Food, energy, pollution: what are the solutions for the world of 2040?

We meet Antoine Frérot, Angel Gurría and Bernard Sananès.
Published in the dossier of April 2018

Demographic growth, galloping urbanization, climate change, increasingly scarce resources, an explosion in energy and food demands, increasing pollution… Looking forward to the world of 2040 may seem worrisome. Yet, although the challenges may be huge, solutions already exist and others will appear, giving us cause for hope and optimism.

> Feeding nine billion humans, meeting the strongly growing energy demand, and fighting air, water and soil pollution. Why do you identify these three challenges as a priority for 2040?

Angel Gurría : The challenges that you mention – food security, energy security and reduced exposure to pollution risks – contribute to the sustainable and inclusive growth championed by the OECD. Failing in one of them would compromise the international community’s capacity to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals it has set itself for 2030. However, as the capacity to meet them is very unequally distributed across countries and within the same country, stumbling over one of these goals could more broadly compromise other balances. I’m particularly thinking of increased inequality and mass migration.

Antoine Frérot, Chairman and CEO of Veolia

Antoine Frérot : These three challenges are naturally at the heart of our concerns, as they are major economic and social issues over the next decades that affect every country. The demographic explosion, galloping urbanization, increasing scarcity of resources and their impact on food and energy chains, as well as ecosystems, are closely linked to the issues of water, energy and waste management.

“As a global benchmark in optimized resource management, Veolia is a key player in providing concrete solutions in the light of these challenges.” Antoine Frérot

Bernard Sananès :The survey that Elabe conducted for Veolia in late 2017 reflects this feeling of urgency. Across the five continents, the majority of inhabitants we have questioned believe that it is necessary to act rapidly to meet these ecological, energy and food challenges. Five priority issues have been identified:

  • the development of the renewables share in their country’s energy sources,
  • air quality,
  • access to high-quality and healthy food,
  • access to enough food to meet each person’s needs,
  • water quality.

> To what extent are these three challenges interdependent?

A. F. : Water is needed to produce energy and develop agriculture, just like energy is needed to treat water and produce food. Healthy and available soils are also needed for agriculture, which in turn will provide biofuels, i.e. energy. Only an actor like Veolia, which is able to oversee the combined management of water, energy and waste, can deliver effective solutions to meet these three challenges. This also implies creating virtuous circles between those involved in the same area – local authorities, industries, citizens – where one person’s waste becomes another’s resources. This is why it is crucial to accelerate the transition to a more circular economic model.

Angel Gurría, Secretary-General of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development)

A. G. : There are undoubtedly tensions between these different challenges. And the efforts made to achieve one of these goals must not make it more difficult to achieve the others: if energy security had to be obtained at the price of increasing carbon emissions, climate change would accelerate even further to the detriment of food security. Likewise, access to a certain level of food security must not lead to the uncontrolled intensification of soil or water pollution.

“Private companies are governments’ partners in tackling these challenges with civil society.” Angel Gurría

> What levers will enable us to meet these challenges?

A. G. : Tensions require coordinated responses: of course, responses on a national level are essential, but they are not enough. Multilateralism is part of the solution. International discussions can contribute to food security by reducing pressure on resources in countries where arable land or water is rare; international investment is required to allocate financial resources where they produce the best impact; the spread of innovation is also globally beneficial as long as inventors’ interests are protected.

B. S. : Public opinion unanimously believes in our collective ability to improve the world of tomorrow, over and above national situations and cultural differences. More specifically, the levers most widely identified by the 14,000 people that we questioned are creativity, which is a source of technological innovation, and changes in behavior. Followed by funding and regulations.

Bernard Sananès, Founding President of Elabe

A. F. : Innovation, creativity and a sense of collective responsibility, which are part of Veolia’s DNA, are essential assets in coming up with the new solutions that the world needs. The issue is not so much changing scale as changing perspective. Turning our attention in new directions, exploring what is possible, pushing back the limits of what is not. We are going to continue to expand and enlarge our traditional areas of expertise, but we are also going to have to create new ones and explore other territories. To this end, our longstanding integrator culture will be decisive. It will allow us to bring together all of the ideas and expertise required to invent the most effective and innovative solutions.

> What concrete solutions could be developed to meet the challenges of food, energy and pollution?

A. G. : On a national level, green and inclusive growth strategies are going in the right direction. Europe and the European Commission are paving the way: they combine a kind of energy and carbon temperance, a common agricultural policy that encourages more environmentally friendly farming practices, and a framework directive that promotes a better environmental status of water resources. The countries that deliberately engage in international climate initiatives, the fair trade of foodstuffs and the diffusion of clean technologies are pioneers. I would like to see the entire international community follow their lead. And the sooner, the better.

A. F. : At Veolia, we already have a host of solutions and we are striving every day to come up with new ones. For instance, in the area of food, we transform biowaste into organic fertilizers and recycle wastewater to irrigate crops. In Malaysia and France, we are even working on pilot projects that consist in producing animal protein from insect larvae bred on biowaste! As for our energy clients, we have long been supporting them with their energy transition, especially via our energy efficiency or waste heat recovery solutions. We are also experimenting in the realm of CO2 capture and recycling. To combat pollution, we are currently developing processes to eradicate drug residues from wastewater. We are also testing promising solutions to address air quality, especially inside buildings.

> What will be the main obstacles to overcome in deploying these solutions on a large scale?

A. F. : To meet the challenges of the future, we are going to have to mobilize all of those involved at every level. Over and above concrete actions that companies such as Veolia can devise and implement, the public authorities’ commitment will be decisive in their large-scale deployment. In the area of air quality, for example, where we are starting virtually from scratch, clear and tailored governance must first of all be put in place, and then effective regulations adopted, accompanied by public awareness-raising measures. At present, Veolia is testing a new generation of sensors and equipment for dynamically controlling the air quality inside buildings. We want to be ready when regulations emerge.

B. S. : The world’s citizens remain cautious about their countries’ ability to widely roll out certain solutions over the next two decades. Most of them believe in generalizing renewable energy production, recycling all waste to recover all materials, transforming organic waste into fertilizer and treating wastewater. However, they are more cautious when it comes to their countries’ ability to generalize urban farming, use insect larvae as a staple food for livestock, or capture CO2 from the atmosphere for storage or reuse. It is up to companies and public players to demonstrate their feasibility, usefulness and performance.

A. G. : No one is suggesting that private companies should replace governments. That is not my opinion. I think that they are governments’ partners in tackling these challenges with civil society. Private companies will find incentives in public policies to help resolve the abovementioned challenges. Their ability to innovate, develop, and — for some of them — invest are important channels for public action. This partnership will be all the more effective if companies are working toward a common good. We share this conviction with Antoine Frérot. This change is behind major reforms in France and a number of OECD countries regarding the status of the company and its governance. Even if they don’t seem related to what we are talking about, these reforms are also part of the solution.