Geopolitical Aftershock: Climate Change and Commodities

Food security and the dangers of a hungry population are a major global risk and geopolitical flashpoint. Corn, rice, soy, coffee, copper, iron, nickel, crude oil, natural gas and propane are just a few of commodities traded in huge Supertanker sizes quantities across the world.

Commodity trading is worth billions a year and is a cornerstone of the global economy, the glue that connects farmers, miners to merchants, industrialists and refiners to consumers.

However, a sobering new report by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission highlighted the fact that financial markets are not recognising the risk that climate change poses to commodity trading. These risks could plunge commodity markets into chaos even if they are recognised.

Millions of people already suffer from food poverty and insecurity in India, Africa and Latin America, but even in the wealthy United States around 10 percent of households suffered food insecurity last year as the country experienced a sharp pandemic sparked recession.

Climate change over the next couple of decades will dry rivers, disrupt traditional weather and weather patterns such as monsoons. A warmer world means more wild fires, drought and sea level rise which will destroy coastal farmland and river deltas.

All this spells bad news for agriculture, climate change will decimate crop yields across the world while population is still predicted to be growing.

The FAO expects the global population to rise by 2 billion and food demand to grow by 60 percent by 2050. But by 2050 without drastic action catastrophic climate change will be ravaging agriculture.  

For example India, Vietnam and Thailand are the world’s premier rice exporters, a major drought in two or three of these places would see a major global rise in the price of rice.

As these effects take hold over the next decade and the realisation that agricultural produce is less secure, there will be a concerted effort to monitor and protect food sources so exports do not mean local people starve.

Food Nationalism

Food nationalism will take hold across the world as populations demand government’s prioritise local food chains. During the pandemic a number of countries put exports controls in place to ensure their own people got fed first. Export clampdown will in turn create further prices swings.

There are many ways which humans will combat these problems, many innovative solutions exist including:

  • Vertical farms growing crops inside away from the vagaries of weather, such Danish venture Nordic Harvest.
  • Growing more climate resilient crops which are better able to withstand heat and drought.
  • Farming and agricultural production could also be boosted through improved technology or by utilising more farmland

However these measures are unlikely to stop the full force of climate change, some crops such as rice and wheat cannot be grown at scale indoors and there is limit to resilience measures and how far crops can be adapted.  

Insecticides and pesticides are already decimating insect populations across the world and much of the world’s land is already severely degraded. Given so much land has already been put under the plough there is a limit to how much more can used.

The trade in metals and minerals are not immune to climate risks. It might appear that mining would be unaffected by climate change, but droughts, extreme weather and extreme heat could all make certain mining operations much more difficult. Mines that rely on regular water supplies could see those dry to a trickle.

Global Supply Chains

Global supply chains which bring these metals from deep inside the earth to be processed and sent onto to manufacturing plants in an intricate series of steps will be under more threat than ever before. Extreme weather events, flooding, greater incidence of disease and growing geopolitical tensions are just a few of the factors which those governing supply chains will be concerned about.

In geopolitical terms fluctuating commodity markets will create major price fluctuations and supply problems will push suppliers to look for more stable sources of commodities.

Crops and agricultural produce will be sourced from new more climatically suitable areas. So the South of England could become a major wine growing region while the Spain and Italy suffer as their crops suffer in excess heat. Innovative companies like Nordic Harvest could be big winners as the world turns to innovate climate friendly solutions.

Coffee Shortages

Countries most exposed to climate change – South Asia and Africa will suffer most acutely will also see the commodities such as coffee, chocolate, rice are likely to be hit hard.  Coffee the drink which powers people’s mornings in every corner of the world is a US$ 70 billion a year industry. Now warmer temperatures are encouraging the fungal diseases which are destroying crops.

Changes in rainfall patterns are also costing coffee growers, too much rain can make the fungal infections worse, too little and the crop will not grow. Adaptation is hard because of the unpredictability of rainfall and heat, if you invest in a drought resistant crop but then experience excessive rainfall and widespread fungal growth any resilience measures will be unhelpful. Right now customers are not feeling any change, but in time they could see prices rises and many varieties wiped out.

Instability and the effect of climate on commodities has not been priced in by global markets which means any correction could be painful and expensive. Investors are increasingly turning to risks assessment like the Task Force for Climate Related Climate Disclosures which attempt to measures a company’s climate risk exposure.

Commodity trader and suppliers will have to pay close attention to climate risks as they disrupt global markets over the next decades.

Global Risks, Local Risks: The Toxic Legacy of Rare Earth Metals

Below I look at how the mining and extraction of rare earth metals creates environmental, social and geopolitical risks.

Deep in the remote western province of Inner Mongolia a vast dark lake is fed by a black toxic sludge trickling from metal pipes. Metal towers rising from countless refineries and coal power stations puncture the grey sky. From the towers sulphur, diesel, and solvent fumes rise and mix in the air to create a noxious toxic soup, all inhaled by Baotou’s two and half million residents. Nearly all of Baotou’s population settled there in the last twenty years, lured by a modern day gold rush.

Baotou and its surrounding mines is the fountainhead of a global supply chain which provides the crucial components of the modern world’s essential technology.

Rare earth metals are in fact found in relative abundance in the earth. The “rare” comes from the difficultly in chemically extracting them from other metals which they are clumped together with. This often involves dissolving them in the likes of sulphuric and nitric acid The byproduct of this is large amounts of toxic waste that have made cities like Baotou and others a public health hazard.

Rare earth metals occupy the lower reaches of the periodic table and includes the likes of lanthanum, cerium, scandium, terbium. Apart from the periodic table earth metals are connected by their importance in modern manufacturing.

Rare earth metals have properties such as magnetism, heat resistance and phosphorescence which make them indispensable for certain applications. Rare earth metals are crucial for smart phones, wind turbines, electric batteries, laptops and many modern defence applications.

Rare Earth Metal Geopolitics

Because China controls around 80% of the global supply of rare earth metals there is a strong geopolitical undercurrent involved in mining them. China hosts the majority of the world’s extraction facilities which appear to give it effective control of the global market. However, the 80 percent figures can be deceptive as this means the supply of processed metals.

China does not control 80 percent the world’s deposits. Other countries such as Australia, Myanmar, Russia, Greenland and many others have large reserves of rare metals.

China could if it chose order the halt of rare earth metal exports which would cause the buyers major supply problems. China strongly encouraged the development of rare earth metal mining and processing, its relative lack of environmental controls and cheap labour force put much of the rest of the world out of business.

Mining rare earth metals raises a wide range of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues and digging for rare earth metals are no different.

ESG Risk

Environmentally: the process of extraction is extremely costly unless it is done with no regard for the environment. Mining in China has left huge scars in the landscape and a legacy of dangerous ammonia and nitrate compounds along with many other dangerous chemicals in the ground.

Mining rare earth metals can also leave dangerous metals like lead and cadmium, other mines have been dug near uranium deposits. All this exposes miners and those living nearby to major health impacts, skin cancer and respiratory issues.

Socially: mining can have a profound impact local communities. Mining and the refining process can destroy landscapes and even uproot communities thanks to the setting up of the mine and the waste products created by refineries. Once land is identified as holding valuable metals or minerals it becomes much more valuable and without protections there is a risk that miners will steal or contaminate the land and drive indigenous people away.

Governance: the promise of mineral riches can distort local politics and create the temptation for illegal or unregulated mining. Illegal mining is unregulated so the chances it will cause pollution and environmental destruction are much higher.

For example the remote Kachin province in Myanmar has been the scene of a long running battle between the Government and local groups.

Can China’s Rare Earth Dominance be challenged?

While China has the lion’s share of processing capacity, other nations are looking to increase their capacity. Hull in the UK has been discussed as a potential new site of a new plant and the EU is looking to set up a raw materials alliance to ensure the sustainable supply and processing of rare earth metals.

If China moves to stop the export of rare earth metals other countries could rely on their stockpiles until new plants and supply chains could be created. The US and China have tiptoed around the issue of rare metals, leaving them aside in the trade war which has simmered over the Trump years.

Texan firm Blue Line announced in 2019 they would be working with an Australian firm to set up a new independent manufacturing centre. The Pentagon is funding MP Materials to reopen the Mountain Pass site in the US where it will mine for rare earth metals.

Western nations are clearly concerned about the heavy reliance on China as a provider. Rare earth metals represent an easily broken supply chain and while there are short term fixes, avoiding reliance on a geopolitical rival makes sense.

Australian firm Greenland minerals acquired control of the controversial Kvanefeld Project from Chinese investors. Kvanfeld looks set to be a major rare earth metal project in Southern Greenland.

The mine has faced major local opposition, but the government have given the green light to a public consultation period ending in March 2021. Supporters of the project claim it will bring jobs to a depressed area but detractors point to the prospect of environmental despoliation.

Russia also plans to ramp up its rare earth sector. It is estimated the country holds around 10 percent of global reserves but has a list of 11 potential projects which could make Russia self-sufficient and eventually an exporter of rare earth metals.

Recycling Solution

The long-term solution to the dangers of mining and extracting rare earth will come through recycling them from old equipment. Unfortunately, rare earth metals are often found in consumer goods such as phones and computers which are thrown away with alarming regularity but rarely recycled often because people are unaware or unable to do so.

There is probably more hope in recycling rare earth metals from industrial uses such as wind turbines. Increasing the cost of extracting the metals in the first place through tougher environmental protections will also raise incentives to recycle.

The A – Z of Global Risk

All companies and organisations face a host of risks that threaten their strategy, staff, profits and supply chains. Some risks are internal such as talent management (strikes, high turnover), others are external such as market and macro economic risks.

Below is a guide to the global risks and the tools such as business continuity which can manage these issues. Some of the risks be relevant for all organisations, while others will have just a narrow impact.

Belt and Road Initiative

China’s Belt and Road Initiative has been the most significant foreign policy initiative of the last decade. There have been countless reports, articles and books all trying to track, analyse and define the true meaning of the Belt and Road and what it means for the world.

The Belt and Road Initiative is intentionally flexible and vague allowing China to adapt it to different circumstances.

China has signed numerous Belt and Road agreements with countries which demonstrate alignment with Beijing.

But in reality the term has become shorthand for China’s overseas trade and investment and in particular the way in which Beijing uses its commercial might as a foreign policy tool.

Many countries have remained wary of China’s motives and have avoided signing any Belt and Road agreements. The US has made a point of avoiding the initiative but most remains China’s biggest investment target and its largest trade partner. India and many European countries have also resisted signing the Belt and Road agreement fearing it signals a close alignment with Beijing.

China (like other countries) uses investment as a tool the threat of cutting trade ties and the promise of increased investment to create compliance with other countries.

Australia has become a major exporter of coal, natural gas as well as agri-produce such as wine and barley to China. When Beijing started placing tariffs on these goods and starts a trade war it forces Australia to sit up and listen as well create risks for companies on both sides.

China accounts for around a third of Australia’s exports making it heavily reliant on its giant northern neighbour. Other countries such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan have taken on large debt burdens to build infrastructure which places them at China’s favour. The initiative is the ideal way for Chinese firms to expand overseas under the watchful eye of the government.

The Belt and Road has also been a major source of investment, particularly in infrastructure, power plants, road, rail, ports and pipelines helping to fill a huge gap in infrastructure.

For example the China Pakistan Economic Corridor CPEC has helped direct a reported USD 40 billion Chinese investment into roads, power plants and ports in Pakistan. However critics point out that through this lending Pakistan is becoming dependent on China.

Biodiversity

The rapid and catastrophic loss of the world’s wildlife over the last decades is a direct threat to humans. Thanks to habit destruction, pollution, overfishing, hunting and climate change many species have been wiped out or are close to the edge of extinction.

While the threat to large charismatic animals such as tigers, rhino’s and pandas receive headlines the mass loss of billions of insects is just a serious.

If crops are not pollinated by insects it will leave vast swathes of land unusable for agriculture. This combined with the impacts of climate change means the consequences for humans are dire.

The corporate sector is starting to consider biodiversity risk. Recent global conferences have looked at how to measure biodiversity risk. The global move to incorporate environmental and social indicators in the corporate sector will  help organisations identify where biodiversity losses can be prevented.

However much of the damage and destruction of the natural world is linked to a relatively small number of firms involved in deforestation, illegal fishing and other destructive practices.

Business Resilience

Resilience has become a major buzzword in recent years. In a business context it means the ability of a business to survive and adapt to shocks, crisis and disasters. Resilient companies can cope with extreme change and internal and external shocks.

The key to a resilience is often described as preparedness for crisis, agility in strategic and tactical decisions as well as strong communications within key internal teams.

A truly resilient organisation can both adapt and thrive in seemingly hostile environments. Building resilient organisations is important but often difficult to measure until the resilience is tested.

Business Continuity

Business continuity is the plan and preparations in place for a disaster befalling an organisation. Planning for disaster can include provision of alternative IT facilities, office building and deciding on key staff to ensure the business can survive any set backs. Plans and preparation need to be tested through scenario planning and exercise.

Business Intelligence

Business intelligence concerns itself with gathering information either covertly or overtly on the strategies, condition and changes of business operations. Business intelligence is usually divided into data gathering, data storage and knowledge management.

When using business intelligence the ability to collect and act on information is critical. Perhaps the most valuable business intelligence is exclusive or prior information about the activities of competitors can provide an important edge over those rivals.

Climate Risk

Climate risk has only recently become recognised as a global risk. Climate risk can be divided into two main areas:

Physical risk is how the changing climate will wreak havoc on organisations across the globe. Rising sea levels, more frequent and deadly natural disasters, widespread crop failures, flooding and heatwaves will all disrupt and, in some cases, devastate cities, agriculture and society.

Cities sinking into the sea, whole regions drying up and experiencing mass crop failure and infrastructure failing due to excess heat. The corporate world is only belatedly recognising this reality and is taking measures to measure the risk through initiatives like the Task Force for Climate Related Financial Disclosures which attempts to measure climate risk in financial portfolios.

Transition risk means that policies and trends such as carbon taxes, emissions targets, legislation to decarbonise the economy will impact organisations. Increasing concern about climate change could see governments introduce punitive carbon taxes which make industries like coal mining financial unsustainable. Another example is the possibility of air travel becoming socially unacceptable as concerns about climate change rise.

Above all climate risk is a threat multiplier. Natural disasters, crop failures and flooding are not new. Neither are new laws and taxes impacting organisations. Climate change just makes all these things more frequent and with greater effect.

Climate Geopolitics

Climate change is leaving its mark on the world through increased natural disasters, rising sea levels and a collapse in crop yields. The fundamental changes that climate change represent will shift global power balances.

The shift away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy will reduce the power of oil and gas giants like Saudi Arabia toward renewable energy producers. The worst effects of climate change are predicted to hit South Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Collapsing freshwater supplies, extreme weather and failing crops will create hostile environment in many parts of the world which will be impossible to develop resilience against. The result will be economic collapse, an angry populace and severely weakened state capacity.

It is difficult to predict accurately how climate breakdown will impact global geopolitics, but it could spark a wave of conflict as states blame one another for the effects of climate change and huge levels of migration create tensions between states.

Conflict Risk

War is as old as civilisation but in the modern world conflict has entered into new domains. Guns, tanks and planes have been joined by cyber, hybrid conflict and drone warfare. New theatres such as the Arctic, social media or even outer space have become a reality.

Conflict creates massive risk, cost and uncertainty for businesses. Operating in warzones is undesirable as it puts lives and assets at great risk as well as destabilising countries making them on

The onset of conflict may be good for some firms such as weapons manufacturers, but for the most part war and conflict create huge burdens on economies which rarely benefit business. The spectre of conflict in places like Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Palestine has repelled all but the most intrepid investors. Often only mining, NGOs, oil/gas plus fast-moving consumer goods are the only firms that will operate in such tough conditions.

However, there are rewards for those brave enough to invest in post-conflict or fragile states. Often these places will have been isolated from competition and ready to enjoy a post-conflict boom. Unfortunately, many post-conflict countries see war return after enjoying peace.

Cyber Risk

The world is becoming more connected. Internet usage grows each year as more people go online, particularly in developing countries. Increasingly the internet is connecting more to physical things, everything from cars to toasters to infrastructure.

Online crime is overtaking physical crime because of the anonymity afforded online. Criminals can easily hide their tracks, send phishing emails and start social engineering scams from the safety of another country.

All of this creates a huge risk to organisations who are dependent on the internet to sustain their business. A devastating cyber attack can destroy reputations, cost millions and at worst leave organisations without critical IT systems for extended periods.

Countries around the world have eagerly taken up the chance to use cyber war as a way to spy, attack and disrupt their enemies. A shadow war where it is unclear who could be attacking and where the attacks will land.

Corporate Espionage

Espionage is usually associated with stealing military or state secrets, but sensitive commercial information can be just as valuable. The theft of technology, knowledge of a rival’s strategy or theft of their intellectual property, or even sabotage of their assets can all provide a competitive advantage. Espionage can spill into the geopolitical sphere via companies as very often countries and corporations work in tandem to collect information that will help state and corporate sector.

The biggest data leak in history was discovered at Marriott Hotels in 2017 where over 8 million records had been leaked over 8 years. Despite all the credit card information that had been stolen, there were no recorded financial losses. Why? Because a state intelligence agency was behind the data leak. The movements, meetings and spending of politicians, diplomats and high profile businessmen is of enormous interest to intelligence agencies, this kind of knowledge can be leveraged for commercial gain.

Organisations need to have strong information security controls and if they are in a particularly sensitive industry counter-intelligence measures to ensure they do not fall victim to corporate espionage.

Crisis Management

When threats emerge rapidly and risks unfold in a rapid unpredictable manner we call this a crisis. When it happens to organisations, they need to be ready to react. Crisis management is the discipline that prepare organisations for any emergency. A well-prepared team with strong communication skills drawn from the key parts of an organisation the first step. Those that fail to prepare face the potential for chaos and unpredictable.  

Establishing plans, processes and protocols is the next step. While plans are rarely used in a crisis -the act of preparing and writing a plan is ideal preparation.

As Dwight Eisenhower said: “Plans are worthless, but planning is essential”

The next step is testing plans through scenarios or desktop exercises will help cement the team and test the effectiveness of the plans. Lastly it is important to remember that a crisis is by its nature highly volatile. Flexibility is key when creating plans and teams. Rather than plan for specific events make sure they are generic and able to deal with any crisis.

Disaster Risk

Natural Disasters are a major risk for organisations and people across the globe. Typhoons, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanos, landslides and others kill thousands of people, destroy homes and businesses and disrupt lives across the globe. Much of the world has become better had predicting and preparing for disasters.

Early warning systems, resilient earthquake buildings, mass communication systems and rapid relief responses can all alleviate the worst impact. Countries can rebuild infrastructure with increasing speed.

Climate change is creating more frequent and more deadly disasters which even the most advanced and resilient countries will struggle to handle. The California forest fires are a good example of a natural disaster overwhelming an area making it difficult to recover and seeing widespread damage and destruction.

Due Diligence

Due diligence is a process used by bankers, accountants and lawyers when considering a take over, merger or investment in another company. Due diligence but can easily applied to political risk situations. Any investment into a new country or new business or entry into a new sector is accompanied by due diligence.

Due diligence is looking under covers to look for any problems the company or investment target may be hiding. This could be bad loans, hidden legal problems or risky assets. Due diligence should also shed light on the future prospects of the company and how well it will fit with the acquiring firm.

Economic Risk

Financial crisis, currency, economic collapse, hyperinflation can devastate countries, spread globally and ruin companies. Emerging economies are particularly susceptible to financial risk, but the great recession of 2008 demonstrated that financial crisis can hit developed economies.

Organisations that want to protect themselves against global risk must consider their exposure to emerging economies, currency risks, inflation, interest rate changes and a host of other indicators which are typically complied by economists.

Emerging Markets

Emerging markets are countries which are experiening the shift towards a developed economy. Typically they are experiencing industrialisation and characteristics of developed markets. They usually enjoy growth potential but high volatility in terms of markets and currency fluctuations. Turkey, Russia, South Africa and Brazil are all examples of emerging markets.

For investors they represent risk but also reward as returns on investment will often be higher in these countries. There is an index of emerging markets MSCI but a good rule is that if politics is more important than economics when making an investment decision then its an emerging market.

Investing in emerging markets is not done likely a thorough understanding of the political and economic landscape as well as the market analysis. Companies are attracted to these markets for as they can often experience high economic growth and offer untapped markets. In recent years frontier markets have emerged as term for countries even more risky than emerging markets.

Emerging Risks

Emerging risks are those on trends, threats and even opportunities which are not yet fully understood or known. Typically, these can be threats which are recognised but not acted upon. In a different category are Black swans which are threats which can not be foreseen.

Gray rhinos is another term used for risks that are recognised but have been overlooked and little action has gone into mitigating against them. Organisations often miss out emerging risks and opportunities as they lack the flexibility to recognise

Energy Risk

Energy is a critical element in the global modern economy. Nearly every activity and economic activity depend on easy to access energy. Countries without widespread access to electricity remain underdeveloped. The widespread use of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas has powered modern economies, but at a heavy price in terms of climate change and pollution.

The adoption of oil and gas in particular created a new dynamic in global politics – handing massive power to oil producing countries, especially Saudi Arabia which the world relied upon for cheap energy.

The world remains reliant on fossil fuels and although some countries like the USA have become energy independent, others like China remain heavily dependent on imports. This dependency is a major issue for many countries costing them a great deal of money but also political capital.

The emergence of cheap clean energy such as solar and wind power has started to change the balance. Countries such as Morocco, Costa Rica and Germany have adopted renewable energy on a massive scale, reducing expensive imports and reducing carbon emissions. The success of these schemes sets a template for other countries.

However fossil fuels remain cheap and easily available and much of the world’s energy infrastructure, including subsidies and tax breaks, is based around them making change difficult. Fossil fuel firms have powerful political backing – making lobbying governments. As a result oil, gas and coal infrastructure continues to be developed and financed.

Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) Risk

Organisations are becoming more aware of their impact on the environment, whether that is through reducing to waste, carbon emissions or reducing the damage caused by infrastructure developments. Investors, employees and customers are looking more to companies they perceive as ethical and shunning those with poor track records of dealing with environmental and social issues.

Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) focused investing is focused on avoiding harmful activities such as polluting (like oil and gas firms) or unhealthy things such as tobacco. Other firms like Leapfrog have gone further and have promise to make impact investments which make a positive impact on society (reducing carbon emission, expanding education, increasing financial access to the poor etc). Investors are increasingly keen to make sure their actions are “doing good” and.

This has created a vast and ever-growing market of ESG friendly financial products such as green ETFs (exchange traded funds) or Green bonds which promise demanding that firms are ESG friendly or compliant.

As the sector grows risks increase. Who determines what counts as ESG friendly way. How do we know if companies are in fact acting in an environmentally and socially manner. The EU took a major step in trying to standardize the sector by publishing a taxonomy of sustainable finance which allows firms to categorise their economic activities and how they will affect carbon emissions.

As ESG investments grow in popularity so will the risk inherent in this sector.

Fragile States

Fragile or conflict states are characterised by conflict, instability, and poor economic performance. Countries like Somalia, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Myanmar are examples of fragile states. These countries often lack strong institutions, are prone to corruption and are generally avoided by international investors.

However fragile states can offer superior returns in a high risk environment. Fragile states often hold valuable mineral or metal sources, luxuries and fast growing albeit volatile economies.

Frontier Markets

Frontier markets are those countries which are enjoying economic growth and prospects but are also characterised by instability, reliance on a specific sector and with small undeveloped stock exchanges. Frontier markets are generally open to foreign investment. Frontier markets offer opportunities to investing firms but also present more risk than emerging markets.

Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Kuwait, Kazakhstan and Nigeria are all typical frontier markets. As these countries become more stable and their economies become more diverse they may become emerging markets.

Geoeconomics

Geoeconomics is when countries use trade and investment and commerce to further their strategic goals. This can be seen clearly in the Belt and Road Initiative where China is using Chinese firms to invest overseas which will help bind these target countries to China’s foreign policy objectives.

Chinese investment in Africa has meant many countries on the continent giving Beijing diplomatic support. Pakistan has become a major Chinese ally. In part thanks the China Pakistan Economic Corridor which has led to massive investment by Chinese firms in Pakistan. In return Pakistan is “an all weather ally” particularly in relation to India which China views as a threat.

The US has used trade sanctions on the likes of Iran and North Korea to push those countries into submission. Sanctions can suppress economies, but they also create resistance and pushback from those receiving them, so are less successful in removing governments.

Geopolitics

Geopolitics is the study of how geography effects politics. Geopolitics connects global power to geography. Natural resources, rivers, mountains, seas and lakes as well as climate and demographics can all contribute to, or take away from political power. Geopolitics is largely interchangeable with international relations and takes into account trade, economics as well the alliances and organisations such as the WTO and UN that bind the world’s nations.

Understanding geopolitics is critical to understanding global risk. So many global risks from climate change, pandemics to more obvious threats such as war and terrorism are shaped by geopolitical forces. Organisations and companies regularly lose money, reputation  and access to markets thanks to a poor understanding of geopolitical risk.

Many western companies were hit by the trade war which erupted between the US and China over the Trump administration but the growing tensions were apparent even before Trump was elected.

The last few years have seen many prominent leaders such as Bolsanaro and Trump rise to power with an anti-globalist, nationalist agenda. Many people feel that the benefits of globalization have not reached them and their fears have often been stoked by a wave of fake news made possible by social media platforms.

The next decade is likely to see a more multipolar world as China, India, the EU and other countries become more prominent. At the same time it is not clear whether the unfolding climate crisis could push countries to cooperate or drive them apart.

Global Governance

Global governance is the ability to manage cross border or international affairs, this can mean climate change, a pandemic, wars and terrorism. The world has become more interdependent and a host of organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation and United Nations has risen to help manage global affairs. Global agreements such as the Paris accord for limiting carbon emissions are example of co-operation to create a global public good – namely a low carbon low and reducing the damage from climate change.

Some argue that the current model of the nation state is unravelling because they are unable to control global market forces, nor deal effectively with global crisis like climate change. Instead they are reliant on multinational corporations to provide jobs while non state actors have become more powerful. Above all nation states are increasingly unable to provide economic security for their citizens.

Some states are looking to increase cooperation to overcome this, the EU is the perfect example of this. When 27 states band together, they can collectively bargain on trade and standards and maintain a powerful global force. Others like the UK which decided to leave the EU view the best option for the state is to reduce regulation and attract inward investment to ensure prosperity.

Gray Rhinos

Gray rhinos are highly probable, high impact event but neglected risk. Scientists have been warning about the risk of a major pandemic for many years. But because in particular western countries have not experienced anything like Coronavirus for over hundred years the risk was widely ignored.

As a result many countries were unprepared, this stands in sharp contrast to many East Asian countries like Vietnam and Taiwan who had experienced more recent outbreaks of SARs. As a result they were fare better prepared when Coronavirus arrived.

Human Rights Risk

Human rights are a contested field. Attempts to apply universal human rights have been resisted by authoritarian governments as well as those who believe them to be Eurocentric. Despite this resistance to human rights they remain a popular principle across the globe.

Many organisations that become involved in human rights abuse face a backlash from the public. Countries that routinely ignore human rights such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran face a massive reputational problem. While they may try and overcome this through careful public relations campaigns the fact remains that these governments are not trusted.

Human rights risk has impacted companies such as Volkswagen, Disney and McKinsey. These have all faced negative publicity from the fact they that operate in Xinjiang region of China which is home to mass internment camps.  The local Uyghur population have separatist sympathies and are often forced into these centres for “re-education” which allegedly involves forced labour.

Horizon Scanning

Horizon scanning is an exercise at looking at up coming threats and opportunities. Trends, threats, changes and prospects which have appeared but are not yet impacting the organisation. Ideally the organisation will be prewarned and more prepared for the threats that do occur and more able to take advantages of new opportunities that arise. In many cases these threats or opportunities will not arise

For example the prospect of enhanced artificial intelligence has been in the news for the last few years. Horizon scanning would examine how the application of artificial intelligence could help or hinder the organisation, highlighting how the topic should be explored.

International Investment

International investment has soared over the last decades as firms grow and view overseas expansion as a means to grow further. Barriers to entry around foreign investment have also fallen around the world as countries compete to attract new firms bringing the prospect of jobs and prosperity. However there are sings that this tide is turning, with nationalism and protectionism on the rise, global investment could be much more challenging in the future.

China is the biggest market to open in the recent decades – welcoming foreign companies to a previously closed economy, other formerly Communist countries such as Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Laos have followed suit.

Chinese firms have also started investing in every corner of the globe. At first in raw materials but later diversifying into every imaginable sector, including infrastructure, media, manufacturing and agriculture.

Cross border investment is highly desirable, but also poses major risks to any firm. Expanding into another country leaves creates new political, legal, geopolitical and reputational risks. Any overseas expansion needs to be carefully considered and planned considering all the potential risks.

For example firms that have invested in Russia or China were hit hard by the geopolitical forces that lead to US and EU imposed sanctions and a US led trade war.

Migration

Migration is a global phenomenon. Millions of people every year move across borders. In 2019 there were an estimated 272 million migrants, or 3.4% of the world’s population. People move for many reasons, to escape their environment thanks to lack of economic opportunities, disasters or to avoid persecution. Recent large scale migration includes the exodus of Syrians to neighbouring countries to flee the civil war. The plight of Rohingya people leaving Myanmar for Bangladesh to avoid persecution as well as the steady movement of sub Saharan Africans towards Europe in search of better prospects.

Migration is often political unpopular, countries that host migrants often see the public and politicians blame them for crime and being a burden on the state. In fact migration can very often bring economic benefits to the host country such as a bigger work force and new entrepreneurial energy.

However large scale migration is a risk because of the dangers involved for many people, the huge costs incurred by host nations which are often not that wealthy (the biggest refugee host nations are Pakistan, Turkey and Lebanon) to attempt to house and feed so many people.

Multinational Alliances & Institutions

International Alliances, multilateral institutions and cross border associations are key to managing issues in the modern world. They have multiplied since the end of the second world war creating a complex web which defines the world’s diplomatic, financial and military architecture.

The European Union, United Nations, African Union, International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank are just a few of these institutions. Many view these institutions as evidence of a cooperative world and of the strong growing bonds between countries. Others see them as a threat to sovereignty or useless talking shops that waste money and achieve little.

In recent years these criticisms have been encouraged by a rising tide of nationalism. Alliances such as the EU have suffered as a member (the UK) leaves, while others such as NATO have been criticised for lacking relevance in the modern world. Despite criticisms these alliances are here to stay and look set to be joined by new institutions such as the Chinese led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) which symbolises China’s growing global role.

Natural Resources

Natures resources are unfairly distributed. Supplies of minerals, metals, food and fuel have no respect for national border. The demand for these resources can This distribution can encourage trade or conflict – decisions driven by political choices.

The battle for the world’s fish is another example EU states battle (peacefully) over fishing rights. North Korean boats intrude into Russian and South Korean waters in search of fish.

Rare earth metals are a group of 17 metals used in the manufacture of batteries, smart phones, jet engines and wind turbines. They are crucial to the modern defense industry and China controls as much as 90 percent of the world’s supply of these metals. If China decided to restrict the export of these hard to mine metals it would cause chaos in certain manufacturing sectors.

Political Risk

Geopolitical and political risk overlap – both mean the risk of negative outcomes as the result of political change or instability. Political risk has more of a focus on a particular country, so a change in government in Indonesia may result in a less favourable investment climate which turn will impact on an organisation’s decision to expand in that country.

Geopolitical risk has a more cross border, international element, considering scenarios such as weaker international alliances resulting in growing international instability. Monitoring and understanding how political risk can impact an organisation is critical to protecting it. Failure to understand changes in political risk can hit firms hard.

For decades Australian firms grew rich off ever growing demand from China. But the last few years have revealed growing political tensions between the two countries which exploded into a trade war. Ideally this would have been the time to try and diversify away from dependence on China.

In 2020 China hit Australia with a series of sanctions official and unofficial. Beijing hit Australian barley with 80 percent tariffs and ordered power plants to stop buying coal. Wine and many other goods are likely to see tariffs imposed in 2021 unless Australia changes policy to become more China friendly – allowing Huawei to invest in its telecoms infrastructure and loosening ties with the US.

Technological Competition

Tech companies have taken centre stage in the modern economy. Ventures such as Facebook, Baidu, Apple and Google dominate the corporate world. Countries see a thriving tech sector as highly desirable and hundreds of copycat Silicon Valleys have sprung up across the world. The race to develop new tech such as quantum computing, advanced AI as well as commercial application give countries a military and commercial advantage over rivals.

Tech firms derive a lot of their power from their ability to gather and hold huge amounts of useful data on the users of their products. This allows them to sell huge amounts of information to advertisers. It also gives them access to more sinister powers such as information on users more likely political leanings, which in turn can be used by operatives to push adverts and influence elections. Through monitoring of internet usage habits firms can gain an idea of people’s strongest desires, beliefs and habits.

Tech competition has spilled into the geopolitical sphere, China has longed banned US firms such as Facebook and Google from its domestic market. The US recently banned Chinese app TikTok over fears that it is connected to Chinese intelligence. Behind these bans is a desire to ensure that rivals do not end up harvesting the data of their population and that home grown ventures retain a competitive advantage.

Terrorism

Terrorism is the acts of violence to achieve a political aim. Terrorism has become much feared in the West, but countries in Asia and Africa are far more likely to be the victims of terrorism. Terrorists biggest weapon is the fear they instil in others. The presence of terrorism repels outside investors, brings governments to negotiate with terrorists or push  resources into fighting them – either strategy.

For organisations the threat of terrorism means additional risk to employees and other assets. Some organisations work in particularly risky parts of the world and are exposed to terrorism. Diplomats, oil and gas workers and NGOs are all examples of those in harms way. Organisations should invest in security training for individuals as well as a plan to protect staff through security staff and protocols.

Reputational Risk

Reputational risk is the potential damage inflicted when the public, investors, staff and other stakeholders lose trust in an organisation or institution. Reputation takes many years to build but can be easily and quickly lost through poor publicity thanks to political or personal scandals, the launch of a badly designed product or service.

Reputation is rarely lost in one single action, but can be eroded over time through a series of poor decisions and events which steadily undermine the standing of an organisation. Reputation is particularly important in an economy where many firms are valued on intangibles such as brand value and intellectual capital.

Despite the dangers of reputational risk, most firms do not have a plan to protect it relying on crisis management. Managing reputational risk means first assessing the organisation’s reputation to see whether it is strong, neutral or weak and whether this matches with reality.

If reputation is strong, but reality is that it is not performing as well, then this gap needs to be closed. If reputation is poor in comparison to reality then a plan should be put in place to highlight strong performance with the media and key stakeholders. But it should avoid short term “spin” measures to artificially enhance reputation.

Supply Chain Risk

Supply chains are a key feature of the modern economy. Metals, components, agri-produce, electronic goods and millions of other goods are shipped, driven and flown across the world to satisfy industrial and consumer demand. Much modern trade is done on a just in time basis so goods do not sit in warehouses for long.

This makes supply chains prone to disruption– natural disasters, conflict, pandemic and industrial action such as strikes can quickly halt the movement of goods. Even short disruptions can cost millions, which is why understanding and mitigating supply chains is so important.

Supply chains can also mean reputational issues. Resources mined from illegal mines that drive conflict such as Myanmar or timber from unsustainable sources. Clothing from poorly run, dangerous factories which endanger or even kill workers means that multinational companies face anger from customers and shareholders and even their own staff.

Trade

International trade has exploded in the last decades. Large multinational trade agreements have become more common resulting in a complex web of agreements between states around the globe. These agreeements and modern logistics has made trade as simple and risk free as it has ever been in history.

However many risks around trade remain. Trade has always been used as a tool of politics and warfare. From Napoleon’s continental system to the tariff escalation or the present trade war between the US and China. Organisations that profited from growing trade between nations can see it grind to a halt as politics overrules commerce.

International trade agreements have been blamed for many problems deindustrialisation, loss of sovereignty and underdevelopment. The last few years have seen free trade have been put on the back foot. Despite set backs international trade is going a critical part of the global economy and understanding the risks it faces will be key.

After the Storm: Long term risks in the aftermath of Covid-19

In July Intelligent Risk, a publication of the Professional Risk Managers’ International Association (PRMIA) published my article on long term risk to the world economy following Covid-19.

In March 2020, millions of office workers around the globe packed up their desks and almost overnight became remote workers. They left behind daily train journeys, coffees with colleagues and crowded meetings for a new world of virtual meetings, makeshift home offices, and juggled teaching with emails.

Now many firms are struggling to survive an unavoidable global recession. However, they also need to react now to the longer-term risks facing the economy.

  • Covid-19 will act like a fast-forward button, accelerating long terms trends such a shift to home working, rising economic nationalism and corporate sustainability.
  • Long-term structural shifts in the economy will permanently reduce demand for many sectors. New working and social patterns will threaten sectors such as airlines, entertainment, restaurants, and international tourism.
  • Shocks like Covid-19 create recession, mass unemployment and most likely major political aftershocks. However, shocks also trigger innovation, ingenuity, and new opportunities.

Globalization Under Fire

Globalization was already under threat from nationalism and trade wars like the US-China disputes. When Covid-19 first appeared in Wuhan at end of 2019, the main concern in the West was around disruption to supply chains that originated in China. Companies dependent on supplies from China faced and experienced shortages of pharmaceuticals, PPE, and many other goods.

These problems may ease soon. However, long-term firms may seek to make their supply chains more resilient. This could mean more “inshoring”, shortening and simplifying these often complex, opaque chains. Economic nationalism or economic independence may also see barriers raised to prevent shortages of critical medical supplies or the supply of goods deemed strategic or valuable such as rare minerals, oil, and food.

A new world means new opportunities and markets. Tech companies that provide work from home services like video chat should have a bright future, as should domestic tourism in a world scared to fly and online delivery services. Zoom a digital communications firm specialising in video meetings had 10 million daily meeting participants in December 2019. In April 2020, just four months later, Zoom counted more than 300 million daily meeting participants.

Less obvious niches like drive in cinemas could also enjoy a boom. The collapse and retreat of many firms due to Covid-19 will result in a wave of consolidation and restructuring. The successful firms of the future will be those that prove resilient now.

Covid-19 and Climate Change

The prospect of economies in ruins, unprecedented recession, and mass unemployment will prompt many to assume that action on climate change is no longer a priority. However, a Covid-19 recession is a stark reminder of how nature can deliver a deadly shock. Covid-19 is a dress rehearsal of how climate risks may soon affect society.

Disruption is a harbinger of change. Deep recession is the time and opportunity to remodel the economy on sustainable lines. This means building back better, sustainably. Kristalina Georgieva Managing Director of the IMF commented: “If this recovery is to be sustainable – if our world is to become more resilient – we must do everything in our power to promote a green recovery”.

Governments and Firms can build on policies already in place:

  • Invest in green resilient infrastructure that can cope with a changing planet. The world will experience more heat waves, sea level rise and extreme weather as climate change becomes more intense.
  • Mandate measures like the Task force for Climate Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) reporting which identifies climate risks in Bank’s portfolios. Canada launched the Large Employer Emergency Financing Facility (LEEFF) designed to support employment during a Covid recession. Any firms receiving funding with have to publish climate related disclosures (TCFD).
  • Use renewable energy sources to help mitigate climate change.
  • Encourage green infrastructure: cycle paths, electric vehicle charge points, and a faster broadband to make it easier to work from home
  • New stimulus packages combined with a restructured economy could be the impetus for a more sustainable economy. The world will look closely for green credentials in China’s forthcoming economic recovery package. The EU is pushing ahead with its EU Green New Deal in conjunction with its Covid-19 emergency response package.

The Long-Term Risks for a “Brown” Recovery

A “brown” recovery is one based upon traditional energy sources such as oil and coal. These energy sources feed resource intensive sectors such as cement and heavy industry these activities magnify climate risks through greenhouse gas emissions. A world of more extreme weather events, deadly heatwaves and sea level rise will disrupt economies in way that dwarves the current crisis.

Companies that are not reducing emissions may be penalised by governments or consumers. France has made reduction in emissions and domestic flights a condition of its bailout of Air France. Consumers could increasingly shun firms that are not acting responsibly on reducing emissions or taking sustainability seriously.

How to Manage Geopolitical Risk

The Merchant of Prato

Francesco di Marco Datini was a fourteen century Italian Merchant who from humble beginnings created a wealthy pan European trading empire over the course of 50 years.

Datini dealt in anything that would make money, from armour and weapons, saffron and jewellery, money lending to art dealing. Key to his success was a network of informants and agents which allowed him to stay abreast of and take advantage of events across a tumultuous era in Europe. The fourteen century had more than its fair share of warfare, plague and religious schism.

Datini’s shrewd management, his access to information and above all his ability to adapt to a changing world were key to his success. This what we now might call successfully managing risk.

War between France and England was an opportunity to sell weapons and armour. While peace and royal weddings were a chance to sell luxury goods like spices and fine cloth. Lending money to monarchs and the nobility were generally avoided thanks their unreliability in repaying loans.

Natural disasters like storms and made hazards like brigands were sometimes unavoidable, but careful diversification ensured they were not calamitous.

Datini understood managing geopolitical risk was key to his Pan-European trading empire. While times have changed since the fourteenth century, geopolitical risk remains a harsh reality for organisations and one which can catch the unprepared unaware time and time again.

Introduction

In this guide I outline the major global and geopolitical risks faced by international organisations and how they can be successfully managed.

Willis Tower Watson a leading global insurance firm labelled geopolitics the number one risk corporate risk faced by multi-national companies. From war to climate change to failures of national governance, threats to organisations worldwide are diverse and always evolving.

After identifying the risks I provide ideas about how they can be managed and how to develop a resilient enterprise which can handle a rapidly changing world. Lastly I look at how best to spot geopolitical shifts and global trends and turn them to your advantage.

What is Geopolitical Risk?

Geopolitical Risk is messy, hard to define and even more difficult to predict. The Covid-19 pandemic is a great example. Narrowly defined the virus poses a healthcare risk. However, differing government responses and lack of international cooperation and the economic, social and political fallout seen across the world is a geopolitical risk.

Geopolitical risk is the probability of a political action negatively or positively affecting a company. Global Risks mostly overlap with geopolitical risks and include topics such the shadow economy, environmental risks and cyber risks.

Geopolitical risks can be identified but acting on them can be much harder. Even more difficult is proactively managing risks and turning them into opportunities.

Many companies view geopolitical risk as something that happens to them. Often it can feel that geopolitical risks are out of our hands, and we or the organisations we work for are a passive recipients of global events.

But companies can monitor, engage and even shape geopolitical risks and turn them to their advantage.  But to do this they need to prepare, monitor and understand risks, but above all be ready to act when they arrive.

Conflict

Interstate war or internal conflict

Since the dawn of civilisation, countries and empires have gone to war. It is no surprise to us that war and conflict cause misery, death and can make normal life very difficult. Serious widespread conflict or war may seem remote to most people in developed nations. But many parts of particularly the developing world continue to suffer from conflict.

An arc of conflict cuts through through Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Any company considering investing in emerging economies in these regions have to weigh up the likelihood of conflict in their target country.

Many wars rage on for years but are relatively underreported in the international press. For example, the Yemeni conflict which has drawn in Saudi Arabia the Gulf States as well as western states and Iran. Others like Syria remained more in the public eye, perhaps because of the migrant crisis that affected Europe.

Predicting War

While it is difficult to predict wars and conflicts. It is possible to carefully monitor a country’s political climate, relations with its neighbours and crucially its history of violence. This analysis can at least can give an indication of the likelihood of future war and conflict.

War can break out over resources, nationalist sentiment as well as perceived ethnic or ideological differences. Many modern wars are at first glance civil wars. Syria, Sudan and Somalia are all recent examples. But civil conflicts always end up dragging in neighbouring states. Syria has drawn in Turkey, the USA, Russia and France and others into the country. It is always worth taking a regional view of how a conflict can spread.  

When a war starts a firm’s assets come under threat. In some cases such as consultancy firm they can easily pull out of a country. Others focused on natural resources or infrastructure cannot easily pull out their mines, roads, tunnels and physical infrastructure.

How staff threatened by war are cared for by the firm is also crucial. Very often staff can be moved out of the country fairly easily before the conflict spreads. However locally hired staff may not want to move from their home, nor is it always possible due to immigration rules.

Cyber Conflict

Conventional wars across land, sea and air are familiar sights across the globe. But the last decade has seen the new theatre of cyber conflict emerge. Cyber conflict has had a low profile but the world is slowly waking up to the reality of cyberwarfare.

The raging global debates over allowing Chinese firm Huawei to develop critical infrastructure in many western states has brought cyber concerns to the top of the security agenda.

The cost of conventional war is high in terms of human life, but also diplomatic and economic fallout.

Cyberwar as an Alternative

Cyberwar offers a powerful alternative. By infiltrating government agencies or critical infrastructure through phishing attacks, systems and networks can be compromised. This can demoralise the enemy and cripple critical infrastructure such as power or water supplies.

Cyber attacks can also be used to steal valuable information. The theft of the US Democratic party emails in 2016 helped changed the result of the US election.

Best of all cyber attacks can be carried out in secret or through proxies. This gives governments valuable cover and plausible deniability. Attacks over the internet are far less obvious than an old fashioned invasion or bombing raid.

Geopolitics and Cyberwar

A shadow cyber war between Iran and Israel has been ongoing for many years involving disruption to water supplies and alleged attacks on nuclear facilities.

Companies are vulnerable to cyberattacks by criminals but also governments if they hold important strategic assets or information. Defence and military contractors, national infrastructure (powerlines, ports, systemic banks, rail & road), shipping and firms in the medical sectors are all potential targets.

Recently Australia has recently been the subject of a wide number of cyber attacks which were blamed on China. Australian government agencies were hacked in a major attack which prompted a rare public warning by the head of the Australian Intelligence agency.

The Attack on Maersk

The Danish Shipping firm Maersk was hit by a ransomware attack in 2017. Experts believe the attack originated from the North Korean government was in fact deployed by accident. The attack shut down all the Maersk IT systems. It took two week for IT systems to be restored and cost the company over 300 million Euros to fix and repair the damage.

This form of warfare is on the rise and companies as well as governments will be in the crosshairs. For some companies and organisations the threats will be obvious. Other companies should consider their vulnerability to cyber attacks with a geopolitical motive by thinking about:

  • Are they doing business in countries with a history of using cyber attacks to gain commercial & political advantage such as China
  • Do they partner with sensitive government agencies or ministries that might make them a proxy target or hold valuable information.
  • Are staff easily able to bypass company security and use personal accounts and devices to store information.

Terrorism

Militant groups continue to plot and carry out violent acts across the world impacting both security forces and civilians. Terrorism is widely feared in Western countries for good reason. But in fact it is developing countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan that suffer the most at the hands of such groups.

Widespread terrorism drives instability in countries, terrifying the people and driving away business. Business people are unwilling to travel to danger zones and require additional protection to operate where terrorism is a risk.

Terror groups are closely linked to poor governance as they undermine legitimate governments through violence and in some cases morph in states of their own. The most notable example of this was the Islamic State in Iraq. Terror groups are also linked to crime as very often they engage in drug smuggling, money laundering or wildlife poaching as way to fund their activities.

The Shadow Economy

Financial crime, drug smuggling, people trafficking, and many other activities earn criminals billions a year globally. One estimate puts the shadow economy at US$870 billion in revenues. But these costs companies, governments and society untold damage. Many of these activities cross borders and can be considered global risks.

Networks like Mexican drug cartels can undermine legitimate governments and provoke something close to a state of civil war in that country. In 2018, 33,341 murders were recorded in Mexico. Other networks make alliances with political networks which results in corruption, the undermining of institutions and markets. In some countries such as Afghanistan the distinction between government and criminal enterprise is almost non-existent. 

Criminals can infiltrate supply chains through illegally produced timber, illicitly mined minerals such as blood diamonds, even using slave labour to produce goods. This type of activity feeds corruption and crime but when otherwise legitimate companies are involved it can damage hard won credibility.

Supply chains can be long and opaque with many companies unaware or turning a blind eye to potential criminality. Poor publicity around supply chains can lead to long lasting reputational damage to those involved.

Money laundering is perhaps the biggest element of the shadow economy. In order to legitimatise illicit earnings, criminals need to clean their money. They do this by laundering their gains through legitimate businesses and banks. Some estimates put place illegal earning at 5 percent of the world economy.

New Political Actors

Individuals, NGOs, activist groups thanks to social media and modern campaign techniques can make major political waves. Groups such as Black Lives Matter or Extinction Rebellion have made headlines throughout the globe. These groups have been spurred on by widespread racism and the threat of climate change and their protests have inspired local copycat groups across the world.

The Blackfish documentary exposed cruelty to Orcas at Seaworld Florida. The documentary caught the attention of the public and activists, quickly becoming a viral hit. Eventually it resulted in a major downturn in visitors at the iconic US park. The film cost just US$ 76,000 to make, but made a major dent in Seaworld’s profits with its stock price falling 60% the year it was released.

A small group or individual with the right cause and a savvy media presence can change perceptions and ruin the reputation of a company or institution (like US police forces) and inspire change in companies (witness the promotion of Black Life Matters messages across corporate social media in June 2020).

Environmental Risks

Climate Risk the impact of Climate change

Human activity has raised the concentration of carbon dioxide to over 400 parts per million. It is no coincidence that nine of the ten hottest years on record have occurred since 2005. The world is heating fast and this brings extreme risk.

Given the rate that Co2 levels are continuing to rise the world is on track to experience a 2 C rise in the next few decades. The world faces drought, extreme weather, water shortages and sea level rise on scale never experienced before. The pace of change will leave traditional infrastructure unable to cope with rising seas and higher temperatures.

Crop yields will decline and vast areas of farmland will dry out and become unusable. Extreme weather events will multiply in number causing businesses billions in damages and ever-increasing insurance costs. At the same time rising sea levels will push seaside dwellers inland putting many of the world’s major cities such as New York and Shanghai at risk.

Climate change is a threat multiplier. Existing risks such as extreme weather, drought and heatwaves will increase in frequency and severity. In the long term and given its global nature climate change represents the biggest threat to humankind.

Climate change will create unprecedented disruption to life in the next decades ahead which can only be partly offset by adaptation measures. All organisations should be considering the risks that climate change present.

Environmental Risks

Agriculture and ultimately all human activity is dependent on a functioning natural world, insects to pollinate crops, clean water to drink, fertile soil to grow crops as well as countless other natural commodities.

Deforestation, conflict over resources and water and the degradation of the world’s oceans and rivers all pose a threat to our way of life. The world’s oceans are being plundered by fishing legal and illegal, threatened by pollution and acidification and oxygen depletion.

Huge islands of rubbish have formed in the Pacific Ocean. The world’s forests, jungles and wilderness are also under assault by loggers and developers as humans expand farms and settlements. Deforestation threatens a key carbon sink and habitat to much of the world’s animal and plant life.

Environmentalists have been warning the world about these risks for many years and now the threats are materialising.

The Blue Economy

The “blue economy” (economic value of seas and oceans) has been valued at US$ 24 trillion but in reality is incalculable. Protecting oceans just like climate change depends on collective action among nations.

The open nature of the world’s oceans has meant they have been an easy target for exploitation by fishing fleets

Companies that are that damage the environment will see their reputation under threat from activists and eventually the public who increasingly shun goods they believe unethical.  

Biodiversity Loss

Biodiversity loss is of increasing concern and not just among environmentalists. The 6th mass extinction is accelerating and threats to wipe out not just large charismatic animals like tigers and whales but also insects, plant life and birds.

Climate change, habitat loss, use of pesticides, hunting and poaching have led to spectacular declines in wildlife. Mass die outs of animals can set off catastrophic cascades where entire ecosystems are destroyed. This loss also threatens humans as many indigenous people rely on natural habitats as homes. But those living in the rest of the world will eventually pay for destroying nature.

Farming and is ultimately dependent on healthy ecosystems, clean water and pollinating insects. Depleting farm yields, loss of pollinating insects and loss of natural carbon sinks like forests along with climate change will accelerate a food crisis where previously strong agricultural yields disappear.

A world of declining food yields will create political and economic crisis as more people are pushed into food insecurity and famine. China for example has destroyed much fertile land thanks to pollution and using it for housing and industry. But thanks to its relative wealth is able to import more food to make up the shortfall.

However in the future countries may find it harder to spend their way of food shortages if there are widespread global crop failures and rapidly increasing prices.

Many will wonder if biodiversity loss will really impact on businesses or whether they will care. But there are moves underway to create a global framework for protecting biodiversity in the same way there has been for global emissions and climate risk.

Resource Conflict

Wars may be driven by water conflicts such as the Ethiopia – Egypt dispute. The Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia threatens to cut the water flow of the river Nile which would devastate Egyptian agriculture, industry and society.

No country is more dependent on a river than the Egypt is on the Nile. Hopefully the dispute can be settled peacefully, but given what is at stake war could become a reality.

Egypt is the Nile, and the Nile is Egypt

Herodotus

Oil and gas deposits, diamond and other minerals can also attract war and violence. Conflicts driven by resources include:

  • Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo driven by coltan and other minerals.
  • The Gulf Wars in Iraq were driven in part by the desire to control or stabilize a region valued for its oil deposits and strategic significance.
  • Rakine Province in Myanmar: armed militias, warlords and individuals battle for control of the jade rich, but lawless province of the South East Asian country.
  • Baloch Separatists in Pakistan who claim the central government and now China are benefiting from the region’s resources rather than the locals.
  • The Libyan civil war which pits various factions (backed by outside powers such as Turkey and Egypt) the prize being an oil rich country bordering Europe.

Governance Risks

In 1914, little over 100 years ago the world was dominated by multi-ethnic European centred empires. The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia ruled massive regional and global empires. The decades before 1914 had seen many colonial wars but overall relative geopolitical stability.

This was all punctured by the calamitous events of August of 1914 where events in Europe spun out of control into a global war. Although the causes of the war have been explained in retrospect by historians, at the time it was a major shock.

Now after many years of US dominance there is a feeling the world is moving into a new unpredictable phase – what author Ian Bremmer called G-Zero. A geopolitical landscape where every country are working towards their own interests rather than trying to work together. As a result global public goods (such as security, global warming mitigation & knowledge production) become harder to provide.

A number of trends are pushing global trade wars and economic dislocation:

  • Surging global migration
  • Fraying international alliances
  • Growing competition between state
  • The rise of nationalism and populist governments

Trends such as the decline of fossil fuels and the rise of renewable technology could shape geopolitics in new unexpected ways. Could states like Saudi Arabia decline along with oil. But new resource powers based on lithium (a key ingredient in electric car batteries) such as Bolivia rise?

Failure of National Governance

Government regulation, interference, and expropriation pose a major threat to companies, usually in developing countries. While many governments taking a long term view and are keen to provide a stable investment framework.

Others seek to extract value from unwary investors. This can come in the form of nationalisation or favourable treatment to local or well-connected firms. Some governments prefer to heavily tax firms which can make their operations unviable.

Uncertainty in legislation or tax regimes leads to friction between companies and governments. The rise of global nationalism and trade barriers threaten to make governments even more hostile to foreign companies. Outsiders, particularly those involved in the extraction of natural resources are often considered an easy target.

For investors understanding the target country and its government and political reality is key. Without this overseas expansions easily fall apart. Western tech giants Google, Facebook and Twitter have all been blocked in China because their business model clashes with the Chinese government’s plans to develop its own tech champions. Tech companies have a great deal of influence over the flow of information, something the Chinese government is keen to control for itself.

Global Migration

The movement of people is often linked to economic dislocation, climate and environmental issues. Mass migration of people within or across borders can lead to geopolitical risks as governments squabble over the impacts of migration. Global migration is predicted to rise as the impact of climate change increases.

Migration from Syria to Europe was triggered by the long lasting conflict afflicting the country. The prospect of further conflict in Africa and the Middle East, along with widespread youth unemployment and climate change raise the prospect that millions of potential migrants will try and enter Europe.

The political response in Europe to Syrian refugees was largely negative with many European leaders making political capital out of demonising migration. In other words gaining popularity by promising to keep out immigrants.

Religious and Ethnic Persecution

Other migrants like the Royingha people of Myanmar many of which have been forced out of their homes into Bangladesh are subject to ethnic and/or religious persecution.

Global migration may be slow thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, countries closing borders and implementing stricter immigration regimes. In the longer term this will not deter migrants trying to move nor the anti-immigration sentiment pushing governments to reduce immigration.

Migration is primarily an opportunity for companies. They can pick staff from different countries, widening their talent pool. Migrants often fill jobs which locals cannot or will not do. This can be highly skilled tech work or more routine agricultural work.

The risk around migration is that is sometimes leads to a political backlash which nationalist politicians can take advantage of to take or keep power. In turn extremist politicians create their own uncertainty which can be damaging for the business sector.

Technological Competition

The world’s powers and corporations are in a technological arms race to develop the most advanced artificial intelligence, big data applications, the internet of things and cyber capabilities. The advantages in terms of commerce, espionage and military applications are huge.

Countries have always used new technology to gain advantages over their competitors, from using gunpowder weapons in medieval battles, to the 20th Century space race. Now the technologies are different but the competition between states just as real. These areas in tech are the battlegrounds of the present and future.

Weaponization of social media, states use social media to promote propaganda, spread misinformation with the aim of shifting opinion or even winning elections.

Cyber attacks can be used to harvest data (such as the Marriott Hotel data breach) such as the movements of diplomats, military and politicians. Nation states that retain the best techniques for cyber warfare gain a major advantage over rivals.

Artificial Intelligence has become a hot topic, although its yet to realise its potential, becoming a leader in this area will create new opportunities in military and commercial applications. Vladimir Putin said in 2017 the nation that leads in AI ‘will be the ruler of the world”

First mover advantage in technology gives country’s a competitive advantage. The race to build Silicon Valleys full of tech firms has increased as the new products and services created are seen as vital to a modern economy.

The success of major tech firms and their control over the flow of information has gained them enemies. Tech firms monopoly power, dubious data practices and willingness to overlook widespread misinformation on their sites could lead to many protracted legal and political battles.

Global Diplomatic Architecture

The alliances, institutions and governance that have dominated the world in the last 80 years are now under strain. NATO, WHO, IMF have all been heavily criticised by members and outsiders alike in recent years. The roles and usefulness of these institutions have been questioned.

Many have questioned NATO’s role given it was an alliance designed to counter the threat of Communism in Eastern Europe. A threat which is long gone. Meanwhile the rise of China and its financial firepower means it can form its own financial architecture.

New Chinese influenced, some say dominated institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) have been set up to emulate or rival traditional relations. At the same time poor relations between the US and European countries have undermined NATO.

Multipolarity – the growing divisions between the world’s powers and the growing strength of rising powers is a major risk. Foremost of these rising powers is China and its flagship foreign policy project the Belt and Road Initiative. The Belt and Road initiative is a label given to China’s outbound investment and trade. It has become a highly visible form of commercial diplomacy with countries queuing up to be a Belt and Road partner.

These shifts in alliance and power projection create uncertainty and change which create risks – such as a trade war between China and the US. It can also be an opportunity – for example Pakistan has seen an influx of Chinese money which has helped boost its economy. Although some say that has come at the price of increased dependence on China.

Nationalism, Populism and Social Cohesion

Fraying social Cohesion driven by narrow political groups, unpopularity with political elites, hate and misinformation spread by social and traditional media along with inequality, unemployment and generational divides has all made the world a more angry, dangerous and harder to govern.

Nationalism and populism are on the rise across the world. The US, India, Hungary, Brazil and the Philippines have all seen the nationalistic leaders rise to power. Populist leaders have tapped into the unpopularity of perceived elites and fear of unemployment, economic uncertainity and migration.

This trend has made it easier for authoritarian states like Russia and China to operate feeling less need to pay lip service to liberal values. The spectre of another recession may make accelerate this trend.

Nationalist leaders also have a tendency towards corruption, nepotism and incompetency – which eventually catches up with them. Nationalist states are also more prone to conflict with its own citizens and other countries. All this helps add to the current feeling of uncertainty, change and pessimism in global politics.

Trade Wars and Economic Nationalism

Many observers see globalisation going in reverse which will disrupt supply chains, create currency disputes and made foreign investment more difficult. The so called weaponization of finance has seen embargos, sanctions and tariffs used in place of warfare.

The most significant examples have been the sanctions on Iran imposed by the USA and others which have put severe pressure on the Iranian economy and made it hard for banks to do business with Iran or face fines enforced by US authorities.

Russia faced similar sanctions following its annexation of Crimea. These sanctions driven by the EU did not have the same impact. Russian gas and oil remain indispensable to Europe. Russia’s economy managed to escape the worst predictions of doom, but undoubtedly suffered. Sanctions are likely to remain a policy of choice for mainly western countries who can punish countries they deemed to have.

Russia and others have criticised sanctions viewing them as hypocritical – pointing out the the US and UK faced none for their invasion of Iraq.

However for a company facing sanctions it is a serious matter, major fines, loss of revenue and markets are a reality for the likes of Societe Generale. The French Bank were hit by US imposed fines (worth US$1.3 billion for dealing with Iranian and Cuban companies.

Supply Chain Risk

Supply chain risk has rapidly increased in recent years. A world economy reliant on international trade routes is one vulnerable to disruption by trade disputes, natural disasters, or reputational issues around the source of manufactured goods or minerals.

Covid-19 has compounded these fears. Many companies are reconsidering supply chains fearful of being left short by factories in China closing or at the mercy of US-China trade wars. Some firms are looking to countries like Vietnam to provide goods, while others may decide to bring manufacturing closer to home

Covid-19 and the Great Reset

Covid-19 is a global health crisis, but the economic and social changes that are still emerging and could create long term risks. While much good can come of a reset, the risks are also apparent.

Economic dislocation and depression, unemployment, rising government debt and in some parts of the world widespread disaffection and anger towards government. To add to that overstrained healthcare systems, disrupted supply chains, corporate and government debt levels and there is a great cause for concern.

For multinationals the geopolitical risks can be clear, but even SMEs and small firms the second order effects can be devastating. For examples see the Covid pandemic or the effect of US-China trade wars on the economies of agricultural states in the US.

How Can My Firm Manage Geopolitical Risk?

Consider the big picture – Scan, Focus and the Act

The first step is understanding the geopolitical risk landscape, and how it applies to your firm.

  • Scanning the environment to monitor, identify and assess geopolitical risk.
  • What appetite does for Geopolitical Risk does my firm have, are we willing to take big risks if there is an upside.
  • What are the firm’s most valuable assets and which are exposed to risk
  • Some firms may prefer to use a outside expertise, but using existing internal knowledge is also invaluable.
  • Remove institutional blindspots – this is where outside expertise can help.
  • Next is to map the company’s profile to the geopolitical risks. This allows focus – which risks are likely to be most important.
  • Does the firm have the capability to manage geopolitical risk.
  • How can it become proactive – managing political stakeholders for example?
  • Does the firm have the right skills/staff to deal with the risk. Can staff be trained or is it preferable to hire outside expertise.

Once Geopolitical Risks have been framed what specific actions can a firm take to develop resilience:

Political Analysis of your firm’s footprint

By analysing and monitoring the countries and regions your firm operate in. Emerging economies which are characterised by unstable politics and seesaw like economic conditions. Analysing, monitoring the country is an obvious action. But more difficult is linking change too how it might affect your firm. If your firm is in a sensitive industry it will be more exposed to political interference.

For example if a new government hostile to foreign companies comes into power in a country you are doing business this should be considered when making investments. Analysis can be done from afar, remotely, but the best information often comes from the ground. Staff and contacts in the country can often give you the best intelligence. This local knowledge combined with a macro view should provide a comprehensive analysis of the target country.

Creating a Resilient Firm

Central to developing a resilient firm is identifying critical functions and activities and how they could be recovered or protected during a crisis. Engaging a business continuity or resilience expert is usually a must, especially for a larger firm. Creating and exercising (see below) crisis plans through simulations or exercises will test their effectiveness. Exercises also help ensure effective communication channels between employees.

Many firms have seen their resilience tested by recent events such as the Covid pandemic. Many companies will not recover from the crisis, most will survive if weakened, a minority will come out stronger. Partly due to luck or government bailouts.

A select few will come back strong thanks to their resilience ability to adapt to new circumstances. Unsurprisingly tech firms have profited from the crisis as people have flocked to social media and ordered more online goods from the likes of Amazon.

Disaster Recovery

Accept that you cannot foresee every risk, but a resilient firm should be able to recover from a major traumatic incidents be it a fire, flood or IT failure. Some of these risks are purely operational in nature (faulty wires leading to a fire). Others disaster such as bombs, wars and some cyber-attacks have a geopolitical element.

Developing a comprehensive disaster recovery plan that will allow for the firm to continue following a disaster is critical. The major features of a disaster recovery plan would be:

  1. Establishing an IT plan disaster recovery plan (such as data centre separate from the firm’s HQ or main centre).
  2. Creating disaster recovery plans the entire organisation detailing actions and procedures following an incident. Crucially these plans need to be tested using an exercise (see below).
  3. Developing an alternative communication system if there is a widespread IT failure and normal communication routes are not available.
  4. Developing a business impact analysis (BIA). A business impact analysis is a major piece of work which identified each critical activity an organisation undertakes and how important it is following a major incident. A well executed BIA can help an organisation effectively recover from a disaster.

For example a shoe manufacturer may plan that following a major incident shutting down part of its manufacturing that continuing to make its biggest selling shoes is critical. But niche shoes and those lines which are soon to be discontinued could be delayed until fully capacity can be restored.

Red teaming – Table Top Exercises – War Gaming – Simulations

There are many different variants, but a simulation or exercise should confront participants in a realistic scenario. These exercises should usually be based on the disaster recovery plans created. Although exercises can be based on any scenario, not just disasters.

The exercise will also bring together teams, cutting across silos in the organisation. Scenarios can be remote, desktop or a live action. They can be run in real time or can look at events occurring over days, weeks or event years. Acting out a scenario will help uncover your strengths and more importantly your weaknesses.

Only direct confrontation with a political, security situation or  and putting executives on the spot will any real knowledge be made. Exercises should generally be run by an outsider to the firm, who will be best placed to challenge the Executives and avoid group think

A crisis response team should be populated by executives. Other staff will provide specific expertise it is unrealistic that the C-Suite would not take charge in a major crisis. However, the CEO of the organisation should not be directly involved in crisis management. As a prolonged crisis will divert their attention from running the business.

A variant on the above is scenario planning which can be done via tabletop. But scenarios can be expanded and transformed into more detailed work which focuses on the response to a realistic scenario. So a firms operating in a conflict zone would develop and workshop plans covering response to attacks on assets, kidnappings, shifts in governments and thousands of other possibilities.  

The result of these exercises should be to develop a crisis response team or teams that are well prepared, have strong communication lines, understand their roles clearly and are prepared to act decisively in a crisis.

Horizon Scanning

Horizon scanning is looking at longer term threats to an organisation. Scanning does not attempt to predict the future. Instead horizon scanning considers potential threats and risks and attempts to develop risk scenarios of events that might affect the firm. The power of horizon scanning is making people aware of future possibilities, challenge assumptions and change mind-sets.

There is no set rules or framework for horizon scanning. The key is to focus on the issues that will affect your firm. Market dynamics in your sector, government action or regulation. Information gathering can be done on desktop, but talking to relevant contacts and monitoring social media is also useful.

The idea is to identify trends and issues which may present challenges or opportunities to the organisation. Not everything identified in horizon scanning will be relevant but an organisation can spot trends early and adapt accordingly.

Adopting Climate Risk Analysis

Climate Risk is a new addition to geopolitical risk. This new field looks to analyse the physical risks faced by companies and countries posed by climate risks such as sea level rise, extreme weather and heat waves. Climate risks also include what is called transition risk.

Transition risk is the changes in government policy faced by firms as a result of climate change. This could include governments closing down coal plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  

Companies across the world are rushing to adopt the Task Force for Climate Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) which will identify which projects face the highest climate risks.

Opportunities from Geopolitical Flux

Acting on Geopolitical Risks and turning them into opportunities

While predictions about Geopolitics are a dangerous proposition, the world appears to be heading towards a more unstable chaotic period thanks to divisions between the main powers and the growing effects of Climate change.

Geopolitical Risk is not all bad news. Shrewd observers can take advantage of geopolitical trends by investing in industries and countries that stand to benefit.

Geopolitical analyst Milena Rodban coined the term Geopolitical Flux which to me is more apt description. Another way to benefit from geopolitical change is antifragility: Nassim Nicholas Taleb developed this concept in the book Antifragile.

The thrust of the book is that a truly resilient organisation benefits from change, chaos and flux, even thriving from disorder. An antifragile company can thrive in difficult times while competitors fall away, unable to cope with a new world.

Post Conflict Zones

Post conflict countries or fragile states represent an opportunity. As a war ends and peace returns, a country or region can present new opportunities. Many companies will be fearful, but very often assets are relatively cheap and there is little or no competition. The catch of course is that many conflict die down only to be rekindled a few years later.

The end of the Iraq war attracted many western firms particularly in the oil sector. But the resurgence of violence and the rise of the Islamic state soon made the country a war zone again.

However, Angola ended its long running civil war in the 1990s but the country maintained a no go zone for many companies. Chinese oil firms took a chance and built relations with the political and business elite of the country and Angola soon became a major oil exporter to China.

Boat Spotting: Watching out for new emerging opportunities and risks

The most agile companies can turn geopolitical risk or flux into an advantage. By spotting trends as they take off – such as climate risk reporting and adopting it gaining knowledge and a competitive advantage.

Trade and economic disruption causes pain and those with lengthy supply chains suffer. But those who are more flexible or can see the rise of tariffs and protectionism can act. The onset of a trade war between China and the US has seen many firms move operations or source commodities from different places to avoid the worst effects.

The warning signs of trade war between China and the US were visible early on in Trump’s administration. A geopolitically aware firm that operates between the two countries would be sensibly assessing the situation and identifying how any risks could be mitigated. This could include moving some supply chains to Vietnam or other countries.

Conclusion

At time of writing Disney was struggling with a torrent of bad publicity due to its new live action Mulan movie. Part of the film had been shot in Xinjiang province and Disney thanked the region’s publicity department in the credits.

The region has been troubled by multiple reports of internment or re-education camps. Up to a million ethnic Uyghur citizens are said to be in these camps. Disney were condemned by many commentators for working with officials from the region.

The film failed to make an impression on the Chinese public and the bad publicity has not helped Disney make friends in Beijing. Having strong political capital with the Chinese government is key to gaining further market share in the country.

Its not clear whether Disney failed to spot the dangers of working in Xinjiang. Or if they did spot the dangers they did not act on them or anticipate them. Either way those responsible for their geopolitical risk management failed to protect the firm.

The ethical choices behind wanting to film in Xinjiang were also questionable, but Disney and others would argue that plenty of other firms operate in the region and in China without criticism. But perception is important – Disney has a high profile and a family brand. By appearing to align with a regional government associated with internment camps was a step too far.

Above I have tried to outline the main geopolitical risks facing companies across the world. Of course geopolitical risks are international in nature but they vary in their impact depending which country you are in. The corporate sector is also extremely diverse, so different global risks matter to different firms. For example climate risk is a bigger deal for the infrastructure sector than the media industry.

Once risks are identified the next step for a company is preparing and mitigating these risks. Although some risks cannot be identified in advance (Black Swans). Others can be tackled in advance. Some risks are relatively slow moving and there will be time to prepare and adapt. Others will need a crisis team to respond when time is of the essence.

Geopolitical risk is real, ever changing and often unpredictable. Firms that fail to prepare will face serious consequences in terms of financial, operational and reputational damage.

The Fight for Blue Gold: Water and Geopolitical Risk

In June 2020 the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry warned the UN that Egypt faced an existential threat. That threat and regional geopolitical risk is the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The construction of the dam threatens to dramatically cut the flow of the Nile to Egypt.

Less water reaching Egypt will could ruin the livelihoods of its farmers and people. Cairo claims that the dam will inflict permanent damage to Egyptian society, but for Ethiopia it promises power to provide light and power for one of Africa’s most populous countries.

Egypt urged the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution that would give international backing to reach a compromise agreement. Ethiopia has rejected the resolution and announced the filling of the dam would begin in the next two weeks.

Egypt has hinted that a military solution could be used if an agreement is not reached. The gravity of the situation has been recognised by the USA, which is attempting to broker a deal between the two countries.

Resource Conflict and Geopolitical Risk

The dispute highlights how conflicts over resources can morph into geopolitical risks. Water wars have long been predicted by analysts. Conflict over water and other resources is as old as civilisation itself. Now the world’s freshwater supplies are under huge strain as rising populations and economic growth drink up ever more water.

Climate change will compound this problem. Rising temperatures will melt glaciers reducing the flow of water from many mountains, drying lakes and allowing sea water to salinate rivers. Control over water by itself may not cause conflict but may act as a catalyst. India and Pakistan are already have a frosty relationship. Disputes over water could put relations between the two into a deep freeze.

Melting Glaciers

Disappearing glaciers in the Himalayas will soon reduce the flow of mighty rivers like the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra making the Indian sub-continent one of the most exposed to drought.

Control over the remaining water in the Indus will make the battle around Kashmir where the river emerges more acute. Pakistan and India have been gone to war over the divided province three times and tensions remain high between the two nations.

Pakistan is highly dependent on the flow of the Indus for its agriculture and freshwater supplies. Any attempt by India to exert control over the water will face major resistance from its nuclear armed neighbour.

India recently completed the Kishanganga dam. This has led to an on-going dispute with Pakistan around the Indus River Treaty which has been handed to the World Bank to settle.

The Cradle of Civilisation

The Tigris-Euphrates river is called the cradle of civilisation as it is where the Sumerians and Akkians built some of the earliest recorded cities. Since then the river has been the lifeblood of many countries, cities and empires.

In more recent years the Turkish have built dams which control the flow of water to Iraq and Syria. If Turkey continues to take more water or drought reduces the river’s flow it could cut water flow to Iraqi and Syrian farmers and cities. If crops start failing and cities experience water shortages, Turkey could be the scapegoat.

Somalia and Syria

Internal conflict is another source for potential water wars. As the climate changes and regions used to plentiful rainfall find themselves dry and arid. Farmers and pastoralists are forced off the land it can lead to famine and social breakdown.

People forced to move into new areas often sparks new conflicts. Climate change is at least partly behind conflict in Syria. A long lasting drought in the country forced thousands into cities and new regions. This new poverty stricken population helped to spark protests against the government, which in turn transformed (combined with other factors) into a devastating civil war.

In Somalia a long lasting drought in many regions has hampered the recovery the country and pushed many into food insecurity. Economic uncertainty is a fertile breeding ground for the terrorists, pirates and militants that have plagued the country.

Even developed regions will not be immune to water conflict. Last year Cape Town came close to running out of water after years of low rainfall and rising demand for water for agriculture and domestic use.

Where are the Solutions?

As fresh water faces multiple threats, pollution, climate change and overuse, are there any solutions to a growing crisis? Firstly: humans can be pushed to use less water through efficiency measures and improved infrastructure such as fixing leaky pipes.

Secondly: desalination is currently an expensive option for the energy rich. But there is hope that new techniques can make it a viable and economical option in the future.

Thirdly: its hoped that scarcity will force humans to be more careful with water and treat as a valuable commodity. However, billions of people already experience water scarcity in the present day.

So in the future it is likely that the middle classes will continue to ensure good access to water. While those on the margins will continue to suffer from climate change driven water shortages.

Monitoring Risk from Space: An Introduction to Spatial Finance

The global municipal bond market is a worth an amazing US$ 3.8 trillion a year. As one might imagine the owners of these bonds are highly motivated in wanting to protecting their investments.

Growing awareness of climate risk in the form of rising sea levels, floods and wildfires and their impact on the value of bonds is driving new ways to understand and quantify these new risks.

Using the information provided by satellites above the earth allows companies to view what is happening to the earth in real time and react accordingly. Constant surveillance by hundreds of satellites and drones allows every part of the globe to be constantly analysed in minute detail for change.

This wealth of data combined with powerful computing techniques promises a real time picture of how the world’s environment is changing. Analysts can view crop production, forest fires and floods, this can be used to try and calculate financial benefits or losses to companies affected by this phenomena. This merging of satellite data and finance led to the emergence of a new term – spatial finance.

The Rise of Spatial Finance

To help promote this new idea the Spatial Finance Initiative was launched by number of prestigious organisations, namely the Alan Turing Institute, the Green Finance Initiative and the Satellite Applications Catapult.

Its mission is to:

“Mainstream geospatial capabilities enabled by space technology and data science into financial decision-making globally”

Spatial Finance Initiative

The emergence of spatial finance has come at a critical time where the assessment of climate risk has become increasingly important to banks, insurers and major corporations.

The launching of the Task Force on Climate related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) recommendations has meant companies need to understand how their assets will be affected by climate risk. Spatial finance has the potential to pinpoint shifts in the environment and map those firm’s assets.

Spatial Finance in Action

For instance an agribusiness with farms across different regions and countries will be able to see how drought, sea level rise and rainfall has changed over time. Of course, satellites cannot predict the future. But by identifying current patterns of change they can give a glimpse into the future.

Capturing information on the environment is the spatial section. The financial part comes by understanding how the world’s environment is changing in microscopic detail. Putting the two together will allow financial decisions to be made more accurately.

Realising ESG Goals

Farms and agribusinesses can be monitored for their adherence to Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) goals. For example farmers in the Cerrado region of Brazil signed up to a zero deforestation pledge in order to protect forests. Satellites can monitor whether these pledges are fulfilled.

Deforestation has also been linked to lower rainfall in the region which in turn reduces hydropower production capacity. The deforestation pledge is monitored by satellites which can assess whether farmers are encroaching on forests.

Sovereign Debt

Geospatial data techniques are being considered in linking sovereign debt risk with environmental risks. This way both governments and investors can see changes in environmental risk and which can drive sovereign debt risks.

If a country fails to care for its environment it may be considered more likely to default. Early signs of drought in an agriculturally dependent region could be an early warning of poor harvests and financial problems. At the same time crops can be tracked daily to estimate yields and future revenues.

Implementing the TCFD

Implementing the Task Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) recommendations will drive predictions of climate change on physical assets. Measuring the impact of a sea level rise, drought, flood and a variety of other climate related risks can destroy the long term viability of a project.

Geospatial data can be used to track other environmental issues such as illegal fishing. Satellites spotting boats in marine reserves can provide the information required to fight the illegal fishing. However, considerable political will and resources are still required to actually stop and catch the perpetrators of environmental crimes.

Tracking Biodiversity

Nature related financial disclosures are on the menu for the landmark biodiversity conference in Kumming in China. Companies could be encouraged to disclose their impacts on biodiversity in a similar way many are disclosing their emissions or exposure to climate risk.  

Satellites can track a changing environment in real time and identify where and how companies are making an impact on the environment. 

Satellites and Finance

Hedge funds have been using satellites to get an inside track on changes in demand or the movement of key individuals.

When an Occidental owned private jet was spotted at Omaha airport (home of Warren Buffett). It was a sign that the company were seeking the investor to help on their purchase of Anadarko.

Ten days later Buffett announced he was investing in Occidental. Alternative data companies routinely track private jets as prior knowledge of deals is a powerful source of information.

Monitoring Disasters

The danger to human life from flooding following the catastrophic events of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was tracked using geospatial satellite imagery. The same data was used to speed up insurance payments requested after the hurricane damage.

The power of satellite imagery and ever larger data sets will increase the ability to spot relationships between geography and financial indicators. Spatial Finance will be an ever more powerful tool for identifying geopolitical risks and improving financial performance.