Increasing consumption intensified by a growing middle class has tripled primary materials extraction over the last 40 years, with the richest countries consuming around ten times as much as the poorest countries, according to a report published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)-hosted International Resource Panel (IRP).
20 July 2016: Increasing consumption intensified by a growing middle class has tripled primary materials extraction over the last 40 years, with the richest countries consuming around ten times as much as the poorest countries, according to a report published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)-hosted International Resource Panel (IRP).
The report, titled ‘Global Material Flows and Resource Productivity,’ highlights that in 2010, the amount of primary materials extracted was 70 billion tonnes, and that by 2050, if business continues as usual, the world’s population will require 180 billion tonnes of material annually to meet demand. The report warns that this consumption level will increase waste, pollution, climate change and the acidification and eutrophication of soils and water bodies, while also causing shortages of critical materials and amplifying the risks and drivers of conflict.
In the publication’s preface, IRP Co-Chairs Janez Potočnik and Alicia Bárcena Ibarra highlight that the report provides a “comprehensive and harmonized data set” on material use and movement in the global economy for the past 40 years. They note that the data set shows consumption to be “the main driver of increased material use, more important than population growth.” Bárcena Ibarra, in a UNEP press release, urges addressing these issues to stave off irreversible resource depletion, calling for governing natural resource extraction in a manner that contributes to sustainable development “at all levels.”
The report provides a new “material footprint indicator,” which illustrates the amount of materials required for final consumption, and reveals countries’ average material standards of living. The publication indicates that wealthy countries have achieved their standards of living through resource-intensive consumption and production patterns, which are neither sustainable nor replicable in other parts of the world. The report also contends that, inter alia: resource efficiency is now central in the international policy debate; decoupling is an imperative of modern environmental policy; trade in materials has grown; material efficiency has declined; and production and consumption patterns in industrialized countries must change.
The report explains that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) address the natural resource “underpinnings” of economic growth and human development across all aspects of resource use. It highlights SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy), SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), SDG 13 (Climate Action) and SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), particularly target 8.4 on improving resource efficiency in consumption and production and decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation.
According to UNEP, little progress has been made in improving material efficiency since 1990, and efficiency even began to decline around 2000. The publication also indicates a shift in production from more material-efficient economies, such as those in Europe, Japan and the Republic of Korea, to less material-efficient economies like China and India. Regarding consumption, the publication notes that Europe and North America have the highest annual per capita material footprints, followed by China and Brazil. African countries as a whole had the lowest, and the report warns that low-income countries will need increasing amounts of materials to realize the same development level as their high-income counterparts.
To address these issues, the report emphasizes, inter alia, decoupling and investing in research and development (R&D), especially in resource intensive economic sectors. It also recommends improving public policy and finance, and creating economic opportunities, while also putting a price on the social and environmental costs of resource extraction.
The IRP is a consortium of 34 internationally renowned scientists, over 30 national governments and other stakeholders. [UNEP Press Release] [Publication: Global Material Flows and Resource Productivity] [Publication: Global Material Flows and Resource Productivity: Summary for Policymakers]