The only way towards a sustainable future is by accounting for the negative impacts of extraction and consumption on the environment and our well-being.
The extraction and processing of natural resources now accounts for more than 90 percent of global biodiversity loss and water stress impacts, and approximately half of global greenhouse gas emissions, a flagship UN report concludes.
The Global Resources Outlook report, released on Tuesday at the United Nations Environmental Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, provides a global analysis of the world's natural resource use and management.
The report depicts a story of relentless growth and increasingly severe trade-offs for human well-being and environmental health.
Izabella Teixeira, co-chair of the International Resources Panel and an author of the report, said: “Over the last 50 years, material extraction and consumption has tripled. This is not surprising knowing that the global population has doubled and global GDP has grown fourfold since then.”
“What is reason for concern, however, is how the benefits of that resource use have been distributed,” Teixeira adds.
While consumption is growing in upper-middle income countries such as Brazil, India and China, high-income countries continue to outsource resource intensive production, exporting the negative external impact that come with resource extraction to middle- and low-income countries.
The world’s poorest countries, on the other hand, have rarely seen any growth in material consumption, even though they have the highest need for higher material living circumstances.
Janez Potocnik, co-chair of the International Resources Panel and an author of the report, said: “We are not saying that developing countries are not allowed to grow and increase consumption. Low income countries would benefit a lot from an increase in their resource use. This report outlines the need for a more comprehensive and careful approach, instead of rampant one-dimensional growth.
“Even a country like China, known for its incredible economic growth, is now having to come to terms with the fact that it needs to take sustainability into account if it wants to ensure its future.”
The use of coal, petroleum and natural gas increased from 6 billion tonnes a year in 1970 to 15 billion tonnes a year in 2017.
A huge increase in capacity for the generation of global fossil fuel electricity has increased access to affordable energy for many in recent years, but has come at high environmental and health costs and has locked the world in environmentally harmful technologies, the UN report states.
Based on current trends, greenhouse gas emissions are projected to further increase by 43 percent by 2060. To attain the sustainable development goals, however, greenhouse gas emissions would have to decrease by 90 percent.
Similarly, global pasture lands would have to decrease by 30 percent, intensive agricultural land would have to decrease by 9 percent and forests would need to increase by 11 percent by 2060 for the world to reach sustainability.
Potocnik explained: “The only way towards a sustainable future is by accounting for the negative impacts of extraction and consumption on the environment and our well-being.
“The environmental and health trade-offs from rapid growth and increased resource consumption are usually not accounted for in a country’s GDP. If they had [been accounted for], the last few decades of global GDP growth would have been minimal.”
Arthur Wyns is a biologist and science journalist who writes about climate change, environment, health and migration. He tweets from @ArthurWyns.
Image: Gerry Machen, Flickr.