Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Era Of Cheap Resources Is Over

Extraordinary article on the BBC, showcasing what many of us have been saying for years. May I remind you that this is the British Broadcasting Corporation, owned by the British government and one of the world's major media outlets:
In the past 10 years, global commodity price increases have wiped out all the declines seen during the past century, during which prices almost halved despite a fourfold increase in the world's population and a massive expansion in the global economy.

The reasons for such price falls were simple - the discovery of new sources of relatively cheap supply allied with new technologies.

But the era of abundant cheap resources is drawing to an end, for reasons equally straightforward.

The global population currently stands at seven billion people, and is predicted to rise to more than nine billion by 2050 - that's roughly the population of the UK being added to the planet every year.

More importantly, there could be up to three billion new middle-class consumers, mainly in China and India, according to McKinsey. They will drive demand for meat, consumer goods and urban infrastructure, not to mention the energy needed to produce them, to levels unheard of in human history. For example, McKinsey expects the number of cars in the world to double by 2030.

And while demand for resources from an exploding and wealthier population soars, finding and extracting new sources of supply is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive.

For example, oil companies have to look further and drill deeper to find dwindling reserves of oil, meaning the cost of an average well has doubled in the past ten years, while new mining discoveries have been largely flat despite a fourfold increase in exploration costs.

The discovery of shale gas could have a major impact on meeting global energy needs in the decades to come, but as Laszlo Varro, head of gas, coal and power markets at the International Energy Agency, says, just burning current reserves of fossil fuels using existing technologies would create enough carbon dioxide "to boil the planet several times over".

But it's not just traditional energy sources that are a cause for concern, particularly given that resources are becoming increasingly linked, with shortages and price movements in one having a much greater impact on others.

Take water, which underpins the production of pretty much every manufactured product on earth - for example, almost 50 gallons are used to extract one gallon of oil, says Dr Richard Mattison, chief executive of corporate environmental research group Trucost.

Demand for water over the next 30 years is projected to rise by almost a half at a time when the groundwater table in many regions of the world is falling and large areas are suffering from shortages due to drought, large-scale irrigation, pollution, dams and even war.

Finite land resources are also coming under enormous pressure.

Urbanisation displaces millions of hectares of high-quality agricultural land each year - McKinsey estimates that prime land equivalent in size to Italy could be sacrificed to expanding cities in less than 20 years.

At the same time, tens of thousands of square kilometres of pristine forest are cut down to grow crops needed for food, of which we will need 70% more by 2050 to feed the world's massively expanding population, according to the United Nations.

In fact, vast swathes of natural land are being converted for all manner of uses across the world, destroying essential so-called ecosystem services such as flood protection and genetic resources used for live-saving drugs.

But it's not just physical depletion that leads to scarcity. For some resources, political and financial factors can exacerbate the problem, particularly in the short term.

A recent survey by consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) found a shortage of key minerals and metals could "disrupt entire economies".

It compiled a "critical list" including lithium, which is widely used in batteries and wind turbines, cobalt, again a key component in rechargeable batteries, and tantalum, which is used in mobile phones and computers.

Geologists prefer not to speculate on the planet's finite reserves of these valuable resources, some of which are already running low, for the simple fact that more could be discovered, but political factors alone make them hard to come by.
As usual, their 'solutions' are rather tepid given the stark realities laid bare in the rest of the article, but I think that's de rigeur. Anything to avoid saying that capitalism as we know it is doomed, no matter how much our politicians blather or how much propaganda the one percent throw at us (note the 'as we know it'). Is this a sign that reality is dawning, at least outside of the United States?

Resource depletion: Opportunity or looming catastrophe? (hint to BBC - the latter)

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