A startling array of the great and the good came together this week for the UN’s Private Sector Forum on ‘Sustainable Energy for All’.
From the Deputy Secretary General Dr Asha-Rose Migiro to heads of state; former movie stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger to CEOs, all were gathered to discuss some of the most pressing issues of our time – access to electricity and to cleaner cooking stoves, renewable energy, energy efficiency and in the case of my particular lunch table, the complex nexus between food, energy and water.
The Private Sector event is a rare opportunity for governments, civil society and the leaders of global business to sit down together to discuss their respective contributions to solving these challenges. The aim is that by bringing such an eclectic mix of people together – my table included the foreign minister of Tajikistan, The Minister for Trade for the world’s newest country South Sudan, the governor of northern Burkina Faso as well as a host of global business types – this short lunch may in fact spark some collaborations that can move the needle on development issues.
My table was a case in point. There is increasing recognition that the world cannot address food challenges without addressing the overuse (or underpricing) of water – after all, water is pretty useful when growing crops. And also one cannot separate the creation of energy from the use of water, of which it requires plenty (particularly when it comes to gas fracking). Similarly, cleaning water to make it safe to drink requires energy.
Therefore, ensuring the world has enough food, energy and water for the additional 2 billion people we will welcome onto the planet in the next 30 years is a complex and inter-related set of challenges.
But five things will help ensure that the international community, governments, business and civil society does indeed find collective solutions to these issues.
- Firstly, the experts in each area need to talk to each other. Sounds simple, but I have lost count of the number of water experts or food experts I have heard speaking without any reference to the other.
- Secondly, the UN and governments need to formally acknowledge the interconnection between food, energy and water. There needs to be an explicit multi-agency and cross departmental approach to a) policy development and b) governance.
- Thirdly, the private sector must be involved to a greater extent. Businesses can often innovate and move to action more swiftly than governments. Assisting business from different sectors, geographies or points in the value chain to work together to solve some of the issues can speed things up, e.g., finding the right mix of companies to help the South Sudan government build energy and water efficient refineries for all the oil that it currently must export unrefined (a topic of great importance to my lunch neighbour from South Sudan).
- Fourth as should be clear from the example above, this area requires cross-sectoral partnership. Governments, business or civil society alone do not have the answer. This is where IBLF can be of use. With 20 years of experience in training people in cross sectoral partnerships, we can improve the odds of such projects flourishing.
- Finally, we need to acknowledge that as human beings we are as naturally inclined to compete as to collaborate. And when the subject at hand is something as fundamental to life and as scarce as food, energy and water, I would suggest that our more primal-brained competitive streak is likely to win out.
All those of us who work at this most critical nexus must constantly guard against unhealthy competition and strive to promote collaboration if we are to achieve a sustainable outcome. After all, the food, energy and water of another 2 billion friends may depend on it.