Urban heatwaves and senior citizens: Frugal solutions in The Hague

Urban heatwaves and senior citizens: Frugal solutions in The Hague

As The Netherlands is currently suffering from extreme heat, it is worth reminding ourselves of the effects of the latest heatwave, which took place from 10-16 August, 2020. Worryingly, the ...

Sub-Saharan migrants transiting through Algeria: Migratory farm labor in Covid times

Sub-Saharan migrants transiting through Algeria: Migratory farm labor in Covid times

The agricultural sector in Algeria relies on the informal labor force of Sub-Saharan migrants on their way to Europe. Interviews with migrants highlight their precarious conditions of life and work, ...

The Challenge of Securing Access to Minerals for the Green Transition

COP26 came to an end a month ago, and with it the opportunity to have a clear-cut global agenda for the energy transition. While many political leaders acknowledge the need for a green transition, the narrative and the strategies to address this global concern maintain the existing inequalities between the resource-rich (developing) and consuming (developed) countries. A transition to a green and sustainable economy requires a comprehensive understanding of the consumption-driven lifestyle heritage of our liberal economies, writes Jewellord Nem Singh.

COP26 ended in Glasgow last month, with activists and developing country governments disappointed in the global ambition as laid out in the final agreement text. On the one hand, the final document reflects commitments to cut on methane, doubling of monetary compensation for adaptation measures, and the need for cooperation between the US and China—two largest carbon emitters—to set out a roadmap to reach the target of keeping the lid below 2 degrees celsius temperature. On the other hand, developing countries have criticized rich countries from evading the language of loss and damage —a point made given that the most affected countries of climate change are likewise the least contributors in planet-warming greenhouses. Crucially, the language on coal was also changed from ‘phasing out’ to ‘phasing down,’ which underlines the reticence of emerging market economies like India, China and South Africa to unwittingly end coal dependence on electrification and commit to halt public subsidies towards fossil fuel in many countries. This outcome looks even more lackluster when put in the context of the failure of rich countries on climate finance until 2020. One emerging solution to the climate crisis involves securing investments and prioritizing financial commitments towards clean technologies and shifting towards renewable energy.

The climate crisis is a compelling challenge brings both industrializing Asian economies and their Western counterparts to the table. However, there are vast differences in terms of motivations and strategies to address the climate question. While Japan, Korea, and China see the climate agenda as an opportunity for their domestic companies to internationalize and to produce clean technologies through supportive industrial policies as part of their strategy to promote eco-developmentalism, the European Union (EU) views the energy transition as an opportunity to demonstrate its leadership in global environmental politics demonstrated by its emphasis on the circular economy.

Often missing from both discussions, however, is how increased demands for the critical raw materials that power the green transition are likely to exacerbate—and create—inequalities between resource-rich (developing) and consuming (developed) countries. The International Energy Agency’s latest report says that to meet the Paris Agreement goals, the total demand for clean technologies by 2040 will require an increase of more than 40 percent for copper and rare earth elements, 60 to 70 percent for nickel and cobalt, and almost 90 percent for lithium Some of these minerals are heavily concentrated in only a few countries, such as Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina for lithium; Brazil for niobium; Democratic Republic of Congo for cobalt; South Africa for platinum-group metals; and China for REEs and other critical minerals. As detailed in my recent Wilson Center report, unequal sharing of primary mineral production will yield to new forms of dependencies and problems, including the externalization of the environmental costs of clean technology.

The current climate change narrative absolves polluters and puts pressure on developing countries

The discourse on climate change has largely framed the political narrative as a race for human survival and an existential threat, leading to an apparently inevitable choice: To address climate change, we must accelerate efforts to build bigger wind turbines, to power electric grids using solar panels, and to shift from traditional fossil-fuel towards electric vehicle cars.

The blindspot in this narrative is that the industrialized world is largely absolved from their political culpability in perpetuating the crisis, and developing countries face increased pressure to extract their natural resources for the green transition. By framing climate change as a collective action dilemma requiring ‘global efforts,’ existing inequalities between countries and communities are set aside.

A second problem relates to the imbalance between the supply and demand solutions on the table. Currently, the narrative inadvertently justifies an emphasis on the supply side of the resource access problem—namely, finding technological solutions to make extraction more efficient and to substitute one technology with another to solve fossil fuel dependence. For example, wind turbines are now reliant on a gearbox that uses permanent magnets as opposed to older models that used copper. But with Japan and China controlling the production of permanent magnets, the green transition is dependent on the willingness and capacity of these countries to process rare earth elements and supply for the whole world.

A further problem arises: this type of technocratic approach positions leaders and industrialized societies as ‘problem-solvers,’ with an underlying assumption that we can save the planet without making substantive adjustments in the consumption-driven lifestyle we inherited from the 19th century Industrial Revolution.

Environmentalists, for example, are often caught in conflicting positions. On the one hand, campaigns against new mining projects in Europe are commonplace—the so-called ‘not in my backyard’ (NIMBY) attitude—given the high socio-environmental costs of mineral extraction. Green parties all over Europe have won seats with an agenda of greening the economy. On the other hand, there is strong support for switching to renewable energy, which requires more intensive and extensive extraction of a range of natural resources. Thus, the logical conclusion is to extract minerals in the developing world. One cannot have renewable energy and leave the costs external to Europe and United States.

Three principles to incorporate issues of justice into the climate change discourse

To address the climate crisis effectively, there are at least three principles to which we need to adhere. First, we need to accept that someone must pay for the green transition. The question is whether the global community can agree with a fair distributional arrangement of these costs. Here, the EU Commission has constantly raised the issue of investing in primary mineral production within the continent—a proposition that, while politically controversial, must be discussed by the public and policymakers.

Second, given the history of colonialism, imperialism, and extractivism by Europe, the United States, and Japan, future reforms of global rules must accommodate the right to economic development of developing countries. For 500 years, developing countries were mineral economies integrated in the world economy to supply for the industrialization of the West. In the course of history, mineral dependence has co-produced ineffective governance institutions, reinforced elite capture of rents, and exacerbated societal inequalities.

To abate the disproportionate impacts of mining on the Global South, the global architecture of trade, investment, and finance must accommodate developing countries’ policy space to design new growth strategies aimed at fueling inclusive development. Part of the discussion might involve rethinking whether norms supporting the free market and unfettered international trade are beneficial for developing countries, or whether these exist as instruments of power and domination exercised by rule-makers to maintain hierarchy and inequality.

Finally, we need a comprehensive climate agenda that entails far-reaching reforms beyond environmental policy. This agenda is needed to support African, Latin American, and Asian resource producers’ efforts to industrialize, not just serve as raw material suppliers to the Global North.

In the United States and European academia and mainstream media, China is increasingly portrayed as a threat, often highlighting its illiberal centralized regime as a challenge to the democratic order. For many developing countries, however, China opens new doors of alternative trade, finance, and investment. And perhaps more importantly, China’s experience of selective liberalization and heavy-handed state guidance through industrial policy serves as an inspiration for experimentation of different strategies beyond the straitjacket imposed by free market ideology. For instance, industrial policy and national development planning have returned in the developing world, most of which are patterned after in-depth exchanges and studies between East Asia and Africa. While learning between late industrializing countries and the rest of the Global South is important, we must remain clear-eyed about any efforts to find a single blueprint or magic bullet to achieve structural transformation.

While many leaders now accept the need for a green transition, there are many competing strategies regarding which policy instruments to deploy, whether to rely on the private sector (and if domestic or foreign firms can do a better job), and how to solve market failures. There is no blueprint to address these questions. What is clear, however, is that developed countries must acknowledge and accommodate the reality that developing countries want and deserve a say on their own environmental policies and transition to clean technology.

This article was first published in the blog New Security Beat. 

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Jewellord Nem Singh is senior lecturer/assistant professor of international development at the International Institute of Social Studies, part of Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands. He is the principal investigator of a five-year research program entitled “Green Industrial Policy in the Age of Rare Metals: A Trans-regional Comparison of Growth Strategies in Rare Earth Mining (GRIP-ARM),” which this article draws evidence from.


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On the Racist Humanism of Climate Action

On the Racist Humanism of Climate Action

Mainstream climate change mitigation and adaptation policies are imbued with neocolonial discursive constructions of the “other”. Understanding how such constructions work has important implications for how we think about emancipatory ...

From possession to property: how the commodification of land affects youth participation in farming in Ghana

From possession to property: how the commodification of land affects youth participation in farming in Ghana

With the gradual transition from the customary possession of land to property ownership based on a capitalistic logic, customary lands in the Techiman area in Ghana have been commercialised and ...

Low-hanging fruits are sometimes the sweetest: how tree-sourced foods can help transform the global food system

The global food system is dominated by a limited number of actors and mainly focusses on the production of only a handful of relatively innutritious foods. The system in its current shape threatens livelihoods of small-scale farmers, does not meet the nutritional needs of the majority of the global population, and is causing severe environmental impacts such as deforestation and biodiversity loss. A recent study shows that the elevation of small-scale tree-sourced food systems can help contribute to a transformation of the global food system that would lead to improved environmental and human well-being.

The global food system in its current form is dysfunctional and destructive. Not only does the production of a select few agricultural products that dominate the global food market require vast swaths of land, it is also leading to environmentally destructive agricultural production practices and the erosion of traditional ways of rural life and small-scale farmers’ livelihoods. Despite an emphasis having been placed on sustainable food systems within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with SDG 2 that aims to ensure food security and adequate nutrition through sustainable food systems, hunger and malnutrition compounded by climate change-related challenges are threatening the wellbeing of populations across the world. Especially the most vulnerable are feeling the effects of this intersection of global challenges that to date have been inadequately addressed. 

To reverse these trends, we need to understand what’s wrong with the current global food system and which foods have the potential to simultaneously provide environmental, nutritional and livelihood benefits at local and global levels that can drive a global food system transformation. Trees may hold the key.

What’s wrong with the global food system?

The global food system is unsustainable in so many ways. First of all, food systems occupy enormous amounts of land. This is likely to increase even further in the future: food production is one of the main drivers of deforestation, especially in the tropics. Consequences of these large-scale changes in the use of land include the loss of biodiversity that is happening more and more rapidly, substantial carbon dioxide emissions, and an increasing risk of droughts and wildfires. 

At the same time, the global food system is not producing enough fruits and vegetables to meet human nutritional requirements, partly because the current system is mainly based on just a few energy-dense and nutrient-poor crops such as wheat, rice, sugar and maize. This extraordinarily low diversity within our global food system is causing long-term health problems affecting especially the poorest populations in the Global South who have limited access to micronutrient-rich diets, education about nutrition and basic health services.

In addition, dominant food and agricultural development approaches focus on industrialisation and international trade, leading to the creation of a few global food corporations that dominate the global food market. These transnational food corporations in many cases exercise their power to undermine the rights of food workers and smallholder farmers in order to produce a limited number of crops at the lowest possible price. Food producers get only a fraction of the total amount paid for food products ranging from tea and coffee to other crops produced in the Global South and North alike. 

These developments have led to the massive transformation of small-scale and multispecies tree-based agrarian production systems (often traditional) into large-scale annual crop production. Yet these tree-based systems are vital: a recent perspective article argues that tree-based foods could play a critical role in the transformation of food systems such that it becomes more sustainable, provides more nutritious foods, and provides better livelihood opportunities for smallholder farmers.

Making space for trees…

There are many clear opportunities to incorporate food-producing trees into landscapes. The majority of global cropland does not contain trees, but has a high potential for doing so. Especially in the tropics, where large-scale forest areas are still being cleared for agriculture and then abandoned once soils are exhausted, restoration efforts could include the establishment of sustainable, locally-managed agroforestry systems. Such agroforestry systems have been shown to provide multiple environmental benefits, including carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation and the provision of several other ecosystem services, especially when they are based on diverse, multi-species systems. 

This could also mean that the hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers across the world could have a more prominent role in improving local diets through the production of tree-sourced foods. With the right incentives, investments and involvement, smallholder farmers could scale up agroforestry systems to produce more and healthier food, while simultaneously diversifying their income sources and consumption. 

Yet doing so would be challenging in several ways. To make increased tree-based food production a more integral part of food systems, several challenges have to be addressed. An increased demand for certain tree-sourced products like cacao and palm oil have led to large-scale deforestation for the establishment of industrial monoculture plantations, which provide very few environmental benefits, harming biodiversity and increasing carbon dioxide emissions in the process. Thus, monoculture plantations are not the way forward – we need to combine different types of trees in one area to ensure multiple ecosystem services.

In addition, severe negative social impacts are associated with such large-scale commodity production, such as people working under abusive labour conditions. Land grabbing has also become a serious problem as the profitability of certain tree species is becoming recognized and the sector commercialised. Furthermore, for smallholders, dependency on a single commodity for their income increases their vulnerability due to risks of crop failure caused by plant diseases and sudden prices crashes. Diversified production systems play therefore an important role in securing income sources, but also in diversifying diets, especially local diets.

…and making space for smallholders

So how can we address these challenges? Strategic actions and interventions for local market development can create a context that incorporates biodiversity in food systems as examples show in Brazil. Besides, focussing on diversifying local consumption provides opportunities for production directly linked to regional skills, preferences and needs and could increase the resilience of local food systems, which has been proved important in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, production for consumption in high-income countries could in some cases provide additional income streams as in many of those countries, the willingness to pay for sustainably-produced food is higher.

Other steps to be taken to facilitate the incorporation of sustainable tree-sourced food systems into the global food system are:

  1. Securing the tenure rights of rural populations. This will allow them to make long-term investments which are particularly important since tree-crops can involve high initial costs and return on investment can take years. 
  2. Developing inclusive supply chains for potentially popular products. This is essential for rural communities to adopt diversified agroforestry systems and access markets in which realistic business opportunities to smallholders should be key.
  3. Creating diversified income opportunities by engaging in different markets through a combination of production of commodities and non-commodities, intercropping multiple tree species with annual crops, payment for ecosystem services, but also by redirecting annual crop subsidies and providing micro-credits. These will create incentives for farmers to adopt tree species in their production systems, can help alleviate high investment costs and long pay-back times, and avoids the risks of price shocks, crop diseases, and other pitfalls associated with monoculture systems. 
  4. Investing in the conservation of genetic resources that underpin diversity so that crop tree systems to flourish. Additionally, reliable seed sources and seedlings need to be available for the establishment of tree crop farms. 
  5. Guaranteeing sustainable production, which will require a combination of interventions by states, markets, and civil society across the supply chain in which consumers can play an important role in demanding and consuming sustainably produced and deforestation-free products. Sustainable food systems require radical social action to alter conventional trading and production systems.

The time is ripe

Although the scale of these mentioned challenges seems to be too complex, in the face of increased shocks from events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, transforming global food systems is not just a desirable outcome, it is urgently required to ensure greater resilience both locally and globally.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the authors:

Julia Quaedvlieg is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies, where she researches tropical deforestation policies and the impact of interventions on smallholders’ livelihoods. Her research interests lie in natural resource management, rural development policies, and rural communities, with special focus on Latin American countries.

Merel Jansen is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of Koblenz-Landau. Her research focusses on the sustainable use and restoration of tropical forest resources, in particular non-timber forest products. Currently, she is working on a project in which she aims to evaluate the potential of agroforests to mitigate deforestation related drought in southwest Amazonia.

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