UN Environment warns material demands of the world’s economies puts dangerous level of stress on climate and life-support systems
The most wide-ranging environmental tally undertaken of mining and farming has found that extraction industries are responsible for half of the world’s carbon emissions and more than 80% of biodiversity loss.
Resources are being extracted from the planet three times faster than in 1970 – the population has only doubled since then.
The world consumes more than 92b tonnes of materials every year. This is made up of biomass (mostly food), metals, fossil fuels and minerals. This figure increases by 3.2% per year.
- extraction of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) has increased from 6bn tonnes to 15bn tonnes
- metals have risen by 2.7% a year
- other minerals (particularly sand and gravel for concrete) have surged nearly fivefold from 9bn to 44bn tonnes
- biomass harvests have gone up from 9bn to 24bn tonnes.
While this used to be a huge boost to the global economy, since the year 2000 a diminishing rate of return has arisen as resources become more expensive to extract and environmental costs become hard to ignore.
“The global economy has focused on improvements in labour productivity at the cost of material and energy productivity. This was justifiable in a world where labour was the limiting factor of production. We have moved into a world where natural resources and environmental impacts have become the limiting factor of production and shifts are required to focus on resource productivity,” says the study.
Land use change, mostly for agriculture, accounts for over 80% of biodiversity loss and 85% of water stress as forests and swamps are cleared for cropland that needs irrigation. Extraction and primary processing of metals and other minerals is responsible for 20% of health impacts from air pollution and 26% of global carbon emissions.
“I would never have expected that half of climate impacts can be attributed to resource extraction and processing,” said Stefanie Hellweg, a co-author of the study. “It showed how resources are hiding behind products. By focusing on them, their tremendous impact became apparent.” The biggest shock was the huge impact of taking materials out of the ground and preparing them. All sectors combined accounted for 53% of the world’s carbon emissions – even before any fuel is burned.
The paper pointed out huge inequalities. People consume an average of 9.8 tonnes of resources a year in rich countries. This is 13 times higher than in poorer countries. A lot of this is due to massive amounts of materials are needed for small end products, such as mobile phones.
Izabella Teixeira, former environment minister of Brazil, said, “Currently decisions are being based on the past but we need to base them on the future. That means leadership.”
This is a very knotty problem to untangle. The US and Brazil are slashing regulations, China has improved renewables and pollution, but growth is more material-intensive than developed nations. Upper-middle income countries in Asia have the highest demand for minerals, and now have a greater combined material weight than wealthy nations because of the size of their populations.
The world has to decouple its economic growth from material consumption. Otherwise demand would more than double to 190bn tonnes a year, greenhouse gases would rise by 40%, and demand for land would increase by 20%!
How can this situation be avoided?
- faster transition to renewables
- smarter urban planning to reduce use of concrete
- dietary changes to lower the need for grazing
- cut levels of waste (currently a third of all food)
- create a cyclical economy that re-uses materials
- switch taxation away from income and towards carbon and resource extraction.
“It is possible to grow in a different way with fewer side-effects. This report is clear proof that it is possible and with higher growth,” said Janez Potočnik, co-chair of International Resource Panel and former environment commissioner for the European Union. “It’s not an easy job to do, but believe me the alternative is much worse.”