries, which led to unprecedented macroeconomic imbalances.

The evolution of oil markets, national stability, and prosperity as well as international influence are closely linked in the MENA region, but MENA oil- and gas-producing countries are far from homogenous. Different countries are likely to experience different impacts from the global clean-energy transition, depending on a number of domestic and international factors.

International factors

MENA producers are likely to be affected by the differences in the trajectories for oil and gas markets, the speed of the energy transition in different world markets, increased competition between energy producers, and increasing penalties for carbon intensity in production.

While gas is set to play a role in the global energy mix for decades, oil is expected to lose relevance as a result of decarbonization policies and technological developments in electric vehicles. BP’s 2020 Energy Outlook warned about the imminence of peak oil demand. In its business-as-usual scenario, oil demand is set to recover from the pandemic by 2025 but drop slowly thereafter. In its rapid-energy-transition scenario, oil demand drops from around 100 million barrels per day (mb/d) in 2019 to 89 mb/d in 2030 and just 47 mb/d in 2050. Such a scenario would represent a challenge for MENA oil producers. By contrast, in the business-as-usual scenario, gas demand is expected to increase from 3.8 trillion cubic meters (tcm) in 2018 to 5 tcm in 2040, underpinned by a massive coal-to-gas switch in Asia and elsewhere. Such a scenario would be beneficial for MENA gas-producing countries such as Qatar and Algeria, which could remain geopolitically relevant by providing an important transition fuel to a decarbonizing world.

In the MENA region, Qatar seems to be the best positioned to preserve its geopolitical role, thanks to its significant liquified natural gas (LNG) capacity and its geographical location between Europe and Asia. Nevertheless, gas-producing countries will not be immune to the challenges posed by decarbonization policies in the long run. Gas demand is especially difficult to predict starting in the second half of the 2030s, as a result of increasing cost competition in power generation from renewables, as well as stricter environmental regulations (e.g. the EU Methane Strategy). It will thus be of paramount importance for MENA gasproducing countries to cut emissions in their gas value chain, in order to preserve their position and geopolitical influence.

The speeds of the energy transition in different world regions will also affect MENA geopolitical shifts. For instance, Europe’s oil and liquids demand is expected to decrease from the current 13.3 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) to 8.6 Mtoe in 2040, according to the International Energy Agency’s stated-policies scenario. By contrast, Asia-Pacific countries’ oil and liquids demand is set to increase from the current 32.5 Mtoe to 37.9 Mtoe in 2040. Thus, MENA producers more exposed to the European market are likely to suffer more—and earlier—from the global decarbonization process than others more exposed to Asian markets. That is, energy demand will increasingly dominate energy geopolitics, especially in an oversupplied energy market.

In such a scenario, export portfolio composition and diversification will determine the evolution of geopolitical influence for MENA oil and gas producers. Exporters that depend heavily on European markets will see their geopolitical position erode and their revenues fall. For example, Algeria, which mostly exports gas via pipeline to Europe, has been an essential element of the European gas supply architecture. Unless it manages to decarbonize its gas exports, this important role will shrink as the European Green Deal is implemented. In 2019, 85 per cent of Algeria’s total gas exports flowed to Europe, 62 per cent via pipeline (mainly to Italy and Spain). By contrast, LNG provides more flexibility to gas exporters, which will enable them to respond effectively to the geographical shifts of the energy demand. Qatar is the world’s top LNG exporter. In 2019, Qatar exported 83 per cent of its total gas exports via LNG. Of this volume, 67 per cent was directed to Asia Pacific countries. Asian markets are expected to drive energy demand growth in general and LNG in particular until 2030. Oil and gas producers will increasingly try to gain market share in such growing energy markets.

While energy demand will be crucial in the future, energy supply issues will not disappear. Competition among producers will persist, and even increase in the foreseeable future. The peak of oil demand will create a harsher world of more intense competition and tighter revenues for MENA oil producers. Regional oil and gas producers are likely to pursue different supply strategies, which will need to deal with the consequence of the global energy transition.

The transition indeed raises an existential dilemma—requiring a choice between maximizing production, which would weaken higher-cost exporters, and coordinating production cuts to increase prices, which could deprive governments of vital revenues. These are not trivial issues, as maximization of production would put into question established assumptions about saving reserves for future production and avoiding stranded assets. An intensification of competition among producers could thus undermine coordinated actions (e.g. OPEC agreements), which are important to oil price stability. This was illustrated by the collapse of OPEC+ talks in March 2020—spurred by disagreements between Saudi Arabia and Russia on the introduction of production quotas, as the two were also competing for market share with US shale oil producers—and the consequent fall in oil prices.

Another example of the growing competition among producers is the growing opposite visions between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia that emerged openly during OPEC talks in late 2020. Although they managed to reach an agreement within OPEC, the UAE’s ambitious plans to increase its oil capacity from about 4 mb/d to 5 mb/d by 2030 puts further pressure on the traditional alignment among Gulf OPEC producers. Moreover, in late 2020 the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company announced a $122 billion investment plan for 2021–2025, suggesting that the UAE had abandoned its more cautious approach to the oil sector. The plan suggested that MENA national oil companies might gain a growing share of world oil and gas production in the future. That is also due to (Western) oil companies’ decisions to cut their capital expenditure and other investments. Such decisions are motivated mostly by low oil prices and their commitment to decarbonization.

In a more competitive world, some MENA producing countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have the economic advantage of vast oil reserves (298 and 97 billion barrels, respectively), the lowest production costs (under $4 per barrel), and the least carbon-intense production. In the next years, due to expected higher carbon prices, carbon intensity will play a key role in determining which oil and gas producers will be able to preserve their geopolitical influence. MENA oil producers with higher production carbon intensity, such as Algeria and Iraq, might thus lag behind.

Domestic factors

The global energy transition can also impact MENA oil- and gas-producing countries’ governance, due to their heavy dependence on revenues from these resources. To address this issue, regional oil and gas producers have launched several strategies (referred to as Visions) aimed at economic diversification (e.g. by increasing productivity, strengthening the private sector, and developing non-oil sectors), as well as increasing the share of renewables in the energy mix. These Visions were largely developed as a response to the 2014 oil price drop; COVID-19 and the acceleration of the global energy transition make it necessary to accelerate them. A country’s chances of success at this are likely to be affected by domestic factors including population size, government capacity, and financial ability to implement diversification measures.

Countries with a large, young, and growing population (Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq) will encounter significant obstacles to the transformation of their rentier-state model. By contrast, countries with a smaller population, like the UAE and Qatar (9.7 and 2.8 million inhabitants, respectively) are likely to find it easier to adjust.

The ability to govern and finance major domestic socio-economic transformation will also be crucial. For example, North African countries could exploit their geographical vicinity to Europe and become major clean-electricity suppliers. In this sense, the recent EU Hydrogen Strategy considers imports of 40 GW of green hydrogen from the EU’s eastern and southern neighbours. However, countries like Algeria and Libya are experiencing major social and political instability, which undermines such scenarios and discourages the needed foreign investments. Thus, countries with major governance issues like Algeria, Libya, and Iraq are expected to lag behind on energy and economic diversification. The risk is that these countries will focus political energies on an intensifying fight for a share of the diminishing global oil and gas market, rather than on a strategy to reorient their economy. By contrast, countries with stronger governance are better equipped to transform their economies, bear the negative consequences of the transition in the short term, and navigate the geopolitical evolution.

The availability of large foreign exchange reserves will be crucial for the transformation of MENA producing countries. With such reserves, countries could offset the negative economic effects of lower oil demand and revenues in the short term, while investing in renewable energy projects for the medium and long term. Thus, countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar (with $500, $108 and $38 billion of foreign reserves, respectively) are potentially well equipped to manage the negative effects of lower revenues and foster economic transformation. Additionally, countries with large sovereign wealth funds could use them as an integral part of the diversification effort, for example to finance research and development and renewable-energy projects in MENA countries.

Producers with large foreign exchange reserves, sizable sovereign wealth funds, and small populations to appease are potentially the best placed to navigate the uncharted waters of the global energy transition.

MENA oil and gas producers have also considered developing their high renewable-energy potential, especially solar. This could help them pursue several goals, including economic diversification and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. It could also free additional oil and gas volumes, currently used to meet fast-growing domestic energy demand, for sale abroad to produce additional revenue—thus avoiding the negative economic effects of growing energy consumption and positioning themselves as major renewable powers in a low-carbon future.

More recently, MENA oil and gas producers have begun to consider the growing interest in hydrogen as a way to preserve their geopolitical influence and remain pivotal actors in the future energy system. Given the region’s abundant renewable energy and carbon capture and storage potential, MENA countries could be at the forefront in both the green and blue hydrogen markets. In the short and medium term, blue hydrogen could benefit from its cost advantages. In the longer term, the MENA countries could exploit their excellent solar conditions and low-cost renewables in order to produce and export green hydrogen. Three MENA oil producers (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman) have announced major hydrogen plans. For example, in July 2020 an international consortium announced plans for a $5 billion green renewables and hydrogen plant in Saudi Arabia, which aims to begin shipping ammonia to global markets by 2025. In September 2020 Saudi Arabia shipped 40 tons of blue ammonia to Japan in a pilot project undertaken by Saudi Aramco and the petrochemical giant Sabic.

Conclusions

The global energy transition will inevitably affect MENA oil- and gas-producing countries, both macroeconomically and geopolitically. However, not all MENA countries will see their geopolitical influence change in the same way. Some countries are better equipped than others to offset the negative effects domestically and internationally. Internationally, MENA oil and gas producers will start to focus more on energy demand differences among world regions. MENA countries with lowest-cost and least-carbon-intensive production are better positioned to preserve their geopolitical influence. Moreover, export portfolio composition and diversification will crucially define whether a country will lead or lag behind in the energy transition. Oil and gas producers are also endowed with an abundant renewable potential, another possible route to future energy leadership.

Nevertheless, competition among producers will remain or even increase, potentially undermining coordinated efforts to stabilize oil prices. Due to the strong link between hydrocarbons and the nature of the state in the MENA region, the domestic sphere will be a key element in the geopolitical shifts. Population size, strong governance, and the financial ability to adapt to change will help some MENA oil and gas producers to preserve their geopolitical role, while managing domestic socio-economic transformation.

Originally publishes by the Oxford Institute For Energy Studies.

The statements, opinions and data contained in the content published in Global Gas Perspectives are solely those of the individual authors and contributors and not of the publisher and the editor(s) of Natural Gas World.

How Construction makes up the ‘Last Mile’ of Decarbonization

How Construction makes up the ‘Last Mile’ of Decarbonization

From concrete to steel, how construction makes up the ‘last mile’ of decarbonization by Katherine Dunn is an article that is part of Fortune‘s Blueprint for a climate breakthrough package, guest-edited by Bill Gates.

It’s been called the “last mile” of decarbonization and without further ado, here is:

From concrete to steel, how construction makes up the ‘last mile’ of decarbonization

February 16, 2021

As companies and countries worldwide map out how they will hit net-zero emissions by 2050, some elements of the vast shift are relatively straightforward: Cars will go electric; power grids will adopt clean energy.

But when it comes to buildings, engineers and policymakers alike hit a hurdle: Even a house covered with solar panels is likely to contain concrete and steel—some of the most intractable sectors when it comes to emissions. To make truly low-carbon buildings, researchers say we must embrace breakthrough technology, from hydrogen to carbon capture, and explore new ways of designing concrete, industrial products, and even houses themselves.

The stakes are high. Between the energy they consume and their construction, buildings are responsible for nearly 40% of the world’s emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. To truly produce a zero carbon house, office, or shop, every industry involved in its construction and maintenance must be decarbonized first, says Dabo Guan, a professor of climate change economics at University College London’s Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management.

When buildings are constructed, “they trigger the whole economic supply chain,” says Guan. “And the emissions of the supply chain are very big.”

“Like making a cake”

When it comes to concrete, “the only thing we use more as humans is water,” says Jeremy Gregory, executive director of MIT’s Concrete Sustainability Hub.

At the heart of concrete is cement: the key binding agent that turns sand and water into one of the world’s most ubiquitous materials. In 2019, the world produced roughly 4.1 billion tons of cement, according to the IEA. It’s also extremely hard to decarbonize. Cement itself must be formed at extremely high temperatures and is the product of a chemical process that naturally produces carbon dioxide. Collectively, it is responsible for up to 8% of global emissions, says Gregory.

Because it’s extremely difficult to use renewable energy to produce the energy intensity needed for ultrahigh temperatures, truly low-carbon cement will likely rely oncarbon capture, storage, and utilization, which prevents CO2 from being released into the atmosphere, either by injecting it into the ground or—potentially—into the concrete itself.

There is also another approach that could help, says Gregory: diluting, or even replacing, the cement in concrete. These options already exist: The ancient Romans used volcanic ash as a binding agent to make concrete. But it’s possible to use a large number of waste products, including fly ash—a by-product from coal plants. Some blends can reduce the carbon intensity by as much as 70% compared to conventional cement and will produce a product that’s just as good.

It’s “sort of like making a cake,” says Gregory. “You can use whole wheat flour. It’ll still look like a cake. It’ll just taste a little bit different.”

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Steel struggles with some of the same problems as concrete. Mainly, it must be produced at high temperatures, and, to a lesser degree, some CO2 also results from the process. Steel has one advantage—it can more easily be recycled—but that, too, has challenges. There is not enough to meet demand, and reprocessing requires energy, says Richard Curry, a program manager at Sustain, the Future Steel Manufacturing Research Hub based at the University of Swansea in Wales.

Logistically, recycling can be challenging and degrade the quality of the metal. As with concrete, the most feasible solutions are carbon capture, utilization, and storage—even if those are not yet commercially mainstream.

Embracing better design—from buildings to infrastructure to, yes, electric cars—to make them easier to disassemble so that their parts can be accessed and recycled could help, says Cameron Pleydell-Pearce, Sustain’s deputy director.

Another option, he says, is reusing.

“One of the things that we’re looking at in a very great level of detail is the degree to which we can understand which product and trace which product is coming out of a steel mill at a particular point, and then what happens to it as it goes through its life cycle,” he says.

Unlike even recycling, that would offer a major advantage: It comes with almost no CO2 emissions at all.

Warm in winter, cool in summer

When it comes to design, there’s another potential solution staring us in the face: drawing inspiration from what our buildings used to look like.

A traditional house in New England, for example, would have had south-facing windows, maximizing the sunshine and minimizing the darkness in winter, says Anna Dyson, the founding director of Yale University’s Center for Ecosystems in Architecture.

Houses all over the world have traditionally been designed and built to best work with the climate, she adds, but “over the course of the 20th century, as buildings became more and more reliant on cheap fossil fuels, then it wasn’t so required to be really, really careful about orientation and working with climate.”

Also, to manage the indoor temperatures, houses were built in shapes and sizes that suited their climates. In humid locations, home designs included ample ventilation and steep roofs to enhance air flow. In arid climates with hot days and cold nights, houses were roomy and light-colored to reflect heat. Those principles, along with making use of biodegradable materials, from timber to straw to coconut husks and bamboo, are ideas that some architects like Dysonare now looking back to.

Of course there are no silver bullets. Houses still need energy for lights and heating, preferably clean energy, Dyson points out. And now we face the prospect of not just making houses that are suited to the next 100 years, but also finding ways to retrofit the ones that have already lasted a century.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” says Dyson. “But we’ve got a lot that we can do with design.”


Africa climate change report reveals heat rising

Africa climate change report reveals heat rising

Africa climate change report reveals heat rising north and south, the Sahel getting wetter per Willem Van Cotthem, University of Ghent, Belgium in today’s Desertification blog. 

Africa needs to prepare better for climate change by responding to a wide range of potential risks, a multi-agency report led by the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on Monday, the first in a series of continent-by-continent assessments.

“In recent months we have seen devastating floods, an invasion of desert locusts and now face the looming spectre of drought because of a La Niña event. The human and economic toll has been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in a statement. 

Filling the gap 

The report aims to fill a gap in reliable and timely climate information for Africa, which translates into a lack of climate-related development planning, said Vera Songwe, Under-Secretary-General, and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). 

Africa has been warming progressively since the start of the last century, and in the next five years, northern and southern Africa are set to get drier and hotter, while the Sahel region of Western Africa will get wetter, WMO’s Regional Strategic Office Director, Filipe Lucio, told a press conference.  

“Overall, Africa needs to take action. Action is needed today in terms of adaptation, but also is needed tomorrow in terms of mitigation”, Lucio said.  

The agricultural sector is key to building climate resistance, since it is the dominant employer and it relies on the use of water and energy – both heavily implicated in climate change, he said.  

Northern and southern areas under threat of aridity and desertification would benefit from reforestation, which helps to prevent water runoff and creates vegetation which supports the hydrological cycle. 

Africa climate change report reveals heat rising
WMO/Cornel Vermaak
Drought in Africa will adversely impact the productivity of major cereal crops, says a report launched by WMO today.

Policy recommendations 

Policy changes are also recommended in transport, energy, infrastructure and industry. Financing has improved with the establishment of a UN-backed Green Climate Fund but there are still limitations in terms of the continent’s ability to tap into such funds, he added.  

Climate change has contributed to a jump in food insecurity, mosquito-borne disease and mass displacement in the past decade, and the rise in sea levels has led to unusual weather patterns such as Tropical Cyclone Idai, which hit Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe in 2019.  

It showed the need for communities to learn about the risks and for impact-based warnings about the appropriate actions to take. 

Cautionary tale 

A day after the cyclone made landfall, it appeared to have dissipated and people thought the worst was over. But then disaster struck when flooding followed, overwhelming Mozambique’s major port city of Beira, Lucio said.  

“People were asked to find refuge in appropriate places but the city of Beira was never built to withstand a category-5 tropical cyclone. So that means the building codes need to be changed, but the building codes cannot be changed using what tropical cyclones used to be like in the past.  

“They need to have forward-looking analysis to anticipate the trends into the future and start designing infrastructure and other systems taking into account the changing nature of these tropical cyclones.” 

Author, Willem Van Cotthem is Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development. 

Ground-breaking Work To Curb Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Ground-breaking Work To Curb Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Young UAEU Scientist Publishes Ground-breaking Work To Curb Greenhouse Gas Emissions to perhaps try and alleviate all fossil fuel production and commerce’s vigorous pursuit as currently undertaken in the Gulf countries.

Ground-breaking Work To Curb Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The picture above for illustration purposes is of Greenhouse Gas Inventory by Enviroment Agency – Abu Dhabi

With global methane emissions reaching a record high of almost 600 million tonnes a year and expected to continue rising in the coming years, researchers at the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) have taken action. Eyas Mahmoud, Assistant Professor in Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the university, is leading an attempt to design adsorbents that capture methane from the atmosphere to reduce the emissions. But the task at hand is not as straight-forward as one may think. There are many different adsorbents, each with its own unique combination of characteristics that determine its ability to reduce methane emissions. Prof. Mahmoud, therefore, set out to discover which adsorbents perform best for enhanced methane capture. Some of the adsorbents he is currently looking at are metal-organic frameworks – also known as MOFs. MOFs, which are compounds comprised of metal nodes coordinated to organic ligands, are a promising platform because their porosity can be adjusted and their chemistry can be tailored. “They can be designed in a variety of different ways to form three-dimensional structures tailored to methane adsorption,” Mahmoud says.

To date, he has demonstrated the best methane uptakes at 1 bar and 298 K, based on experiments that compared MOFs to carbonaceous materials, polymers and zeolites. The idea came about when Mahmoud’s original interest was triggered in methane storage for natural gas vehicles. He describes the pressures for such vehicles as extremely high – around 100 bar or more. But once the news hit that methane emissions were skyrocketing; he shifted his attention towards lower pressure applications. Although he initially focused on natural gas vehicles, this year, Prof. Mahmoud has redirected his attention towards global methane emissions. Mahmoud explains that MOFs hold more promise than other materials thanks to their higher adsorption capacity.

“It has never been done before,” he mentions. “The focus now is mostly on carbon dioxide, and you now see a lot of focus and a lot of developments being made on CO2 capture.” Methane is also a greenhouse gas, indeed it is considered 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Although the methane concentration used to be lower, it is currently rising at an alarming rate, which could pose a global threat in the future. This is especially important as methane was recently reported as starting to leak from the sea-bed. And with sea levels rising, the concern must be addressed imminently.

According to Mahmoud, who was recognised by the London Press as a Rosalind member, methane originates from a variety of sources, including the oil and natural gas industry, agriculture and farming. In the past year, it was reported that 300 tonnes of methane were released in Florida in the United States. An active leak of sea-bed methane was also discovered in Antarctica for the first time in 2020. “It’s mostly industrial sources, but there are other sources as well,” he explains.

Such events are a concern because if global warming continues, other parts of the seafloor may also begin to leak methane and microbes may not quickly move in to prevent methane from rising to the atmosphere.

Eyas Mahmoud, Assistant Professor in Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, UAEU

Methane release is considered extremely problematic because it is a major greenhouse gas and a cause of global warming. As such, effective strategies to curb methane emissions are needed. As well as a global issue, the problem is considered to be a regional problem in the Gulf due to a number of natural gas reserves, including the UAE. But there is hope, as Mahmoud’s work has generated initial promising results that could have a positive environmental impact on the world.

His latest research was published in October in Applied Sciences, an open access journal with a rapidly growing impact factor.

Going forward, Mahmoud will attempt to tailor the MOFs’ structures – of which there are thousands. His aim is to understand which structures are considered optimal at such conditions. “We will develop what we term our quantitative SPRs that relate the structure of the MOF to the adsorption capacity and the adsorption kinetics that are important for good performance for this process,” he adds.

The work is timely, as there is currently a strong push to mitigate greenhouse gases and commercialise them to capture carbon dioxide. With technology for CO2 capture developing rapidly, and climate change impacting the environment at a rapidly increasing pace, Mahmoud’s advice is to make sure we become wary of other greenhouse gases such as methane to ensure successful atmospheric restoration.

Saving the world with Christmas cookies?

Saving the world with Christmas cookies?

This article by Austrian Science Fund (FWF) about Saving the world with Christmas cookies? is serious about all matters of people continuing to ruthlessly exploit land resources around the world and to how to counterbalance that, especially during those especially festive days.

Saving the world with Christmas cookies?
Global growth is achieved at the expense of human beings and nature. It exacerbates inequalities between rich and poor countries. Credit: UNDP/GCP

Despite all warnings, people continue to ruthlessly exploit land resources around the world, planting monocultures and setting up large-scale infrastructure. Social ecologist Anke Schaffartzik analyses the political and economic interests that precede these developments and their impact on society. The snapshots of global material and energy flows, but also the power gradient of which they are a symptom, reveal that thoughtful consumption in Austria alone stands little chances against oil palm plantations in Indonesia.

Every year, Austrians produce and buy tons of Christmas cookies. Depending on the individual budget and mind-set, more and more people opt for the product on the shelf that claims to be “palm-oil free.” For today, many people know: Palm oil plantations are being operated on a large scale in countries such as Indonesia, crowding out orangutans living in the tropical rainforests. Anke Schaffartzik, Hertha Firnberg Fellow of the Austrian Science Fund FWF, can well understand that people want to improve the world. Unfortunately, unequal participation in the economy, unequal access to resources and to political co-determination already have an impact on land use even before the consumers can choose a suitable cookie brand in Austria.

In the context of her project at the Institute of Social Ecology in the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences in Vienna, Schaffartzik analyses worldwide material and energy flows in order to explore the dual nature of inequality: “Inequality as cause and effect of non-sustainable development is easy to observe wherever nature is being exploited to make commercial use of land and resources,” she explains. “Some countries ensure high consumption and economic growth while preserving their resource base or having long since exhausted it. But others are using up more and more land for the export of raw materials or energy sources, thereby making socio-ecologically sustainable development impossible.”

Who decides on land use?

After the first year of her research, Schaffartzik understands that global inequality cannot be quantified exclusively in terms of money. It is informed a great deal by how processes are designed, and the imbalance is already apparent in terms of access to land and decision-making processes. The global data analysis along a time series from 1960 to 2010 suggests to Schaffartzik that the “valorisation” of land is a key process in this growing and deepening use of resources: what counts is the desired economic development, not the needs and voices of the local population. The above-mentioned cultivation of oil palms in Indonesia is one case in point. Before the plantations could be exploited on a large scale, the land first had to be re-zoned accordingly. Palm oil can be used for cooking, as a lubricant and animal feed, for biodiesel or highly processed foods such as Christmas cookies and chocolate. Nowadays, almost the entire volume of crude palm oil is exported from Indonesia, but the processing that generates added value takes place elsewhere.

Cheap and diverse

In the 1980s, palm oil production began to take off in Indonesia, a vast nation of many islands. This not only encroached on the rain forests, but also crowded out other crops and areas used for subsistence farming. “The progressive land grabbing that we are witnessing was initially based on political decisions: There was a wish to see the resources being used in a way that yields money and political control over remote islands,” Anke Schaffartzik notes. Hence, political decisions about land use had to be taken before various big corporations could buy palm oil cheaply as a basis for goods of higher value and before local land was exposed to land grabbing. The “valorisation” of land that previously contributed nothing to the national GDP is the first step in the process. “Countries increasingly look to agricultural goods for economic growth and they consider that to be more important than the food supply for their own population,” explains Anke Schaffartzik. In this context, one can observe that commodities that use up a lot of land for their cultivation or extraction are not generating more money than those that require little land. Today, the local population work either on the plantations or in nickel mining, and meanwhile cooking oil has to be imported.

For her further research, Anke Schaffartzik is cooperating with various institutes in Europe. Together with Julia Steinberger from the University of Lausanne she is working on the relationship between infrastructure, its social status and how infrastructure decisions are being taken. At the Universidad Rovira y Virgili in Spain, she is collaborating on a case study of the construction boom during the Spanish economic crisis, and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona maintains a global atlas of environmental conflicts that provides a tangible picture of the processes leading up to a critical decision.

Approaches to improving the world

Hence, it is not enough, unfortunately, to read the small print and spend a little more money on palm-oil free biscuits. There are always many factors at local level that cannot be influenced downstream by ecologically minded consumers. Once the path to unsustainable development has been taken, there is hardly a way to retrace it. While consumer responsibility is something that people call for, they actually have very little influence.

The focus should therefore be on political processes and decisions that lead to social and ecological inequality and thus promote destructive land use. This is the case not only in Southeast Asia and Latin America, but also on our own doorstep. Where do we see the privatisation of land that was previously subject to shared use? Where is land being re-zoned to build infrastructure? What changes in legislation will affect who gets to decide on land? Who are the beneficiaries? These are important questions. Whose needs are served by the third runway at Vienna Airport, one may wonder, when the actual priority is an expansion of the railway network? Projects such as urban gardening or the sharing economy gain importance if they are understood as a counter-movement to these processes.

Seasons Greetings to each and everyone.

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