Global consumption of natural resources could almost triple to 127 billion tonnes a year by 2050 unless nations take drastic steps, the UN warned on Thursday.
A UN environment panel said the world cannot sustain the tearaway rate of use of minerals, ores and fossil and plant fuels. It called on governments to “decouple” economic growth from natural resource consumption.
With the world population expected to hit 9.3 billion by 2050 and developing nations becoming more prosperous, the report warned “the prospect of much higher resource consumption levels is far beyond what is likely sustainable.”
A UN Environment Programme (UNEP) panel said the world is already running out of cheap and quality sources of some essential materials, such as oil, copper and gold, which in turn need rising volumes of fuel and water to produce.
It said governments must find ways to do more with less, at a faster rate than economic growth — the notion of “decoupling.”
“We must realize that prosperity and well-being do not depend on consuming ever-greater quantities of resources,” the report said. “Decoupling is not about stopping growth. It’s about doing more with less. Global resource consumption is exploding. It’s not a trend that is in any way sustainable.”
Total world resource use has risen from about 6 billion tonnes in 1900 to 46 billion tonnes in 2000 and has already gone up to an estimated 54 billion tonnes this year.
Currently people in rich nations consume an average of 15 tonnes of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass — fuels and other products from plants — a year. In some wealthy countries the figure rises to 36 tonnes.
In India, however, the average person only consumes 4 tonnes a year, the report said.
The panel said there has to be a major rethink of resource use and “massive investment” in technological, financial and social innovation to at least freeze consumption levels in wealthy countries.
“People believe that environmental ‘bads’ are the price we must pay for economic ‘goods.’ However, we cannot and need not continue to act as if this trade-off is inevitable,” UNEP executive director Achim Steiner said.
Mark Swilling, a professor at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa who was one of the authors of the report, said rapid industrialization and the growing population was leading to the resource crisis.
“There is another billion middle-class consumers on the way as a result of rapid industrialization in developing countries,” Swilling said.
He said that current rates of efficiency to make goods and services mean that “we are looking at that massive growth to 140 billion tons [127 billion tonnes].”
With populations in rich countries stabilizing or falling, the main challenge will be in developing countries.
The latest of a series of UNEP reports on economic and environmental sustainability said decoupling has started, but it is not being activated quickly enough.
Between 1980 and 2002, the resources required for US$1,000 of economic output fell from 1.9 tonnes to 1.45 tonnes. The increasing move of people from the countryside to cities as helped as this aids campaigns to achieve economies of scale, the report said.
The authors praised Germany and Japan for their move to set goals for energy and resource productivity. It highlighted how South Africa’s Constitution requires “ecologically sustainable development and the use of natural resources.”
China has also set out to build an “ecological civilization” and the report said that China would be a “test case” because of its huge population and growing industrialization.
“The measures that China introduces to reconcile these objectives will be of crucial significance for every other developing country with similar policy intentions,” the report said.