02/06/2013 01:08 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

4 Grand Challenges to Energy, Food and Water

The world is on track to become a very different place in the next two decades. Per capita income levels are rising, the global middle class is expanding, and the global population is set to hit 8.3 billion people by 2030. At the same time, urbanization is happening at an accelerated pace -- the volume of urban construction over the next 40 years could equal that which has occurred throughout history to date.

While these projections would bring benefits like reduced poverty and individual empowerment, they have serious implications for the world's natural resources. Global growth will likely increase the demand for food, water, and energy by 35, 40, and 50 percent, respectively, by 2030. Add continued climate change to the equation, and the struggle for resources only becomes more intense.

These are just a few of the estimates included in the new "Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds" report from the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC). The assessment, which the NIC releases every four years, reflects in-depth research on trends and geopolitical changes that may unfold in the next 15 to 20 years -- everything from urbanization to conflict to resource scarcity.

Assessments like the NIC's are invaluable in providing decision makers with forward-looking insights and analysis. But while the report provides us with a glimpse into the future, what's more important is how we respond today to the questions these "megatrends" raise.

4 Challenges to Overcoming Resource Scarcity

The NIC report depicts clearly the challenges of providing enough food, water, and energy for an exploding middle class in the face of unabated climate change. Whether the world rises to these challenges -- or succumbs to greater instability -- will hinge in no small part on how we deal with the following questions.

1) What Will the Global Energy Mix Be?

The NIC assessment points to a shifting energy mix -- one that's transitioning from coal to unconventional oil and gas -- particularly shale gas. According to the Energy Information Administration, U.S. shale gas production has increased 12-fold over the past decade, while China, Argentina, India, and other countries hold significant reserves.

While natural gas emits approximately half the carbon dioxide as burning coal, shale gas presents environmental concerns. Extracting shale gas through fracking releases methane emissions -- the extent of which scientists are only beginning to understand. Plus, the declining price of gas is diverting investment away from renewable energy development.

While natural gas is an important fuel, it can't be seen as the solution to meeting the world's energy needs. Rather, its role must be to act as a bridge fuel as we transition to a low-carbon economy based on clean renewables like solar and wind power.

2) How Do You Ensure Food Security?

Food and agriculture production already account for about 29 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, 70 percent of water use, and 38 percent of land mass. Factor in estimates that food production will need to increase by up to 70 percent by 2050 and the resource conundrum becomes even more complex. So how do you produce enough food in a way that doesn't degrade ecosystems and exacerbate climate change?

There is no silver bullet -- increasing productivity isn't enough to ensure food security and protect ecosystems. We'll need to think about a range of innovative solutions like curbing food waste (the United States alone wastes 40 percent of its food supply every year), growing food on degraded lands, and revising biofuel policies.

3) What Will Global Governance Look Like?

Governance of resources and the environment has changed profoundly over the last 20 years. Decades ago, governments placed tremendous faith in international treaties and institutions -- like the 1992 Rio Earth Summit -- to solve global environmental challenges. Today, confidence in multilateralism is absent.

In lieu of legally binding multilateral cooperation, smaller clubs and coalitions are forming voluntarily to tackle these pressing problems. These groups include initiatives like the Open Government Partnership, where countries commit to improve national transparency, and the Clean Energy Ministerial, a global forum to advance clean tech.

Clubs and coalitions can play a crucial role in catalyzing action. But for many problems, we will still need legally binding, top-down approaches to complement voluntary, bottom-up initiatives.

4) How Can We Use Technology to Improve Governance?

The world has made significant technological advances in recent decades -- and is expected to push even further by 2030. We now rely on satellite imaging, cloud computing, Internet connectivity, social media, and other technologies to collect, analyze, and disseminate research and information. Can we use this greater availability of information to improve governance of global resources?

Take forests: Just a few years ago, the most recent satellite data on Indonesian forests was from 2006 -- and wasn't available online until 2008. It's impossible to manage forests and prevent deforestation without adequate monitoring systems and up-to-date information.

In a few months, WRI will launch Global Forest Watch 2.0, an online database of global forest maps that will be updated every 16 days. Users will be able to detect logging occurring anywhere in the world in near-real time, with the ability to zoom into an area as small as a football field.

Global Forest Watch 2.0 -- and other technological innovations like it -- can profoundly change how the world's natural resources are monitored. Can we use this transparency to achieve better management of natural resources like food, water, forests, minerals, and energy?

What Will 2030 Hold?

The NIC report identifies several alarming trends, but the study's authors acknowledge that nothing in the assessment is inevitable. It is up to us to figure out how to respond to these challenges in timely and effective ways. By doing so, we can create an alternative 2030 - one that brings both sustainability and prosperity to people and the planet.

Cross-posted from the World Resources Institute's Insights blog