Global materials extraction intensifying climate change, air pollution
Rising consumption fuelled by a growing middle class has seen the amount of primary materials extracted from the Earth triple in the last four decades, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)-hosted International Resource Panel (IRP).
The dramatic increase in the use of fossil fuels, metals and other materials will intensify climate change, increase air pollution, reduce biodiversity and ultimately lead to the depletion of natural resources, causing worrying shortages of critical materials and heightening the risk of local conflicts, warns the report.
The information on material flows contained in the new report complements economic statistics, identifies the scale and urgency of global environmental issues and supports the monitoring of the progress countries are making towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The amount of primary materials extracted from the Earth rose from 22 billion tonnes in 1970 to a staggering 70 billion tonnes in 2010, with the richest countries consuming on average 10 times as many materials as the poorest countries and twice as much as the world average.
If the world continues to provide housing, mobility, food, energy and water in the same way as today, by 2050 the planet’s nine billion people would require 180 billion tonnes of material every year to meet demand. This is almost three times today’s amount and will likely raise the acidification and eutrophication of the world’s soils and water bodies, increase soil erosion and lead to greater amounts of waste and pollution.
The report also ranks countries by the size of their per-capita material footprints – the amount of material required for final demand in a country, an indicator that sheds light on the true impact of a country on the global natural resource base. It is also a good proxy for the material standard of living in a country.
Africa’s footprint is below three tonnes per capita is lowest in the rung. Europe and North America, which had annual per capita material footprints of 20 and 25 tonnes in 2010, are at the top of the table. By comparison, China had a material footprint of 14 tonnes per capita and Brazil 13 tonnes.
The annual per-capita material footprint for Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, and West Asia is between 9 and 10 tonnes. Global material use has rapidly accelerated since 2000 as emerging economies like China undergo industrial and urban transformations that require unprecedented amounts of iron, steel, cement, energy and construction materials.
Since 1990, there has been little improvement in global material efficiency. In fact, efficiency started to decline around 2000. The global economy now needs more material per unit of GDP than it did at the turn of the century because production has shifted from material-efficient economies such as Japan, South Korea and Europe to far less material-efficient economies like China, India and South East Asia. This has led to an increase in environmental pressure for every unit of economic activity.
The report, Global Material Flows and Resource Productivity, presents various ways the world can maintain economic growth and increase human development while reducing the amount of primary materials it uses to achieve this.
Decoupling escalating material use from economic growth is the “imperative of modern environmental policy and essential for the prosperity of human society and a healthy natural environment”, states the IRP, which is a consortium of 34 internationally renowned scientists, over 30 national governments and other groups.