Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

When humans use up the planet – why we need to do less with a lot less

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By 2050, humanity could devour an estimated 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year – three times its current appetite – unless the economic growth rate is “decoupled” from the rate of natural resource consumption. This is the central recommendation of a major new study by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), ‘Decoupling: natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth’.

Developed countries citizens consume an average of 16 tons of those four key resources per capita (ranging up to 40 or more tons per person in some developed countries). By comparison, the average person in India today consumes four tons per year.

With the growth of both population and prosperity, especially in developing countries, the prospect of much higher resource consumption levels is “far beyond what is likely sustainable” if realized at all given finite world resources, warns this report by UNEP’s International Resource Panel. Already 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. Improving the rate of resource productivity (“doing more with less”) faster than the economic growth rate is the notion behind “decoupling,” the panel says.

That goal, however, demands an urgent rethink of the links between resource use and economic prosperity, buttressed by a massive investment in technological, financial and social innovation, to at least freeze per capita consumption in wealthy countries and help developing nations follow a more sustainable path.

Humanity is pressing up against the limits of a finite planet to provide resources like water, oil, metals and food, said a news report by IPS on the UNEP study.

[The ‘Decoupling’ report in full, a summary, factsheet and slides can be found here.]

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.

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.

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