Humanity hitting the resource ceiling
Better living through using far fewer material resources is the only possible future, experts agree. Humanity is pressing up against the limits of a finite planet to provide resources like water, oil, metals and food, according to a new UN report.
Higher resource consumption levels will be prohibitively costly or simply impossible, warns the report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
“Global resource consumption is exploding. It’s not a trend that is in any way sustainable,” said Ernst von Weizsäcker, co-chair of UNEP’s International Resource Panel.
“We must realise that prosperity and well-being do not depend on consuming ever-greater quantities of resources,” said von Weizsäcker.
The world is running out of cheap and high quality sources of some essential materials such as oil, copper and gold, the supplies of which, in turn, require ever-rising volumes of fossil fuels and freshwater to produce, the report found.
During the 20th century, the rate of resource use has increased twice as fast as the increase in global population. Now, resources are being consumed at an even greater rate and are on pace to triple by 2050, the report calculates. Except there simply aren’t enough resources left on the planet to manage that.
The average person in Canada or the United States currently consumes 25 tonnes of key resources every year, while a person living in India and in most African countries uses just four tonnes, the report found.
Industrialised countries need to reduce their consumption by making significant reductions in waste and major improvements in the efficiency with which they use resources. At the same time, developing countries need to create new low-carbon, super-efficient resource use pathways for their economic development.
Developing countries have to change their idea of what development means in a resource-scarce world. They need to forge a new resource- efficient, low carbon development path, said Mark Swilling of the Sustainability Institute at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.
There is a pressing need for sanitation in much of Africa, but instead of building expensive Western-style water treatment infrastructure, countries can use their wetlands and natural vegetation to provide the same service, Swilling, a co-author of the report, told IPS.
“We will miss out on these kinds of opportunities if we follow Western development patterns,” he said.
Public infrastructure is the biggest determinant of future energy and resource use, said Marina Fischer-Kowalski of the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna.
North America’s infrastructure, including transportation, sanitation, food production and so on, are all high-energy, high-material-use systems, said report co-author Fischer-Kowalski. They were designed with the assumption of never-ending access to cheap and plentiful energy and resources. Efficiency improvements can be made but it is more expensive and limits to what can be done.
“Our report calls for an urgent rethink of the links between resource use and economic prosperity,” Fischer-Kowalski told IPS.
At a bare minimum, wealthy countries need to freeze their per capita consumption and help developing nations follow a more sustainable path, recommends the report, “Decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth”. Decoupling means disconnecting economic growth from increasing use of material resources.
Economic theory has long linked rising economic development as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to increasing resource use. However, countries like Japan and Switzerland have far higher GDP per capita than Australia but they use just 25 percent of the natural resources per capita that Australians use.
Japan has an explicit goal of becoming a “sustainable society” focused on low carbon, the reduction, reuse and recycling of materials, and harmony with nature. The government has successfully focused on increasing resource productivity and minimising negative environmental impacts, the report found.
Germany aims to double energy and resource productivity by 2020. China has declared it will build an “ecological civilisation” with resource and environmental concerns as top priorities.
‘Decoupling’ is a way of getting away from using the GDP to measure growth and development, said Swilling. Since GDP is a measurement of economic activity, disasters like Hurricane Katrina or even a traffic accident increase GDP.
“GDP measures everything except those things that really matter to people,” he said.
This shift to decoupling “will require require significant changes in government policies, corporate behaviour, and consumption patterns”, the report concludes with considerable understatement.
Right now, Africa is being hard pressed to sell off its primary resources to foreign interests. Many African states are becoming increasingly dependent on the cash that exports of minerals, timber and food bring. Meanwhile the rising costs of such resources are driving “land grabs” across the continent, where corporations and foreign states are buying or leasing vast tracts of land, said Swilling.
“Grabbing cheap land in Africa has become a popular sport,” he said.
Over 50 million hectares of African land has been acquired by foreign interests in the last 10 years, according to Oxfam and the International Land Coalition, an NGO tracking the issue. That’s more farmland than Canada has.
Much of Africa’s soils are degraded and need rehabilitation, not exploitation, said Swilling. Food prices are going to rise and this is going to cause havoc in the future.
“Countries need to see their farmland and soil as a strategic priority, as part of their national security,” he said.
While land grabs rightly captures media attention, most of Africa’s export revenues come from selling off its mineral resources. That has to be carefully monitored and at the very least those revenues need to be invested in education and training and the creation of a manufacturing sector, said Swilling.
Education is crucial, agreed Fischer-Kowalski. “Investment in human capital is the key to being able to do more with less,” she said.
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