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Crystal gazing with McKinsey on resources for the future

Alan Miller's picture

In 1980, the biologist Paul Ehrlich and business school professor Julian Simon famously wagered on the likelihood of resource scarcity over the coming decade. Based on his expectation that population growth would lead to a rapid growth in demand for basic resources, Ehrlich bet that the prices of five commodity metals would increase; Simon, argued that rising prices incent human innovation and consequently that resource prices should be stable or declining. In the decade that followed, despite population growth of 800 million, the prices of all five commodities chosen by Ehrlich declined and he paid the bet. In July 2011, the investor Jeremy Grantham noted that if the bet had been extended to 2011, Ehrlich would have won – by a lot. 

McKinsey Global Institute, a research arm of McKinsey & Company, recently revisited the debate about economic growth and resource scarcity with the release of a major study, “Resource Revolution: Meeting the world’s energy, materials, food, and water needs”. One of the lead authors, McKinsey partner Jeremy Oppenheim, recently visited the World Bank in Washington DC to describe the report’s conclusions and discuss its implications for development strategy, particularly for the World Bank. His presentation captivated a large audience and provoked a lively discussion.

The key findings of the report can be summarized in two categories – challenges and opportunities. The former starts from the projected increase of up to 3 billion more middle class consumers in the next 20 years, driving up demand at a time when finding and extracting resources is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive, while also resulting in enormous environmental pressures.

The good news is the existence of sufficient technically and economically feasible efficiency improvements and alternative technologies to meet nearly 30 percent of predicted demand and offset much of the projected growth. Some of these measures are already identified and well understood, such as improving the efficiency of buildings and irrigation – a “resource productivity revolution”. These measures would, however, not be sufficient to alleviate poverty and avoid global warming in excess of the two degrees Centrigrade widely considered the threshold.

To meet these goals, McKinsey outlines an additional level of ambition with respect to clean energy and carbon sequestration.