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Smart Resource Management: Good for Nature, People and Business

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Resource scarcity has been a frequent topic at the World Economic Forum in recent years, and for good reason.

Between now and 2050, the world's population will grow by an additional 2 billion people. Over the same period, millions of people will be lifted out of poverty. By 2030, nearly two-thirds of the global population -- as opposed to today's one quarter -- could be middle class.

Rising incomes, of course, are a good thing. But a rapidly growing and more affluent population are straining the natural systems on which natural diversity, human health and prosperity depend.

The good news is that corporations and governments increasingly recognize the need to balance development with sound ecological standards and are seeking advice on how to effectively achieve these twin goals. I am seeing strong evidence of that trend in Davos, where I led a panel that included CEOs of multinational beverage, food and mining companies; senior government environmental ministers; and leaders of international aid organizations.

Despite the diverse range of perspectives, the panelists all agreed on one thing: Nature conservation isn't just an aesthetic "luxury" -- it's an essential investment in human well-being and economic growth.

Take water, for example -- a resource already in short supply. More than 1 billion people worldwide currently lack access to clean water, with rising temperatures only further compounding the problem.

And water challenges affect more than basic human and ecological health. Water is essential to economic productivity and virtually every aspect of our quality of life, including growing the food we eat, manufacturing the products we buy and supplying electricity to our homes. As global water scarcity intensifies, corporations are increasingly concerned about their water-related business risks. Companies risk running out of clean water for their operations, and their water use can impact other water users and ecosystems.

Until recently, diverse stakeholders -- governments, businesses, development organizations and conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy -- have tended to address these challenges in a one-off "silo-ed" manner. That doesn't work. As one panelist noted, companies can save enormous amounts of water by using more energy, or save energy by using more water. The key, however, is figuring out how to do both. Likewise, reducing carbon emissions can unintentionally hurt the food industry's ability to feed hungry people, as more and more lands are converted for biofuel production.

Balancing such tradeoffs isn't easy. But it's clear that we need more integrated approaches to resource management. And integration must go both up and down the supply chain. Panelists agreed that reducing resource use should continue to be a top priority for their companies -- and they are making great progress -- but their suppliers are also key players. Companies must tackle resources challenges on an integrated basis with suppliers and customers.

Fortunately, tackling these challenges doesn't always require high-tech, expensive intervention. For example, wasteful water leakage in agriculture can be addressed most quickly and effectively by better valves and pipes rather than genetically-modified crop varieties that require less water.

What's also clear is the need to move quickly. As one panelist noted, for example, it's time to stop debating the future impacts of climate change. We are already seeing those impacts. From rising sea levels to rivers running dry, rising temperatures pose urgent and serious threats to natural systems and to the people, plants and animals and economies that they sustain.

I've been encouraged by the sense of urgency, coupled with cautious optimism, that I've seen in Davos this week. Key players in government, business and civil society understand that integrated approaches to resource management need to be accelerated and prioritized. Positive impacts are already being achieved. If we can enhance and improve collaboration, focus on holistic approaches, scale up programs and recruit more participants, there is reason to be encouraged.

Of course markets won't solve resource scarcity on their own. We need to press our leaders for stronger public policies that account for the full value of nature's benefits. We need to better enable local communities to manage their resources sustainably. And we need to change our own consumption habits to help put our society on a more sustainable path.

But the good programs we're hearing about this week in Davos really do work. Now they need to be taken to scale, urgently.

This blog was originally posted on the World Economic Forum blog.