Resource extraction, from fossil fuels and mining to food and biofuels, is responsible for more than half of global greenhouse gas emissions and 80% of biodiversity loss, according to a Global Resource Outlook released last week at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya.
“Resources are being extracted from the planet three times faster than in 1970, even though the population has only doubled in that time,” The Guardian reports, citing the release. “While this is crucial for food, fuel, and minerals, the study by UN Environment warns the increasing material weight of the world’s economies is putting a more dangerous level of stress on the climate and natural life support systems than previously thought.”
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The study authors “said it was essential to decouple economic growth from material consumption,” the news report adds. “Without change, they said resource demand would more than double to 190 billion tonnes a year, greenhouse gases would rise by 40%, and demand for land would increase by 20%.”
But “this dire scenario could be avoided if there is a faster transition towards renewables, smarter urban planning to reduce the demand for concrete, dietary changes to lower the need for grazing pastures and cut levels of waste (currently a third of all food), and a greater focus on creating a cyclical economy that re-uses more materials. They also called for a switch of taxation policies away from income and towards carbon and resource extraction.”
“It is possible to grow in a different way with fewer side effects,” said panel co-chair and former EU environment commissioner Janez Potočnik. “It’s not an easy job to do, but believe me, the alternative is much worse.”
The report points to a 13-fold difference in resource consumption between people in rich and poor countries, with wealthier parts of the world averaging 9.8 tonnes per capita. “Much of this is unseen because huge amounts of materials are often needed for a small end product, such as a mobile phone,” The Guardian states.
The biggest surprise for the report’s authors was the 53% of global greenhouse gas emissions that go into extracting materials and preparing them for use—excluding all the fuel that is eventually burned. “I would never have expected that half of climate impacts can be attributed to resource extraction and processing,” said co-author Stefanie Hellweg. “It showed how resources are hiding behind products. By focusing on them, their tremendous impact became apparent.”
The report blames land use changes, particularly agriculture, for more than 80% of biodiversity loss and 85% of water stress. Metals and minerals contribute 20% of the health impact of air pollution and 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Total extraction adds up to a staggering 92 billion tonnes of materials per year, and is growing at an annual rate of 3.2%, the report found, implying a doubling time of just under 22 years. In just five decades, the report says annual fossil extraction has increased from 6.0 to 15 billion tonnes, minerals like sand and gravel from 9.0 to 44 billion tonnes, biomass from 9.0 to 24 billion tonnes, and metals by 2.7% per year.
Former Brazil environment minister Izabella Teixeira said the report shows rich consumer nations exporting environmental stress to poor producing countries, “Currently decisions are being based on the past, but we need to base them on the future,” she said. “That means leadership.”
While The Guardian notes it isn’t clear where that leadership will come from, with the United States and Brazil abandoning environmental regulation and China adopting a resource-intensive pattern of development, the current approach has been failing since the turn of the century. “Since then, there has been a diminishing rate of return, as resources become more expensive to extract and the environmental costs become harder to ignore,” the UK-based paper notes.
“The global economy has focused on improvements in labour productivity at the cost of material and energy productivity,” the UN study said. “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.”