The Energy-Water-Food Nexus

The Royal Geographic Society, with IBG (Institute of British Geographers), hosted The Energy-Water-Food Stress Nexus, a continuation of their series of discussions of 21st Century Challenges.


21st Century Challenges aims to promote informed discussion of environmental, social, economic and educational issues that are of global interest and that affect our lives. The talk was held at the Society’s headquarters in South Kensington, London, 12 Dec 2012.


So, what’s a Nexus, you may ask? It simply means a connection, or series of connections, linking two or more things. The world’s energy, water and food systems are tightly interlinked – and the burning question is how will these vital resources cope in the coming decades, along with a growing and more prosperous global population? Take a look at the video below, by brewers SAB Miller, for a quick overview.

The Energy-Water-Food Stress Nexus is considered by many as the most pressing topic that we have, to ensure that we can create sustainable future pathways for growth that are efficient and deal with equity. And, of course, there’s climate change and the challenge of low carbon growth. We should not be looking at each issue individually but considering things in a cross-cutting way.

The discussion was chaired by Professor Judith Rees, President of the Royal Geographical Society, while an expert international panel presented their thoughts.

Professor Kevin Noone, Stockholm Resilience Centre


Kevin Noone is Director of the Swedish Secretariat for Environmental Earth System Sciences (SSEESS) at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, is Professor of Meteorology at the Department of Applied Environmental Science at Stockholm University, and is affiliated with the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Kevin Noone gave some essential background to the challenge, by taking us on a whirlwind tour of world history. Modern humans aren’t that old; we only started to spread worldwide about 60,000 years ago and it was only 9,000 years ago that the world became more stable, when we came out of an ice age. We then started to build huts and villages and subsequent societies have learnt to live within a stable environment.


Fast-forward to 1800. Around that time humans started doing things that began to make changes. Since then we’ve increased Co2 in the atmosphere – influencing climate and the acidity of the sea – we’ve doubled the sulphur and nitrogen that we cycle through the earth system and we use 40% of the ice-free land for human activity. We’re connected on a planetary scale and parts of our activities are powerful enough to move the earth into an unstable state.


Everything is linked. Global System illustration by Glynn Gorick for The International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme

So how can we use the Nexus to look into the future and manage this situation where humans are a fundamental driving force? Take the example of food and we can see how things are inter-related. We rely on both land and sea for food:

  • 80% of the sea is overfished, which leaves us little wiggle room
  • We use a lot of nitrogen fertiliser to farm the land
  • Nitrogen run-off from land causes algal bloom
  • The algae die and dissolve, using the water’s oxygen and disrupting sea-life further
  • We farm fish

We need to produce more food from both sources and must look at the big picture to figure out this ‘system’. Everything’s connected to everything else. We know we can manage complex systems and this is one we can’t afford to fail at.

Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO


IDEO, a global innovation and design firm, addresses emerging themes such as sustainability, the design of communities, health and wellness, and enterprise for people in the world’s lower income groups.

In Tim’s view the issue is about people. People focus too much on immediate needs and don’t think enough about the long-term effects. We configure the world to meet our needs. How can we affect people to create a world where we can encourage more sustainable behaviour?

We currently spend a lot of time trying to regulate behaviour. A creative and humorous example of this features in the urinals at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam. Someone determined that aim, and therefore cleanliness, improve with a target. So all the urinals have a small black fly to focus on. This simple concept helps to keep toilets up to 85% cleaner.


Another example is IDEO’s work for Oxfam GB. Vital to their ability to provide aid is the sale of second-hand items in their stores. The UK government offers tax relief on charitable donations made by UK taxpayers, through a program called Gift Aid. IDEO created the Tag Your Bag concept, offering a simple solution for donors, that’s also easy for staff members. By registering for the Tag Your Bag scheme Oxfam can claim the Gift Aid on goods sold.


Tim referred to the futurist Paul Saffo who talks about 3 economic ages: c19th – the Industrial, c20th – the Consumer ( and now, c21st – the Creator economy. We are entering a time when ordinary people will produce, as well as consume.

Makerbot 3d printing

We’re seeing more examples of collaborative production, partly due to the revolution in manufacturing through 3d printing. It’s not too hard to imagine that in future we won’t have to rely on long distant supply chains to produce things. For example agricultural implements may be manufactured by the local seed store in the village, and we’re already seeing these technologies used to produce implants for the medical industry.

And how do we conserve more and better? We may think that people are largely moved by a great idea, or by hard facts, but another element is the power of social norms in shaping our behaviour. We are consciously, or unconsciously, looking around to see what other people are doing.



Opower, a company promoting Energy Efficiency, have delivered unprecedented energy savings. How? A smiley-face rating system lets customers know where they stand in comparison to similar households and what they need to do; if a household has consumed more energy than its neighbours, it’ll get the report with a sad face.


Cool Biz was started by Japan’s prime minister in 2005, in an effort to convince businessmen to take off their jackets and ties to work and wear cooler more casual clothing. The initiative has helped to reduce electricity consumption by limiting use of air conditioning. Take a look at the video below for more details.

Tim asked the audience to consider two different approaches to the way ahead. If we followed the ways of Isaac Newton we’d create a blueprint. We’d imagine a system and predict the future. But we can’t create a blueprint. We don’t have the information. We need to think more along the lines of Charles Darwin and base our approach on constant evolution. We must recode our behaviour in a way that’s constantly changing to achieve a sustainable future.

Jeremy Bentham, Vice President, Global Business Environment,
Royal Dutch Shell


Jeremy has been in the energy business for over 30 years and joined Shell in 1980. Since 2006 he has been responsible for Shell’s Global Business Environment team, which is best known for developing forward-looking scenarios to support strategic thinking.

Why is a company like Shell focusing on this Nexus and how are they addressing it? Water, food and energy are vital resources for life and they’re not being developed in a comprehensive way. Jeremy asked us to consider cities; they’re the epicentre of where stresses appear. We currently have electricity systems where 40% of electricity is lost in transmission, and a third of food goes to waste. Shell is putting a lot of energy into grappling with these matters and is collaborating to do this.

They have looked at the conditions that impact on the Nexus and came up with 300 issues! There’s so much to deal with, it can seem overwhelming, but these things are important to companies like Shell who are investing in big projects.


These stresses cross traditional industry sectors, so we need fresh forms of collaboration, but this is difficult as the time-frames and focus of various institutes are different. Shell called 10 CEOs to work together on this issue, to find ways to take practical steps on the ground that can create a template for the way forward. They will develop the most promising initiatives, understanding that some may disappoint – but we can’t stay where we are.

For details on how Shell are addressing the Energy-Water-Food challenge see: Addressing the Energy-Water-Food challenge
Shell Dialogues webchat 27 Sep 2012 am
Shell Dialogues webchat 27 Sep 2012 pm
Understanding the Stress Nexus

In conclusion, the panel agreed that the ultimate objective of the Nexus approach is to create a sustainable growth pattern. When asked what the main stumbling blocks are, collaboration was seen as the big challenge. We also need to start with smaller projects and prove that they work. This will convince governments to bring new ideas into the solution. Governments are used to working on big long-term projects.

Tim Brown thinks that the way to break down ‘silos’ is to bring people together from the different silos. When people experience things together they stop thinking of things from their points of view…the problem is that we simply ‘don’t get out enough’.

Tim believes we need to give everyone something to aspire to. We can’t brow-beat and frighten people into making change. We are currently doing a very poor job of communicating. Ordinary people are confused and confounded about what we have to do. The billions of people on the planet who’s behaviour we want to change need to know how to act…the media need lessons on how to communicate these issues.

Also, he said, we must find alternative ways of making ourselves happy – other than through ‘consuming’. (Hear hear!)

For video coverage of The Energy-Water-Food Stress Nexus discussions, including Peter Voser, CEO of Shell, see here.