My first real speech for SABMiller was at an event in Dublin last week hosted by the think-tank IIEA (Institute of International and European Affairs). Despite having only been with the company for four months, the material – the food-energy-water nexus – was familiar; it was the focus of a SABMiller/Guardian series of online debates in which I participated while still in my previous role at WWF. The resource nexus is a huge concern for SABMiller: How can we brew more beer using less water, less energy, and in a way that strengthens agriculture and food security?
Also familiar were the headlines from the first speech – words I would have been happy to have written in my days as an environmental campaigner – which came from Karl Falkenberg, Director General at DG Environment in the European Commission. Karl spoke about how the terms of the debate had changed compared to 5 years ago, when 80% of the “environment” debate was climate and energy policy. He welcomed the inclusion of water and food as new core themes, but also questioned the lack of biodiversity in the nexus debates. He spoke of the circular economy, and introduced a Commission report, “Living well, within the limits of our planet”. My old friends at WWF would be pleased.
I had the opportunity to respond to Karl, giving practical examples of how nexus trade-offs can be tackled. I framed this in the light of the “tragedy of the commons” – the old story, almost a parable now, of common land on which everyone can graze sheep. Even though everyone wants to uphold the land’s fertility, it is in each individual’s interests to bring more sheep, and so eventually the land is ruined for everyone.
The point I was making was that this is not inevitable. From Colombia to Zambia, SABMiller is convening projects to manage shared resources, such as water, in ways that demonstrate we are not doomed to repeat the tragedy of the commons. As a company, we share the same need for good quality, consistent supplies of drinking water as our neighbours – whether they are communities, farmers or other businesses. If we all compete to control and monopolise the water, it will rapidly degrade and run out. The same is true of other natural resources. However, it is within our power to develop collaborative solutions by which we all save water and contribute to managing the river basins in ways that secure the water supply for future generations. Good for our business, good for communities, good for the planet.