How to Invent the Right Institution to Cut Resource Conflicts

Written by Moritz Bühner   // March 11, 2013  

National Assembly in Dacca, Bangladesh. Image CC BY SA 2.0 Naquib Hossain

Can you resist the impetus coming from a 234 page report that has the promising title “Resource Futures” and boasts a beautiful Sankey diagram on the front page? See, I couldn’t either. But before you expect a concise summary here, you had better be warned. I’m deeply sorry, but the report’s giant scope of analyzing all the major resource flows in all of the world’s bigger countries, including their trade and actual trends, just exceeds what fits in the odd blog article. Scanning the first 20 pages yourself wouldn’t pose too much of a threat to convenience, though, since they’re already pretty compact, well-written and nicely laid out. What I can do is provide you with a general idea of the freshest thoughts the report contains and, of course, make some nagging, critical remarks from a strong sustainability supporting point of view.

Being familiar with Sankey diagrams, I wouldn’t go as far as did Niti Bhan, who raved about the report’s “great interactive infographics and killer facts” on his upcycling blog, REculture. But still, the five authors did a marvelous job on carefully collecting, reviewing, and interpreting hundreds of data sets for resource flows and global resource consumption trends.

Does a Country-Centered Approach Still Make Sense?

I have to admit that at first sight, the general approach of regarding resource exporting countries on the one hand, and resource importing ones on the other, seems very 20th-century (if not 19th…). The territorial category of a country simply fails to reflect the actual reality of today’s global power distribution. Especially in the context of resource flows, the elements of power, money, and material circle around economic regions and trade hubs. And they all follow the decisions made in the boardrooms of mainly multinational corporations. They chase rapidly growing markets and some depend on good natural conditions for their production or extraction. Economic and material flows follow the rules of the market in a much more pronounced and dynamic way than they follow traditional political power. As a matter of fact, the latter is constrained by its particular territories, marked out by historically emerged borders and by slow national institutions. The “complex global supply chains” and important processing hubs mentioned in the report (p. 23) are perfect examples of the new state of affairs.

With this in mind, it is even better to read the call for a new, collaborative approach to deal with declining resources and their global distribution. Especially when this call was expressed by a renowned national institution: the Chatham House, part of the “Royal Institute of International Affairs” in London. Bernice Lee, Felix Preston, Jaakko Kooroshy, Rob Bailey and Glada Lahn published it in December 2012, in the Resource Futures report this article is dealing with. PDF download here.

How to Tackle Unsustainable, Inefficient Resource Politics

One major critique of the status quo is at the center of the Resource Futures report:

Resource politics, not environmental preservation or sound economics, are set to dominate the global agenda and are already playing themselves out through trade disputes, climate negotiations, market manipulation strategies, aggressive industrial policies and the scramble to control frontier areas. (p. XIII)

In other words, current resource politics fail to harmonize the global dimensions of all sorts of national interests. The lack of international cooperation, so the authors reckoned, could be resolved with a missing piece of structure to calm everything down. Better collaboration certainly is easy to ask for; putting it into effect, however, initially requires some good working institutions and, above all, a fair bit of dedication from all participating sides. The devil is in the detail, of course. The structure the authors proposed consists of a new political institution with economic goals and named for its 30 member states: R 30. The idea is to get the biggest players in terms of the countries who import or export resources, or those who play an important role in refining or trading them (i.e. Singapore), around one table to discuss resource relevant issues and develop catchy strategies. The “informal forum” of the R 30 would aim for sub-goals of reducing resource price fluctuations and decreasing national resource intensity with the ultimate goal of achieving supply security and a predictable, low, and stable price level. Assuming that at a certain point this R 30 agreed on a pool of recommendations, they would be “fed into” more formal, existing governmental meetings like the G20 and existing institutions like the IEA and WTO (International Energy Agency and World Trade Organization).

Horizontal or Vertical Cooperation?

So far, so good. At first sight, the idea sounds very promising. A new informal institution that tackles resource flows from a global point of view. However, in the mind of the international relations researcher, collaboration refers to horizontal, that is, bi- or multi- lateral cooperation, only – and involves only national delegates. Vertical cooperation, the kind sustainability oriented people and most contemporary intellectuals much rather tend toward, involves direct representatives of the people – the people that are actually affected by the way resources are produced, consumed, and traded. NGOs, nature conservationists, scientific experts, minority groups, and business spokespeople from all sectors are a few examples of participants who should have their say considered when cooperation is to be taken seriously. Considered directly, not through some more or less democratically legitimate political representative who in turn nominates a “nationally vested” delegate of his or her choice. The report is right when it states the following on page 59:

There have been no credible international policy responses to volatile resource prices, even though this challenge requires urgent policy innovation. For example, in the case of food, no rules or agreements are in place to deal with export controls, coordinate stockholdings or reduce the impacts of biofuel mandates on food prices.

“R 30”: Good Idea, Wrong Approach

Yes, the shortcomings of resource politics need to be addressed, but how on earth could an exclusively political institution do so? Hasn’t it been clear for more than 20 years, ever since the Rio summit proved a different path possible, that top-down approaches are a thing of the past?

It is excellent to read that the authors realized one thing. “Driving down resource intensity and encouraging sustainable use,” so they wrote, “are the only remedies for high and volatile prices”. But how far is it from reality to believe an international political institution will initiate this encouragement? No matter how many benevolent words were spoken in Copenhagen, most states already struggle to motivate their citizens to even slightly reduce their greenhouse gases to reach just the generous Kyoto protocol!

Resilience Building for Resource Security

Globalization has led and still leads to a “rebalancing of global income and power”, that’s for sure. And investing in the “social and environmental resilience of emerging economies” is necessary when you strive for “long-term global resource security”, that’s correct. However, given the enormous importance of a good performing NGO that is aware of the local context, shouldn’t NGOs, too, have their word when it comes to designing the framework for these investments? There couldn’t be a better example for the effectiveness of bottom-up approaches than in the field of development cooperation.

Puzzling Out “Perverse” Subsidies

Despite my doubts about top-down approaches with respect to cutting environmentally harmful subsidies, I totally agree with the authors. By definition, no other actor than the national or supranational state is entitled to cut a subsidy, whatever it may fund. Distinguishing “between environmentally sound and perverse subsidies for resources” is indeed critical (see p. XIII), the “perverse” ones must be eliminated, no doubt about that, and it sure should have “global priority” (p. XV). And the authors did more than most: instead of vaguely calling for an end of harmful subsidies, they provided a few keywords on how this end could be reached. The R 30 could work out the details, but in general, “any multilateral plan of action will require a clear timeline, concrete support for poorer states to reform their resource pricing, as well as effective channels and fora to share experience and technical expertise.”

Annual World Resource Report

Another point I liked about “Resource Futures” was its mentioning of a proposal to establish an annual report that includes a global resource overview:

An annual ‘State of the World’s Resources’ report or an international resources data bank could be launched to standardize in a transparent manner the collection and sharing of data on resource endowments, stocks and trade figures. Such an initiative would benefit from parallel efforts, supported perhaps by charitable foundations, to increase the capacity of civil society and local communities and media to monitor resource usage and extraction at the local level. (p. XVI)

Here we go, finally we find the traces of a bottom-up approach: “ charitable foundations,” “civil society,” “local communities,” can you feel the dust settling? Am I the only one who realizes that the foundation for this report is already laid, bearing the name of material flow accounting and being publicly accessible on www.materialflows.net?

Further Reading

Article image is taken from a beautiful series by Naquib Hossain (CC BY SA 2.0). It shows the National Assembly in Dacca, Bangladesh. Not that it was very probable for the “R 30” to hold its assemblies in such an iconic building, but who knows?


Tags:

development cooperation

Environmentally Harmful Subsidy

material flow accounting

material flow analysis

resource conflicts

resource flows

resource politics

resource productivity

vertical cooperation


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Similar posts

20-20-20 Objectives

2012

3 scopes

3D printing

academia

ACHEMA

acidification

agriculture

air quality

aluminum

Ankara

antarctic ozone hole

apocalypse

assessment

atmospheric carbon measurement

B2B

Bachelor program

background database

BASF

battery change station

Bauwesen

best practice

bike sharing

bio capacity

bio-economy

biocapacity

biodiversity

biological gas treatment

biomass

blogs

BMBF

books

Brazil

BREEAM

building sector

building standards

business opportunity

carbon

carbon accouting

carbon assessment

carbon emissions

carbon footprint

carbon footprinting

carbon free city

carbon intensity

carbon leakage

carbon management

carbon neutral

carbon neutrality

carbon reduction

carbon relocation

carbon tax

carbon-neutral travel

cargo shipping

carton

central america

central asia

certification

CFC

change

chemical engineering

chemical industry

China

circular economy

circular flow economy

city

climate change

climate control

climate impact

climate neutral

climate protection

club of rome

CO2 balance

CO2 reduction

co2-equivalent

CO2-Fußabdruck

cogeneration

collaborative consumption

combined reporting

commercial sector

commons

comparative life cycle assessment

Competence Center

composite indicator

compost

composting

consistency

construction

construction industry

Consumer goods

consumption

container ship

cooperation along product life cycle

copenhagen

corporate carbon footprint

corporate culture

corporate material flow modeling

Corporate Social Responsibility

cost accounting

cost reduction

cost savings

cost-effective measures

Country Attractiveness

CPF

cradle to cradle

creative destruction

Creative Sustainability

Critique of the Green Economy

cross-collaboration

CSR

CSR report

customer-driven sustainability

cycling

dairy

Dashboard of Sustainability

database

Davos

de-growth economy

decarbonization

dematerialization

denmark

design

developing countries

developing world

development cooperation

Dienstleistungen

distributed manufacturing

divestment

domestic fuel consumption

domestic sector

double decoupling

e-car

e-mobility

e-sankey

e!Sankey

earth overshoot day

Earth Sciences

Earth summit

eCarUs

eco city

eco design

eco label

ecodesign

ecoinvent

Ecolabelling

ecologic footprint

ecological footprint

ecological resilience

ecological tax reform

economic indicators

ecosystem disturbance

ecovillage

education

efficiency

efficiency factory

efficiency investment

efficiency measures

efficient construction

Effizienzfabrik

EHS

eLCAr

electric car

emerging economies

emission gap

emission relocation

emissions

EMS

Energieeffizienz

energiewende

energy

energy contracting

energy efficiency

Energy Efficiency Directive

energy efficiency in production

energy efficient production

Energy Intensity by Sector

energy management

energy performance

energy reduction

energy sources

energy transition

engineering excellence

Enhipro

enms

environment

Environment Ministry

environmental accounting

environmental awareness

environmental balance

environmental capital

Environmental Contracting

environmental control

environmental cost accounting

Environmental Engineering

Environmental Goods and Services Sector

Environmental Governance

environmental impact

environmental impact data

environmental labeling

environmental LCA

environmental management

Environmental management accounting

environmental management system

environmental performance

environmental performance indicator

environmental policy

environmental product declaration

environmental product declarations

environmental profit and loss statement

environmental regulation

environmental standard

Environmental Sustainability Index

environmental technology verification

Environmentally Extend Input Output modelling

environmentally friendly raw materials

Environmentally Harmful Subsidy

Environmentally Weighed Material Consumption

EPD

EU

Europe

European Comission

european commission

European Green Cars Initiative

European Sustainable Development Strategy

eutrophication

EVALEAU

events

external effects

fashion

FIFA

fish

fishery

flow sheet simulation

food footprint

food industry

food loss

food production

food sector

food waste

footprinting

forest ecosystems

forestry

fouling

FPC

free trade

freighter travel

full cost accounting

gate-to-gate

gate-to-gate approach

geopolymer cement

Germany

Ghana

GHG emissions

GHG mitigation

GHG reduction

GHG reduction goals

glass

Global Compact

global justice

Global Supply Chains

global warming

global warming potential

GMO

governance

green building

green buildings

green business

green business models

green Christmas

green construction

green consumers

green economy

green growth

green investment

green jobs

green living

green new deal

green paradox

green production

greenhouse gas emissions

greenhouse gas inventory

greenhouse gas protocol

greenhouse gas reduction

greenhouse gases

greenwash

GRI

handprinting

Happy Life Years

harmonization

Harze

HDPE

heat integration

Herman Daly

HFC

holistic approach

holistic sustainability

human development index

HVAC

IEA

IFEU

ifu hamburg

ILCD Handbook

impact assessment

impact category

incentive

Incentive-based pay

incineration

India

industrial ecology

industrial location choice

industrial production

industrial sector

information design

innovation

input output

input-output databases

input-output economics

InReff

insulation

Integrated Reporting

integrated resource efficiency

integrative approach

intellectual property

internalization of externalities

international standards

interplant collaboration

IPCC

ISO

ISO 14000

ISO 14001

ISO 14008

ISO 14015

ISO 14025

ISO 14031

ISO 14040

ISO 14046

ISO 14051

ISO 14064

ISO 14067

ISO 50001

Jevon’s Paradox.

knowledge economy

Konsumgüter

Kooperation entlang des Produktlebenszyklus

Kuznets curve

Kyoto protocol

LCA

LCA data from suppliers

LCA database

LCA Databases

LCA inventory analysis

LCA recommendations

LCA software

LCM Berlin

lean manufacturing

Lebenszyklusperspektive

LEED

life cycle

life cycle analysis

life cycle assessment

life cycle engineering

life cycle inventory

life cycle management

life cycle perspective

life cycle thinking

life style

lifecycle

limits to growth

LinkedIn

living planet report

Long-Term Pay

low carbon economy

low-carbon transport

low-energy house

management models

manufacturing industry

masdar city

master program

material consumption

material efficiency

material flow

material flow accounting

Material Flow Accounts

material flow analysis

material flow balance

material flow cost accounting

material flow cost analysis

Material Flow Management

material flow modeling

material flow networks

material flowcosts

material flows

material footprint

material losses

materialeffizienz

meat

mechanical-biological treatment

media

metal industry

methodology

Mexico

MFA

MFCA

milk

modeling

Monetize external costs

Montreal Protocol

municipal solid waste

Natural Cost Accounting

nature conservation

Nepal

NIMBY

nitrate pollution

nuclear phase out

nutrients balance

nutrients cycle

OECD

OECD Environment Policy Committee

Ökobilanz

Ökobilanzdaten

Ökobilanzdaten vom Zulieferer

Ökobilanzdatenbanken

Ökobilanzierung

Ökolabelling

Ökologischer Fußabdruck

oligolopoly

Online Resource Efficiency Platform OREP

operational efficiency

optimization

organic agriculture

outsourcing

ozone layer recovery

packaging

PAS

passive house

patents

PET

philippines

phosphorus

photovoltaics

pilot program

pinch analysis

plastic industry

policy

policy instruments

politics

pollution haven hypothesis

post growth economy

post oil age

PR

process engineering

process heat

process improvement

process modeling

process modelling

Process Optimization

process system engineering

product carbon footprint

product environmental footprint

Product life time

product stewardship

production

production circle

production planning

production system

Production-based CO2 Productivity

productivity

Produktlebensdauer

protection proprietary data

PUMA

PVC

qatar

quality

quality journalism

quantified self

Rapid prototyping

rebound effect

recycling

refuse-derived fuel plant

remuneration

remuneration of environmental performance

renewable energy

renewable energy in manufacturing

renewable heat

renewable hydrogen

renewable methane

renewable process heat

renewable raw material

Renewable Resources

renewable thermal energy

resilience

resource conflicts

resource efficiency

Resource Efficiency Framework

resource flows

resource politics

resource productivity

resources

ressource efficiency analysis

ressourceneffizienz

retailer

reuse

RFID

Rio+20 summit

rising material demand

risk management

Rolf Dobelli

sankey diagram

saving potentials

savings

Schutz vertraulicher Daten

scope 3

seafood

season's greetings

seattle

services industry

shopping rage

smart grid

smart meter

SMB

social cost accounting

social LCA

social media

social metabolism

Social-Ecological Resilience

software

solar energy

solar heat

solar thermal energy

South Africa

South America

South Korea

soy milk

stakeholder management

standards

statistics

steady state economy

steel

stranded assets

strong sustainability

studies

sufficiency

supermarket chain

sustainability

sustainability consulting

sustainability control

sustainability indicators

sustainability innovation

sustainability management

sustainability performance

sustainability projects

sustainability reporting

Sustainability Science

sustainability strategy

sustainability triangle

sustainable agriculture

sustainable architecture

sustainable business

sustainable construction

sustainable development

sustainable housing

sustainable lifestyle

Sustainable Living

Sustainable Process Index

sustainable resins

Sustainable Resource Management

sustainable transport

sydney

system analysis

tajikistan

telecommunications

Telekommunikation

Tesco

textile industry

textile refinement

Tobias Viere

total material consumption

trade

transparency

transport

transport emissions

transport sector

Treibhauspotenzial

trends

triple bottom line principles

Turkey

Umberto

umberto for carbon footprint

umberto user workshop

Umweltbilanz

Umweltbundesamt

umweltfreundliche Rohmaterialien

university

upcycling

urban carbon emissions

VDMA

Vélib’

vernon curve

vertical cooperation

Vertragsnaturschutz

virtual water

waste air treatment

waste cycle

waste disposal

waste hierarchy

waste management

waste prevention

wastewater

wastewater treatment

water abstraction rate

Water Consumption by Sector

water extraction

water filter

water footprint

Water Management

water stress

web 2.0

Wellbeing Index

wind gas

wind power

wine

with both eyes open

working conditions

world cup

world statistics day

world vegan day

YET

zero carbon

zero carbon city

zero emission mobility

zero growth

zero growth economy