OECD Forum 2010: Preserving scarce resources

Green growth has been one of the big issues of this year’s OECD Forum, but a session on Thursday afternoon has been taking an even more focused look at the environment. Under the heading “Preserving scarce resources”, speakers have been discussing some of the many ways in which resources like water, clean air and forests can be protected.

As several speakers have stated, most of us are not really aware of just how much of these resources we’re using. “We wear our water,” says John J. Harris, Chairman and CEO of Nestlé Waters, who has pointed out that it takes roughly 1,200 litres of water to produce a cotton shirt. According to Mr. Harris, the only part of our water usage that is not negotiable is the roughly 1.5 litres we need to drink each day to survive; after that, he says, we need to think a lot more about making better use of all the rest of the water we use both directly and indirectly.

The scale of the environmental challenge facing humanity has been underlined by several speakers. Thomas Kaissl, who leads the Green Economy Programme at WWF International, has commented that there’s a real lack of urgency in discussing these issues. For 20 years, he says, the international community has been drawing up all sorts of certification and standards, but the threats facing the environment have only grown – we urgently need to close “the gap between paper and practice”, he believes. Otherwise, he says, humanity will be like the frog in the pot who fails to realise the danger he’s in as the water comes slowly to the boil. Echoing that, moderator Simon Upton, Director of the OECD’s Environment department, has been wondering aloud how big a crisis would be needed to alert humanity to the need for action.  

Solutions? The need to encourage citizens to become active in forcing governments to take green issues seriously has been mentioned by several speakers, especially those from NGOs. There’s also been much talk about market solutions that put a price on environmental resources so as to reflect their true value. “The default value of many things we hold dear is zero,” Andrew Seidl of the International Union for Conservation of Nature says. An economist himself, he says that many in his profession instinctively favour “carrots” – or economic incentives – as a way to shape the behaviour of businesses and individuals.

But that sort of approach is seen in a less rosy light by Ambet Yuson, General Secretary of the Building and Woodworkers’ International labour grouping. While he sees some benefits in market approaches, he’s warned that pricing solutions can put a premium on owning, rather than sharing, resources. And, he says, as the financial crisis has shown, markets can always fail.

So, plenty of solutions on offer, but varying views on which work best. There was, however, agreement on the need to act – and act now – to better protect environmental resources.

Useful links

 OECD work on the environment  

 OECD Insights: Sustainable Development

Brian Keeley

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