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Breakdown or breakthrough: currents and turning points in 2022

SEI Currents 2022 taps the institute’s expertise and insights from eight offices on four continents to examine trends emerging in 2022 and beyond. SEI Communications Director and Head of Strategic Policy Engagement Robert Watt introduces the series, which brings together perspectives from around the globe.

Robert Watt / Published on 20 December 2021

Future gazing is a centuries-old human urge. Crystal balls have been owned by fourth-century Merovingian kings and 19th-century Chinese emperors. The 16th-century scryer and mathematician Dr John Dee chose the date of Elizabeth I’s coronation. Governments, militaries and companies are constantly on the lookout for trends, looping their foresight back into planning, infrastructure, and investment.

What does a scientific organization like SEI have to offer by squinting into the future? What is in our crystal ball?

Two features make SEI’s crystal ball unique. The first is perspective. Our foresight is based on insights from eight offices on four continents. When thinking about trends, we start with the local and regional realities of environment and development, communities and decision makers. Second is expertise. SEI has leading experts in a wide range of scientific fields. For more than three decades, it has sought to combine this expertise to provide relevant and practical knowledge.

What of choosing the right currents? These are not bets on the future. They are starting points to debate where and when these currents weave in and out of each other – pulling and pushing, diverting or accelerating – and whether and how we should swim against the current or go with the flow. This is trendspotting and trendsetting.

Our efforts take place at a time of ongoing uncertainty amid a pandemic that continues to upend the lives of individuals and economies of nations and serves as a backdrop to the trends highlighted here.

In the autumn of 2020, I participated in an international survey of think tanks on the Covid-19 pandemic. Respondents were asked whether they thought the economic recovery would be shaped like a V, the Swoosh on a pair of Nike sneakers or a jagged line with unpredictable peaks and troughs. Many of those who predicted a V-shaped recovery whose attention may be focused largely on the developed world may have felt vindicated by mid-2021. No longer. Omicron is evidence that the vaccine policies of 2021 were a temporary success for some, but a bigger failure for all.

As Covid-19 continues to upend our world, the pandemic is a – if not the – major (policy) preoccupation for all countries and communities in 2022. However, disruption and recovery are playing out very differently for the rich and poor. Poverty among the already poor is rising, exacerbating the existing debt trap for the least developed countries and increasing instability in what may already be vulnerable places. Following record-smashing stimulus packages in developed countries, we should begin to see the shoots of the promised green and inclusive recovery in the next 12 months or we may instead detect signs that economic recovery has become an excuse to delay the sustainability agenda.

Reducing vaccine and health inequalities will determine short-term health impacts, medium-term economic prospects and long-term relationships between rich and poor. By all accounts, 2022 is the moment to choose between discrimination and solidarity. As the 2021 United Nations report, Our Common Agenda, noted, “We are at an inflection point in history. In our biggest shared test since the Second World War, humanity faces a stark and urgent choice: a breakdown or a breakthrough.”

SEI Currents 2022 emerges against this backdrop. The trends put forward here are the product of with experts from across SEI and with the feedback of the institute’s Science Advisory Council. These currents reflect a survey of expert opinions, not a quantitative analysis. To each of the currents, I have identified a related turning point. The insights are theirs. Errors of omission or interpretation are mine.

SEI Currents 2022

Current: Moving the climate agenda from promises to accountability

Turning point: A choice between discrimination and solidarity

The dissonance between promises and action grows louder in 2022. Across the world, the call for climate accountability will grow in 2022. The targets will be governments and companies, greenwash and delay. The public, civil society organizations, youth and possibly investors will be driven to call for greater accountability and transparency by the realities of the climate crisis (floods and fires), stark scientific evidence and growing acknowledgement that increased extreme weather events are caused by climate change and the fact that people’s livelihoods and security are threatened. Youth activists will continue to lead the way. The turn to accountability is the only real response to their rallying cry of “no more blah, blah, blah”.

Current: Debating the commodity super-cycle

Turning point: Curb consumption to halt deforestation

In recent years, the prices of many major commodities have increased. Emerging markets are driving a demand in products such as soy, beef and palm oil, while the transition to net-zero emissions is pushing the price of materials, such as copper and lithium, to new highs. Higher demand is increasing competition over what land should be used for: food, minerals, the bioeconomy or construction. At the same time, commitments to halt deforestation or protect biodiversity will limit the land available for production and extraction. Do we dare to challenge the elephant in the room, our consumption, in 2022? Or will we continue to expand land use, causing environmental degradation that damages local communities and indigenous groups?

Current: Ending the threats to environmental defenders

Turning point: Bolstering and acting on protections for human and environmental rights

Consider these numbers: 377. 117. 56. These figures show the grim tallies of environmental defenders who were killed – globally, in Southeast Asia and in Colombia in 2020. Over the last 10 years, there has been a threefold increase in the killing of human rights and environmental defenders. This is matched by a general increase in violence against local communities who are involved in environmental disputes and reflects widening social and environmental injustice, in part brought about by the pressure consumption places on land use. Two-thirds of the human rights defenders who were killed in 2020 worked with environmental and land rights. One-third belonged to indigenous groups. It must no longer be the case that protecting ecosystems and natural resources places lives in danger. Environmental defenders should not be the only enforcers of environmental integrity. How and when will this get on the political agenda in 2022?

Current: Deploying net-zero technology at warp speed

Turning point: Achieving new scale while meeting social responsibilities

Deployment of technology at scale is putting policy and politics to the test. We are moving from small pilot projects to huge commercial operations that are accompanied by trade-offs, such as those for land use, and facing big economic questions, including the huge upfront costs for new and upgraded infrastructure.

Policy will need to play an enabling role in the net-zero transition. It will also need to arbitrate. Regulating and collaborating with the private sector to achieve the necessary scale at the necessary speed is imperative. This will put a strain on permitting processes and environmental assessments and require policymakers and companies to work out how to get to scale without losing their social license.

Current: Redefining climate finance and justice

Turning point: Moving from poverty aid to reparations for harm

A new emphasis on the premise that developing countries should receive compensation for the climate change-related losses and damages they already face  has the potential to redefine climate justice and the role of climate finance. What does historical responsibility for climate change mean for developed countries? Does the loss and damage concept set the stage for thinking about reparations for harm inflicted rather than aid to those in need?

The loss and damage concept represents a striking shift: from viewing climate finance as a form of aid to the poor to a moral obligation for restitution.

Current: Making a just transition from fossil fuels to a new economy

Turning point: Acting on a new vision for more resilient economies

The economies of countries and regions that have long relied on extracting fossil fuels face a turning point. The success of the industries that power the new economies will depend on creating more resilient economies that can better manage social risks and environmental concerns that has largely been the case with extractive industries from the fossil fuel era. Governments must tap the opportunities of the coming energy transition and address concerns about new extractive industries. Early in the pandemic, plummeting demand and prices of fossil fuels gave these regions a glimpse of the painful impact that the energy transition will hold if they do not prepare. They must push through this inevitable transition to create a vision for a different kind of economy, one based on sustainable low-carbon pathways that carefully manages new environmental and social risks.

Current: Climate change is amplifying the risks for violent conflicts in Africa

Turning point: Incorporating climate change into the continent’s development, peacekeeping, reconstruction and recovery efforts

Two months ago, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council issued a document that underscored the threat of climate change for the continent’s future peace and security. Climate change is leading to greater food and water insecurity, the loss of livelihoods, growing water scarcity, and more climate-linked human displacements. Growing competition over natural resources will likely increase tensions on a continent that is experiencing some of the world’s most protracted conflicts. There is a real risk that climate change could exacerbate violent conflict in Africa. As the world’s attention turns to the next UN climate conference (COP27), which will be held in Africa, with Egypt as the host, the focus in 2022 should therefore be on recovery efforts that strengthen resilience and adaptation.

Written by

Robert Watt
Robert Watt

Engagement Director

SEI Headquarters

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