Weak Governance in MENA Region Worsens Deepening Land Crisis
Weak governance exacerbates the deepening land crisis in the Middle East and North Africa region, according to a new World Bank report that urges broad reforms to improve land use and access amid increasing stress from climate change and population growth.
Titled “Land Matters: Can Better Governance and Management of Scarcity Prevent a Looming Crisis in the Middle East and North Africa?”, the report shows how continuing land deterioration in a region that is 84 percent desert worsens water scarcity issues that threaten food security and economic development.
“Now is the time to examine the impact of land issues that loom large in many public policy decisions but aren’t always explicitly acknowledged,” said Ferid Belhaj, the World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa. “Quite simply, land matters. MENA’s growing population and the impact of climate change add urgency to addressing the land crisis.”
The report uses satellite imagery data to show that cropland in MENA countries decreased by 2.4 percent over the 15-year period from 2003-2018, which was the world’s sharpest drop in a region that already had the lowest cropland per capita and little margin for agricultural expansion. During the same period, the MENA population increased by 35 percent and is estimated to expand by another 40 percent to 650 million people in 2050.
Comparing land cover data with statistics on wealth inequality and other indicators, the report shows a correlation between land degradation and poor governance. In addition, state ownership of land is highest in the MENA region, but governments fail to manage land assets in ways that generate public revenues, the report says, while access to land is a severe constraint for 23 percent of firms in the manufacturing and service sectors.
Also impeding land access are social norms and laws regarding property that are more unfavorable for women in the MENA region compared to other regions, according to the report. In particular, women in MENA countries come under strong social pressure to renounce their inheritance rights over property, often without fair compensation.
“You cannot achieve sustainable economic and social development if people and businesses lack proper access to land,” said Harris Selod, a World Bank senior economist and co-author of the report.
Reforms proposed by the report include establishing transparent market-driven processes to value and transfer land, as well as developing complete inventories of public land and improving the registration of land rights. These are necessary steps to support more efficient land use and land management decisions and to ensure that land serves social, economic and fiscal functions in a region where property taxes represent less than one percent of GDP.
Land policies can also help reduce gender inequalities. A tax on male beneficiaries when women renounce their inheritance rights to property could help reduce the gender gap, with the money collected funding initiatives promoting women’s empowerment, the report says.
“Increasing land scarcity leads to strategic trade-offs about the best use of land to meet competing economic, social, and sustainability objectives,” said Anna Corsi, a World Bank senior land administration specialist and co-author of the report. “However, the holistic approach needed to address core development issues of land policy is critically lacking in the MENA region.”
The report notes that land scarcity and governance issues vary throughout the region, with countries requiring approaches that are tailored to their unique challenges. For example, wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council countries face severe land scarcity but have better land administration, while the Maghreb countries as well as Iran, Iraq, and Syria are more seriously challenged by land governance issues with less severe land scarcity. A third group — Djibouti, Egypt, Yemen, and the West Bank and Gaza — faces serious challenges in both governance and scarcity of land.
In stressing that “land matters”, the report argues that urgently addressing the MENA land crisis now exacerbated by climate change and population growth is essential for the region’s sustainable economic and social development.
Unfortunately, those Western governments with decision making power and resources to help vulnerable countries respond to the polycrisis are not inclined to use it, given domestic cost-of-living crises in G7 countries, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and limited domestic political appetite for international initiatives.
In October, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) published what is perhaps its most bleak economic outlook in a decade, forecasting that the world economy will grow by only 2.7 percent in 2023 and warning that “the worst is yet to come.” Not since the global financial crisis of 2007–2008 have we seen such pressure on vulnerable countries grappling with what Carnegie scholar Adam Tooze describes as “polycrisis.” Climate change, food and energy price inflation, debt distress, and an ongoing pandemic have created a dynamic where, in Tooze’s view, “the whole is even more dangerous than the sum of the parts.”
This constellation of crises demands that G20 leaders design a new global financial architecture that delivers urgent liquidity for vulnerable countries, a solution for countries facing debt distress, and long-term financing at an order of magnitude greater than currently available—all while giving those vulnerable countries a more meaningful voice in the design of that architecture.
This polycrisis comes to its most acute head within the twenty-five countries that, according to Bloomberg, are most vulnerable to debt distress. Home to 1.5 billion people, they range from middle-income countries like Pakistan and Egypt to low-income countries like Ethiopia. And while the UN’s Food Price Index has retreated from the all-time highs that appeared immediately in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, food prices remain higher than they were during the crises in 2008 and 2010—the latter of which precipitated unrest in more than forty countries as well as contributing to the Arab Spring protests. This is happening against a backdrop of increasing extreme weather events—from historic drought in the Horn of Africa to devastating floods in Pakistan that displaced 33 million people. In the first half of this year, extreme weather events cost an estimated $65 billion in damages globally.
Such an unprecedented cocktail of volatility is systemic in nature and is, in part, created by the collective inability of the world’s most powerful governments to build a multilateral system more resilient to these shocks. At a minimum, it warrants an unprecedented response from the international community. Unfortunately, those Western governments with decisionmaking power and resources to help vulnerable countries respond to the polycrisis are not inclined to use it, given domestic cost-of-living crises in G7 countries, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and limited domestic political appetite for international initiatives.
A DANGEROUS MYOPIA ON THE PART OF WESTERN LEADERS
Taking a step back, if leaders from Europe and North America have thus far been reluctant to meet the current crisis moment, this is myopic for two reasons.
First, helping vulnerable countries avoid widespread hunger, mitigate debt distress, and build resilience to climate shocks is not charity but enlightened self-interest. It will contribute to stability in those nations and help avert the challenges created when large populations migrate to flee conflict and famine in search of economic opportunity. Europe’s so-called migration crisis in 2016, which helped fuel a wave of populism on the continent, was catalyzed in part by instability in Libya and Syria.
Second, Western countries are increasingly aware that their relationships with countries in the Global South are not what they assumed. A succession of UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine, most recently on October 12, 2022, saw many African countries abstain (see figure 1). While there are a number of reasons for such nonalignment, it is clear that some African countries want to be free to chart their own path and choose their own partnerships—and that the choice of partners depends in part on what the partner country can bring to the table.
In this regard, the West risks falling behind. Russia, the largest supplier of weapons to Africa, now provides 44 percent of major arms to the region. China committed about $160 billion in infrastructure financing in Africa between 2000 and 2020 in comparison with $153.4 billion in official development assistance from the United States1. In June, China announced a restructuring of some African countries’ debts amid concerns of debt sustainability and agreed to co-chair Zambia’s creditor committee to address the restructuring of the country’s debt.
In contrast, leaders from the Global South at UN General Assembly meetings both in public and private have disparaged European countries for stepping back from their role as custodians of the multilateral system, for their lack of support during the coronavirus pandemic, and for a litany of promises that remain unfulfilled. While they are more positive that the United States is in listening mode, as reflected in the recently published U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, they remain wary that U.S. domestic politics could see a shift of administration in two years’ time.
A study of developing countries’ attitudes compiled by Rosa Balfour, Lizza Bomassi, and Marta Martinelli at Carnegie Europe demonstrated the disconnect between how Europe thinks it is perceived and how it is actually perceived in key countries of the Global South. In many cases, the role of Europe’s development programming remains invisible to citizens of these countries, while steps to use the EU’s market access to enforce human rights and environmental standards, viewed at home as a positive impact of Europe in the world, are perceived elsewhere as simple market protectionism.
Likewise, a large-scale survey of African youth conducted by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation shows that in 2022, China overtook the United States as the geopolitical superpower viewed most favorably—in part because its actions on the continent are so visible. Analysis from Afrobarometer (see figure 2) presents a similar trend.
THE WEST’S CRISIS RESPONSE IS FUELING MISTRUST IN THE GLOBAL SOUTH
There is a growing perception among Africans that African countries are victims of crises created in and by other regions. This view is rooted in fact: the global financial crisis began in the U.S. housing market, the coronavirus pandemic began in China, and industrialized countries in the Global North caused the climate crisis (Africa has contributed just 4 percent to historical carbon emissions). In each case, Western countries’ policy responses to these crises further disadvantage African countries.
During the pandemic, Western countries have monopolized vaccine supply, and the current response to the climate crisis sees some Western governments seek to limit the ability of African countries to exploit natural gas to support economic and social development—while those Western countries continue to use natural gas themselves.
Not only is inflation greater in African countries, but it also has a more devastating impact on ordinary people. Analysis in a new data portal from the ONE Campaign, where the author is executive director for global policy, shows that, in comparison to higher-income countries, a larger proportion of Africans’ income is spent on food and other essential goods, leaving them more vulnerable to inflation (see figure 3).
Yet the current inflationary challenges illustrate the failure of global economic governance institutions to prevent macroeconomic policy decisions by major powers from spilling over to the wider world and harming vulnerable nations
The U.S. Federal Reserve’s steep interest rate hikes in recent months to quell inflation in the United States will greatly impact other countries, particularly those with heavy debt burdens. The U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency. About half of international trade is invoiced in dollars, about half of all international loans and global debt securities are denominated in dollars, and dollars are involved in 90 percent of foreign exchange transactions. As a result, increases in interest rates are hitting vulnerable countries in a number of ways.
But while African countries’ fortunes are shaped by these global events, they have limited agency over the response, thanks in part to an outmoded global economic architecture created after the Second World War—before most African countries gained independence.
The Bretton Woods institutions—the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (now part of the World Bank Group)—were established in 1944 to safeguard the stability of the international financial system and finance postwar reconstruction. But their governance remains archaic.
Under a long-standing “gentleman’s agreement,” Europe gets to choose the managing director of the IMF and the United States chooses the World Bank president. The voting shares of these institutions are highly unequal, since they are pegged to the size of shareholders’ economies. As a result, the United States, with a population of 330 million people, controls roughly 16 percent of the voting power at the IMF and World Bank, while Africa’s fifty-four countries—accounting for 1.4 billion people—collectively have a voting share of roughly 7 percent. Per capita, an American’s vote is worth twenty times as much as a Nigerian’s at the IMF, and sixty-four times that of an Ethiopian. And even on its own terms, current quota shares disproportionately benefit wealthy countries—particularly Europe—at the expense of emerging economies.
Increasingly, countries in the Global South are demanding a meaningful seat at the table of international institutions. These calls were particularly prominent at this year’s UN General Assembly. Indian Minister for External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar described the current architecture as “anachronistic and ineffective.”
We need to reform a morally bankrupt global financial system. This system was created by rich countries to benefit rich countries. Practically no African country was sitting at the table of the Bretton Woods Agreement; and in many other parts of the world, decolonization had not yet taken place. It perpetuates poverty and inequalities. We need to balance the scales between developed and developing countries and create a new global financial system that benefits all.
These increasingly emphatic statements are no longer general calls for reform. Instead, leaders from the Global South have an agenda and are putting specific proposals on the table.
In April, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, members of the Africa High-Level Working Group on the Global Financial Architecture, coordinated by the UN Economic Commission for Africa, proposed a specific set of measures to create fiscal space to help them respond to the invasion, including the recycling of $100 billion in special drawing rights, a renewed debt service suspension initiative, and a liquidity and sustainability facility to reduce the cost of African borrowing on capital markets.
Since then, Barbados’s Prime Minister Mia Mottley has proposed the Bridgetown Initiative, which seeks to address immediate fiscal concerns and proposes a more structural set of reforms to help vulnerable countries become resilient to economic, climate, and pandemic shocks.
Yet debates about Bretton Woods reform risk becoming fragmented in a political environment in which achieving the necessary consensus for reform is challenging. Furthermore, in an era of great power competition, G20 countries are unlikely to voluntarily give up some of their power in these institutions.
AS A RESULT, A FOCUSED AGENDA IS MORE LIKELY TO GAIN TRACTION.
Firstly, G20 countries should urgently take steps to provide the necessary liquidity to help vulnerable countries weather the economic storm and build resilience for the future. They should reinstate the debt service suspension initiative, which helped free up fiscal space during the coronavirus pandemic, and make good on their promise, made in October 2021, to provide emergency liquidity in the form of $100 billion in special drawing rights. To date, $81 billion has been pledged (including $21bn from the US that is yet to be appropriated by Congress) to this target but very little has been disbursed. These funds should be urgently committed to the IMF’s Poverty Reduction and Growth Trust, the IMF’s newly established Resilience and Sustainability Trust, and multilateral development banks (MDBs), enabling vulnerable countries to draw down these resources.
Second, the polycrisis requires long-term resourcing that is an order of magnitude greater that what is currently on the table. There is hope on this front. In October, ahead of the IMF and World Bank annual meetings, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen signaled U.S. government support for the reform of MDBs relating both to how they lend and to how much they lend. Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States then announced an “evolution roadmap” for the World Bank to address its investment in cross-border challenges such as pandemic preparedness and climate change (in addition to its current model of bilateral lending to countries), and support for more risk-taking to more effectively leverage the World Bank’s balance sheet.
According to a G20-commissioned expert group, MDBs (including the World Bank) could mobilize up to an additional $1 trillion without risking their AAA credit ratings. The boards of the MDBs (largely composed of G7 finance ministers) should lay out a roadmap for implementing these recommendations and increasing the speed and flexibility of lending to vulnerable countries.
Finally, there are increasing calls for Global South countries to have a meaningful seat at the decisionmaking table. Establishing a permanent African Union seat at the G20 would send an important signal, and the IMF’s 2023 quota review could provide an opportunity for the creation of a new African chair on the IMF’s board as well as an increase in quota or a change in quota distribution in favor of African countries.
These specific steps would signal that Western countries are listening to countries in the Global South, provide urgent finance at a scale needed to address the current challenges, and catalyze a broader debate about the kinds of international institutions needed in the twenty-first century.
All of this could be accomplished without significant investments of domestic budgets or political capital. In this respect the usual explanations for inaction do not stand.
1 Author’s calculations of statistics from the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. See Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Query Wizard for International Development Statistics (accessed October 18, 2022), https://stats.oecd.org/qwids/.
Time and time again, financial approaches have worked to fix economic problems. Raising interest rates has acted to slow the economy and lowering them has acted to speed up the economy. Governments overspending their incomes also acts to push the economy ahead; doing the reverse seems to slow economies down.
What could possibly go wrong? The issue is a physics problem. The economy doesn’t run simply on money and debt. It operates on resources of many kinds, including energy-related resources. As the population grows, the need for energy-related resources grows. The bottleneck that occurs is something that is hard to see in advance; it is an affordability bottleneck.
For a very long time, financial manipulations have been able to adjust affordability in a way that is optimal for most players. At some point, resources, especially energy resources, get stretched too thin, relative to the rising population and all the commitments that have been made, such as pension commitments. As a result, there is no way for the quantity of goods and services produced to grow sufficiently to match the promises that the financial system has made. This is the real bottleneck that the world economy reaches.
I believe that we are closely approaching this bottleneck today. I recently gave a talk to a group of European officials at the 2nd Luxembourg Strategy Conference, discussing the issue from the European point of view. Europeans seem to be especially vulnerable because Europe, with its early entry into the Industrial Revolution, substantially depleted its fossil fuel resources many years ago. The topic I was asked to discuss was, “Energy: The interconnection of energy limits and the economy and what this means for the future.”
In this post, I write about this presentation.
The major issue is that money, by itself, cannot operate the economy, because we cannot eat money. Any model of the economy must include energy and other resources. In a finite world, these resources tend to deplete. Also, human population tends to grow. At some point, not enough goods and services are produced for the growing population.
I believe that the major reason we have not been told about how the economy really works is because it would simply be too disturbing to understand the real situation. If today’s economy is dependent on finite fossil fuel supplies, it becomes clear that, at some point, these will run short. Then the world economy is likely to face a very difficult time.
A secondary reason for the confusion about how the economy operates is too much specialization by researchers studying the issue. Physicists (who are concerned about energy) don’t study economics; politicians and economists don’t study physics. As a result, neither group has a very broad understanding of the situation.
I am an actuary. I come from a different perspective: Will physical resources be adequate to meet financial promises being made? I have had the privilege of learning a little from both economic and physics sides of the discussion. I have also learned about the issue from a historical perspective.
World energy consumption has been growing very rapidly at the same time that the world economy has been growing. This makes it hard to tell whether the growing energy supply enabled the economic growth, or whether the higher demand created by the growing economy encouraged the world economy to use more resources, including energy resources.
Physics says that it is energy resources that enable economic growth.
The R-squared of GDP as a function of energy is .98, relative to the equation shown.
Physicists talk about the “dissipation” of energy. In this process, the ability of an energy product to do “useful work” is depleted. For example, food is an energy product. When food is digested, its ability to do useful work (provide energy for our body) is used up. Cooking food, whether using a campfire or electricity or by burning natural gas, is another way of dissipating energy.
Humans are clearly part of the economy. Every type of work that is done depends upon energy dissipation. If energy supplies deplete, the form of the economy must change to match.
There are a huge number of systems that seem to grow by themselves using a process called self-organization. I have listed a few of these on Slide 8. Some of these things are alive; most are not. They are all called “dissipative structures.”
The key input that allows these systems to stay in a “non-dead” state is dissipation of energy of the appropriate type. For example, we know that humans need about 2,000 calories a day to continue to function properly. The mix of food must be approximately correct, too. Humans probably could not live on a diet of lettuce alone, for example.
Economies have their own need for energy supplies of the proper kind, or they don’t function properly. For example, today’s agricultural equipment, as well as today’s long-distance trucks, operate on diesel fuel. Without enough diesel fuel, it becomes impossible to plant and harvest crops and bring them to market. A transition to an all-electric system would take many, many years, if it could be done at all.
I think of an economy as being like a child’s building toy. Gradually, new participants are added, both in the form of new citizens and new businesses. Businesses are formed in response to expected changes in the markets. Governments gradually add new laws and new taxes. Supply and demand seem to set market prices. When the system seems to be operating poorly, regulators step in, typically adjusting interest rates and the availability of debt.
One key to keeping the economy working well is the fact that those who are “consumers” closely overlap those who are “employees.” The consumers (= employees) need to be paid well enough, or they cannot purchase the goods and services made by the economy.
A less obvious key to keeping the economy working well is that the whole system needs to be growing. This is necessary so that there are enough goods and services available for the growing population. A growing economy is also needed so that debt can be repaid with interest, and so that pension obligations can be paid as promised.
World population has been growing year after year, but arable land stays close to constant. To provide enough food for this rising population, more intensive agriculture is required, often including irrigation, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
Furthermore, an increasing amount of fresh water is needed, leading to a need for deeper wells and, in some places, desalination to supplement other water sources. All these additional efforts add energy usage, as well as costs.
In addition, mineral ores and energy supplies of all kinds tend to become depleted because the best resources are accessed first. This leaves the more expensive-to-extract resources for later.
The issues in Slide 11 are a continuation of the issues described on Slide 10. The result is that the cost of energy production eventually rises so much that its higher costs spill over into the cost of all other goods and services. Workers find that their paychecks are not high enough to cover the items they usually purchased in the past. Some poor people cannot even afford food and fresh water.
Increasing debt is helpful as an economy grows. A farmer can borrow money for seed to grow a crop, and he can repay the debt, once the crop has grown. Or an entrepreneur can finance a factory using debt.
On the consumer side, debt at a sufficiently low interest rate can be used to make the purchase of a home or vehicle affordable.
Central banks and others involved in the financial world figured out many years ago that if they manipulate interest rates and the availability of credit, they are generally able to get the economy to grow as fast as they would like.
It is hard for most people to imagine how much interest rates have varied over the last century. Back during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the early 1940s, interest rates were very close to zero. As large amounts of inexpensive energy were added to the economy in the post-World War II period, the world economy raced ahead. It was possible to hold back growth by raising interest rates.
Oil supply was constrained in the 1970s, but demand and prices kept rising. US Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker is known for raising interest rates to unheard of heights (over 15%) with a peak in 1981 to end inflation brought on by high oil prices. This high inflation rate brought on a huge recession from which the economy eventually recovered, as the higher prices brought more oil supply online (Alaska, North Sea, and Mexico), and as substitution was made for some oil use. For example, home heating was moved away from burning oil; electricity-production was mostly moved from oil to nuclear, coal and natural gas.
Another thing that has helped the economy since 1981 has been the ability to stimulate demand by lowering interest rates, making monthly payments more affordable. In 2008, the US added Quantitative Easing as a way of further holding interest rates down. A huge debt bubble has thus been built up since 1981, as the world economy has increasingly been operated with an increasing amount of debt at ever-lower interest rates. (See 3-month and 10 year interest rates shown on Slide 14.) This cheap debt has allowed rapidly rising asset prices.
The world economy starts hitting major obstacles when energy supply stops growing faster than population because the supply of finished goods and services (such as new automobile, new homes, paved roads, and airplane trips for passengers) produced stops growing as rapidly as population. These obstacles take the form of affordability obstacles. The physics of the situation somehow causes the wages and wealth to be increasingly be concentrated among the top 10% or 1%. Lower-paid individuals are increasingly left out. While goods are still produced, ever-fewer workers can afford more than basic necessities. Such a situation makes for unhappy workers.
World energy consumption per capitahit a peak in 2018 and began to slide in 2019, with an even bigger drop in 2020. With less energy consumption, world automobile sales began to slide in 2019 and fell even lower in 2020. Protests, often indirectly related to inadequate wages or benefits, became an increasing problem in 2019. The year 2020 is known for Covid-19 related shutdowns and flight cancellations, but the indirect effect was to reduce energy consumption by less travel and by broken supply lines leading to unavailable goods. Prices of fossil fuels dropped far too low for producers.
Governments tried to get their own economies growing by various techniques, including spending more than the tax revenue they took in, leading to a need for more government debt, and by Quantitative Easing, acting to hold down interest rates. The result was a big increase in the money supply in many countries. This increased money supply was often distributed to individual citizens as subsidies of various kinds.
The higher demand caused by this additional money tended to cause inflation. It tended to raise fossil fuel prices because the inexpensive-to-extract fuels have mostly been extracted. In the days of Paul Volker, more energy supply at a little higher price was available within a few years. This seems extremely unlikely today because of diminishing returns. The problem is that there is little new oil supply available unless prices can stay above at least $120 per barrel on a consistent basis, and prices this high, or higher, do not seem to be available.
Oil prices are not rising this high, even with all of the stimulus funds because of the physics-based wage disparity problem mentioned previously. Also, those with political power try to keep fuel prices down so that the standards of living of citizens will not fall. Because of these low oil prices, OPEC+ continues to make cuts in production. The existence of chronically low prices for fossil fuels is likely the reason why Russia behaves in as belligerent a manner as it does today.
Today, with rising interest rates and Quantitative Tightening instead of Quantitative Easing, a major concern is that the debt bubble that has grown since in 1981 will start to collapse. With falling debt levels, prices of assets, such as homes, farms, and shares of stock, can be expected to fall. Many borrowers will be unable to repay their loans.
If this combination of events occurs, deflation is a likely outcome because banks and pension funds are likely to fail. If, somehow, local governments are able to bail out banks and pension funds, then there is a substantial likelihood of local hyperinflation. In such a case, people will have huge quantities of money, but practically nothing available to buy. In either case, the world economy will shrink because of inadequate energy supply.
Most people have a “normalcy bias.” They assume that if economic growth has continued for a long time in the past, it necessarily will occur in the future. Yet, we all know that all dissipative structures somehow come to an end. Humans can come to an end in many ways: They can get hit by a car; they can catch an illness and succumb to it; they can die of old age; they can starve to death.
History tells us that economies nearly always collapse, usually over a period of years. Sometimes, population rises so high that the food production margin becomes tight; it becomes difficult to set aside enough food if the cycle of weather should turn for the worse. Thus, population drops when crops fail.
In the years leading up to collapse, it is common that the wages of ordinary citizens fall too low for them to be able to afford an adequate diet. In such a situation, epidemics can spread easily and kill many citizens. With so much poverty, it becomes impossible for governments to collect enough taxes to maintain services they have promised. Sometimes, nations lose at war because they cannot afford a suitable army. Very often, governmental debt becomes non-repayable.
The world economy today seems to be approaching some of the same bottlenecks that more local economies hit in the past.
The basic problem is that with inadequate energy supplies, the total quantity of goods and services provided by the economy must shrink. Thus, on average, people must become poorer. Most individual citizens, as well as most governments, will not be happy about this situation.
The situation becomes very much like the game of musical chairs. In this game, one chair at a time is removed. The players walk around the chairs while music plays. When the music stops, all participants grab for a chair. Someone gets left out. In the case of energy supplies, the stronger countries will try to push aside the weaker competitors.
Countries that understand the importance of adequate energy supplies recognize that Europe is relatively weak because of its dependence on imported fuel. However, Europe seems to be oblivious to its poor position, attempting to dictate to others how important it is to prevent climate change by eliminating fossil fuels. With this view, it can easily keep its high opinion of itself.
If we think about the musical chairs’ situation and not enough energy supplies to go around, everyone in the world (except Europe) would be better off if Europe were to be forced out of its high imports of fossil fuels. Russia could perhaps obtain higher energy export prices in Asia and the Far East. The whole situation becomes very strange. Europe tells itself it is cutting off imports to punish Russia. But, if Europe’s imports can remain very low, everyone else, from the US, to Russia, to China, to Japan would benefit.
The benefits of wind and solar energy are glorified in Europe, with people being led to believe that it would be easy to transition from fossil fuels, and perhaps leave nuclear, as well. The problem is that wind, solar, and even hydroelectric energy supply are very undependable. They cannot ever be ramped up to provide year-round heat. They are poorly adapted for agricultural use (except for sunshine helping crops grow).
Few people realize that the benefits that wind and solar provide are tiny. They cannot be depended on, so companies providing electricity need to maintain duplicate generating capacity. Wind and solar require far more transmission than fossil-fuel-generated electricity because the best sources are often far from population centers. When all costs are included (without subsidy), wind and solar electricity tend to be more expensive than fossil-fuel generated electricity. They are especially difficult to rely on in winter. Therefore, many people in Europe are concerned about possibly “freezing in the dark,” as soon as this winter.
There is no possibility of ever transitioning to a system that operates only on intermittent electricity with the population that Europe has today, or that the world has today. Wind turbines and solar panels are built and maintained using fossil fuel energy. Transmission lines cannot be maintained using intermittent electricity alone.
Basically, Europe must use very much less fossil fuel energy, for the long term. Citizens cannot assume that the war with Ukraine will soon be over, and everything will be back to the way it was several years ago. It is much more likely that the freeze-in-the-dark problem will be present every winter, from now on. In fact, European citizens might actually be happier if the climate would warm up a bit.
With this as background, there is a need to figure out how to use less energy without hurting lifestyles too badly. To some extent, changes from the Covid-19 shutdowns can be used, since these indirectly were ways of saving energy. Furthermore, if families can move in together, fewer buildings in total will need to be heated. Cooking can perhaps be done for larger groups at a time, saving on fuel.
If families can home-school their children, this saves both the energy for transportation to school and the energy for heating the school. If families can keep younger children at home, instead of sending them to daycare, this saves energy, as well.
A major issue that I do not point out directly in this presentation is the high energy cost of supporting the elderly in the lifestyles to which they have become accustomed. One issue is the huge amount and cost of healthcare. Another is the cost of separate residences. These costs can be reduced if the elderly can persuaded to move in with family members, as was done in the past. Pension programs worldwide are running into financial difficulty now, with interest rates rising. Countries with large elderly populations are likely to be especially affected.
Besides conserving energy, the other thing people in Europe can do is attempt to understand the dynamics of our current situation. We are in a different world now, with not enough energy of the right kinds to go around.
The dynamics in a world of energy shortages are like those of the musical chairs’ game. We can expect more fighting. We cannot expect that countries that have been on our side in the past will necessarily be on our side in the future. It is more like being in an undeclared war with many participants.
Under ideal circumstances, Europe would be on good terms with energy exporters, even Russia. I suppose at this late date, nothing can be done.
A major issue is that if Europe attempts to hold down fossil fuel prices, the indirect result will be to reduce supply. Oil, natural gas and coal producers will all reduce supply before they will accept a price that they consider too low. Given the dependence of the world economy on energy supplies, especially fossil fuel energy supplies, this will make the situation worse, rather than better.
Wind and solar are not replacements for fossil fuels. They are made with fossil fuels. We don’t have the ability to store up solar energy from summer to winter. Wind is also too undependable, and battery capacity too low, to compensate for need for storage from season to season. Thus, without a growing supply of fossil fuels, it is impossible for today’s economy to continue in its current form.
Just as the war in Ukraine is disrupting supplies and fuelling already-high inflation, economic growth in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region is forecast to be “uneven and insufficient” this year, according to the World Bank.
Growth rates in the region envisage a narrative of diverging trends. As oil exporters benefit from surging prices, higher food prices have hit the whole region.
The GCC is expected to notch up 5.9% growth this year, buoyed by oil prices and helped by a vaccination rate much higher than the rest of Mena. But most Mena economies — 11 out of 17 — are not seen exceeding their pre-pandemic GDP per capita in 2022, says the World Bank.
GCC economies have seen a relatively strong start to 2022 with the hydrocarbons sector having benefited from increased oil production so far this year, says Emirates NBD. Its survey data for the first quarter of the year point to a solid expansion in non-oil sectors as well, with strong growth in business activity in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In the wider Mena region, however, countries like Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia – home to large, mainly urban populations, but lacking oil wealth – are struggling to maintain subsidies for food and fuel that have helped keep a lid on discontent.
Egypt has been struggling to maintain a bread subsidy programme used by about 70mn of its citizens with the coronavirus pandemic hitting the national budget, and surging wheat prices are exacerbating the challenge.
The World Food Programme has warned that people’s resilience is at “breaking point,” in the region. Global foods costs are up more than 50% from mid-2020 to a record and households worldwide are trying to cope with the strains on their budgets. In North Africa, the challenge is more acute because of a legacy of economic mismanagement, drought and social unrest that’s forcing governments to walk a political tightrope at a precarious time.
The MENA region’s net food and energy importers are especially vulnerable to shocks to commodity markets and supply chains resulting from Russia’s war on Ukraine, according to the International Monetary Fund.
That’s in countries where the rising cost of living helped trigger the Arab Spring uprisings a little over a decade ago. The region’s GDP is forecast to rise 5.2% this year after an estimated 3.3% expansion last year and a 3.1% contraction in 2020.
“Even if this high growth rate for the region as a whole materialises in this context of uncertainty, and there’s no guarantee that it will…(it) will be both insufficient and uneven across the region,” according to Daniel Lederman, World Bank lead economist for the MENA region.
Countries that are net importers of oil and food and which entered 2022 with high levels of debt as a ratio of GDP are most vulnerable, he said, pointing to Egypt and Lebanon as examples. Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, food prices had been rising around the world, driven by the higher shipping costs, energy inflation and labour shortages that have followed in the pandemic’s wake, along with extreme weather. Food crisis was likely to worsen in the Middle East and North Africa as Covid-19 continued, according to a report from the regional directors of Unicef, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, WFP and World Health Organisation in July 2021.
Energy investments in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are forecast to grow in 2022 from $805 billion and continue in the next five years on the strength of higher oil and gas prices and planned unconventional gas and upstream investments.
Energy investments in MENA will continue to grow: Apicorp
For petrochemicals, the drive for further integration and rationalisation will continue with reconfigurable petrochemical plants shifting to high-margin products such as plastic packaging films and healthcare and hygiene products, The Arab Petroleum Investments Corporation (Apicorp), a multilateral development financial institution, said in its annual Top Picks 2022 outlook on the key trends that are expected to shape the Mena energy markets landscape this year.
“The strong pipeline of investments we are seeing in the downstream projects reflects the region’s push to direct more funds to this sector, especially in brownfield petrochemicals projects versus greenfield ones. This makes sense in light of the current market conditions which favor improving cost and operating efficiencies in existing projects rather than sheer expansion,” said Nicolas Thevenot, Managing Director of Corporate Banking at Apicorp.
As for the energy markets, the report forecasts that they will remain comparatively stable during 2022 due to higher oil production by Opec+ and non-Opec countries and increased gas production and LNG supply. Brent is expected to average between $65/bbl. and $75/bbl. As for gas, the JKM and TTF/NBP hub prices in Asia and Europe are expected to cool down considerably from their all-time highs of 2021, especially after the winter season.
Meanwhile, the uptick in regional energy investments, which registered a modest $13 billion increase in Apicorp’s latest five-year outlook, will continue over the mid-term on the strength of higher oil and gas prices throughout 2022.
Among the trends the report examines is the impact of oil and gas prices on energy investments in the region and the main factors weighing down on broader economic recovery.
“Despite the volatility in commodity prices which is expected to persist throughout 2022, the good news in the short-term is that oil and gas prices will likely remain elevated throughout the year, providing support for energy investments including renewable energy and ESG-related projects. Power sector investments in Mena are also expected to continue to thrive, with an accelerating shift towards renewables. Collectively, the region is expected to add nearly 20 GW of solar power over the next five years,” noted Dr Ahmed Ali Attiga, CEO of Apicorp.
The Mena region will take centre stage in the ongoing global energy transition as all eyes shift to Egypt, which will host COP27 in November — and UAE for COP28 in 2023. Yet while the transition continues to steadily gain momentum, the report notes that it may be marred by mixed policy signals from governments as they attempt to balance imperatives which are oftentimes very difficult to align: emissions reduction, energy affordability and energy security.
Thus, a sustainable and comprehensive policy is needed in order to avoid tilting the policy scale too far towards in favor of one of these factors, as this may lead to unintended consequences such as market distortions, heightened volatility, and energy shortfalls.
The already substantial pressure on policymakers is expected to be further exacerbated by continued volatility in commodity markets in 2022 due to the pandemic, uncertainty over macroeconomic policy, and supply chain disruptions. Despite the modest –-albeit uneven—recovery in 2021, it will take time for this improvement to migrate downstream and ease cost pressures this year.
The report’s analysis of energy investment trends suggests that the expected robust oil and gas prices in 2022 have triggered an opportunity to return to pre-pandemic activity.
The uncertainty around Covid recovery will continue to influence how market dynamics will ultimately play out. Given the global vaccine inequity and a constantly evolving virus, governments are still grappling with the dilemma of public health versus economic recovery.
In addition to global trade, supply chains and services, the current surge in cases globally will also adversely affect international travel and tourism. This will dent economic growth during 2022, which has already prompted a slight downward revision of the 2022 GDP growth forecasts in some regions and a likely asymmetric global recovery that is not necessarily sustainable for all countries.
Another uncertainty stems from the need for governments to introduce fiscal austerity measures to rein in spending and curb soaring inflation. Although markets ended 2021 with high returns (27% in the case of the S&P 500 index), high jobs growth and soaring commodity prices pushed inflation rates higher.
A fear of stagflation looms as public fiscal stimulus packages are withdrawn, asset purchasing programs are tapered and interest rates rise. While these measures will very likely cause economic recovery to slow down, the lagging unemployment rates are expected to remain relatively high amid a simmering inflationary cycle that may turn out not to be transitory after all. — TradeArabia News Service
The above-featured image is for illustration and is credit to Oil Price.
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