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In Rotterdam, Shining a Light on the Linked Stresses For Water, Food, and Energy

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The skyline of Rotterdam in a 2007 commemoration of its bombardment in World War II. The port city again is seeking renewal, by lowering its carbon emissions. Photo by Jim Trodel/Flickr, Creative Commons license

Perhaps there’s no better place to see the link between water and energy than in Rotterdam, gateway for much of the oil that enters Europe. The same waters that stoke the city’s economy, daily carrying tankers of crude to the port city’s five large refineries, will threaten the future of the low-lying delta if global warming causes sea levels to rise.

“Water is everything in terms of our city,” Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb told 500 business executives gathered in his city Wednesday at a business forum focused on the linked stresses that the planet faces over water, food, and energy. “Water is our life. Water is our port. Water poses a danger to the city and we need water for industry.”

So Rotterdam, a city that had to rebuild from rubble after its utter destruction in World War II bombing, is looking again at renewal.  Well aware of its status as the city with the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world (Related: “Pictures–Nine Surprisingly Gassy Cities”), Rotterdam has set a goal of lowering its CO2 emissions 50 percent by 2025.

The question for Rotterdam is how to achieve that goal while maintaining a robust port economy that provides 90,000 jobs and 200,000 more jobs indirectly linked to the commerce on the city’s waters. It is the same question that the world faces in a larger sense: how to maintain growth and spur development while addressing the climate change due to fossil fuel emissions, water shortages, and the need to feed a growing population.

But the rift between the developed and developing nations has stalled progress on an international agreement on how to address climate change. And issues of water and food scarcity stir, if anything, more intense conflict among nations. So the focus at the Powering Progress forum in Rotterdam was on smaller, more localized efforts that point the way to solutions.

“I think this is about a bottom-up approach, because the top-down approach–in climate and other areas—has not always worked across national boundaries,” said Peter Voser, chief executive officer of Shell*, which organized the forum. “Through pilot projects, we can start at local levels to influence the policy makers, the regulators, the [non-governmental organizations], by demonstrating that we can do this.”

The city and the business leaders gathered here exchanged ideas on some of the local projects that offer promise for solutions on better stewardship of resources:

  • Rotterdam is embarking on a 100 million euro ($127 million) project to capture the excess heat generated by port industries and transfer via a 26-kilometer (16-mile) pipeline for reuse to heat 50,000 households in the city. The new network is expected to reduce 70,000 to 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year—the equivalent of the emissions of 7 million to 8 million gallons of gasoline.
  • Royal Philips Electronics, the Dutch multinational lighting company, has developed a model for “city farming,” a cultivation concept for growing lettuce using drip irrigation and high-efficiency LED lighting tailored to promote plant growth. “We see the future where you can do urban farming, you can do vertical farming, you can do farming right in the city,” said Frans van Houten, Philips chief executive. “The food is right there, it doesn’t have to be shipped from Australia to the Netherlands, which is very inefficient. Moreover, we don’t waste tons of water. So you can do food produced close to the consumer, with very little energy and waste.”
  • Shell has invested $10 million ($9.9 million U.S.) into building  a waste-water treatment facility in a joint venture with the city of Dawson Creek, British Columbia. The plant will reclaim 4,000 cubic meters (1.1 million gallons) of sewage water daily. This treated sewage water will be used instead of fresh water to supply all the water used by Shell in its nearby hydraulic fracturing operations for natural gas, with excess made available for irrigation, agriculture or other uses. Voser said it is a small pilot project, but, “In my opinion, this could be replicated around the world at the end of the day.”

Are there enough of these hopeful efforts, and could they achieve large enough scale, to address the huge stresses the world faces on water, food, and energy in the years ahead?  Jeremy Oppenheim, who leads the sustainability and resource productivity practice for the consulting firm, McKinsey, considered this question as he outlined for the forum what he called the unprecedented “demand shock” the world faces in the coming years with the rise of 3 billion more middle-class consumers.

“We can talk about the problem, and the fear of change,” he said, “but there is an opportunity for innovation, from the light bulb to the way cities and countries run, on a more closed-loop basis… The opportunity that sits in front of us is to reinvent the world economy over the next 20 to 30 years.”

*Shell is sponsor of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative. National Geographic retains autonomy over content.