By 2050, humanity could consume 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, warns a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme.
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 the 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.
Achieving a rate of resource productivity ("doing more with less") greater 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.
The trend towards urbanization may help as well, experts note, since cities allow for economies of scale and more efficient service provision. Densely populated places consume fewer resources per capita than sparsely populated ones thanks to economies in such areas as water delivery, housing, waste management and recycling, energy use and transportation, they say.
"Decoupling makes sense on all the economic, social and environmental dials," says UN Under Secretary-General Achim Steiner, UNEP's Executive Director.
"People believe 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," he says. "Decoupling is part of a transition to a low carbon, resource efficient Green Economy needed in order to stimulate growth, generate decent kinds of employment and eradicate poverty in a way that keeps humanity's footprint within planetary boundaries."
"Next year's Rio+20 meeting represents an opportunity to accelerate and scale-up these 'green shoots' of a Green Economy, which are emerging across the developed and developing world."
The new report from UNEP's International Resource Panel, the fourth in a series, was launched in New York at the annual meeting of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, where sustainable consumption and production are key issues. And it precedes by a year the global UN Conference on Sustainable Development 2012 meeting (or "Rio+20" in Rio de Janeiro 4-6 June 2012) with its two central themes of a Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and achieving agreement on an international framework for sustainable development.
While the report doesn't offer detailed policy and technology options -- that's for later reports -- it says technologies that have helped humanity extract ever-greater quantities of natural resources need to be re-directed to more efficient ways of using them.
Global average annual per capita resource consumption in year 2000 was 8 to 10 tons, about double the rate of 1900. In 2000, the average rate in industrialized countries (home to one-fifth of world population) was roughly twice the global average and four or five times that of the poorest developing countries.
Global (and national) consumption rates per capita are calculated by dividing total world (and national) extractions of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass by world (and national) population figures.
Rapidly expanding international trade, however, obscures responsibility for resource consumption and associated environmental impacts, the authors note.
Over the past century, pollution controls and other measures have reduced the environmental impacts of economic growth. And, thanks to innovations in manufacturing, product design and energy use -- aided by the rising number of people living more efficient lifestyles in cities -- the global economy has grown faster than resource consumption growth.
Still, those improvements have only been relative. In absolute terms -- with population growth, continuing high levels of consumption in the industrialized countries, and increased demand for material goods, particularly in China, India, Brazil and other quickly-emerging economies -- total resource use grew eight-fold, from 6 billion tons in 1900 to 49 billion tons in 2000. It is now estimated at up to 59 billion tons.
Decoupling is occurring but "at a rate that is insufficient to meet the needs of an equitable and sustainable society," the report says. Between 1980 and 2002, the resources required per $1,000 (U.S.) of economic output fell from 2.1 to 1.6 tons.
The report details progress in four countries where government policy supports decoupling. Germany and Japan have both demonstrated the possibilities.
China, in particular, is a global test case, "because it wants to continue its rapid economic growth but use resources more sustainably," the report says.
"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 emphasizes that cutting the rate of resource consumption and impacts is possible, in theory, if national economic improvement is defined in terms other than physical growth.
"It is time to recognize the limits to the natural resources available to support human development and economic growth," the authors say. Decoupling "will require significant changes in government policies, corporate behaviour, and consumption patterns by the public. … Innovation, even radical innovation, will be required."
The report describes three scenarios whereby developed and developing countries consume resources equitably: 'convergence by 2050'
Scenario 1: Business as usual in developed countries, convergence by others
Per capita resource consumption in the industrialized countries remains stable, as it has for the past three decades, and the rest of the world continues the current trend to catch up. This path leads to annual total consumption of 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass, or 16 tons per capita for a population of 9 billion, by 2050. Says the report: this "represents an unsustainable future in terms of both resource use and emissions, probably exceeding all possible measures of available resources and assessments of limits to the capacity to absorb impacts."
Scenario 2: moderate contraction of consumption in developed countries, convergence by others
Industrialized nations halve average per capita consumption to 8 tons and other countries rise to that level. The result: total world consumption of 70 billion tons in 2050. "This scenario presupposes substantial structural change amounting to a new pattern of industrial production and consumption that would be quite different from the traditional resource-intensive Western industrial model," the report says.
This scenario results in global consumption of 70 billion tons by 2050 -- about 40% more annual resource extraction than in 2000. Average emissions of carbon dioxide per capita would rise almost 50% to 1.6 tons per capita and global CO2 emissions would more than double.
Absolute cuts in consumption -- well short of the scale required in scenario two -- have occurred in just a handful of countries, and in some cases only because they have lowered their per capita consumption rate by importing resources from elsewhere.
Scenario 3: tough contraction of consumption in developed countries, converging with others
Industrialized nations reduce per capita consumption by two thirds and other nations remain at current rates, resulting in a global per capita consumption rate of 6 tons and total world consumption of about 50 billion tons, the same as in year 2000.
This scenario would be so restrictive, and so unappealing to politicians, that it "can hardly be addressed as a possible strategic goal," the authors admit.
Yet, even such tough measures would maintain global consumption at levels many scientists still consider unsustainable. Average CO2 per capita emissions would be reduced by roughly 40% to 0.75 tons/capita and global emissions would remain constant at their 2000 level.
"These scenarios challenge our current thinking and assumptions about development," says the report. "If investments in developing and developed countries are made today that lock humanity into a business-as-usual or moderately improved resource intensive growth path, the risks of running into ecological and supply constraints will worsen."
"This finding has spurred the International Resource Panel to focus future reports on how to improve resource productivity and find viable alternatives for policy makers."
Challenges ahead include:
Reasons for optimism: