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Natural resources are fundamental for the economy and for well-being. They provide essential raw materials, water and other commodities, and are an important source of income and jobs. With land and ecosystems, they form our society’s natural capital.
Establishing a resource-efficient and sustainable economy is central to achieving green growth. It is the way to ensure adequate supplies of materials; to manage the environmental impacts associated with their extraction, processing, transport, use and disposal; and to make sure that natural resources are not degraded.
To be successful resource efficiency policies need to be founded on a good understanding of the material basis of the economy, of international and national flows of materials, and of the factors that drive changes in resource use and productivity across time, countries and sectors. This report is a first step to provide some of this information.
The last decades have witnessed unprecedented growth in demands for raw materials worldwide, driven in particular by the rapid industrialisation of emerging economies and continued high levels of material consumption in developed countries. At the same time, international commodity markets have expanded, with increasing international trade flows and increasing mobility and fragmentation of production. This has been accompanied by increases in, and volatility of, commodity prices, and by growing competition for selected raw materials.
- The amount of materials extracted from natural resources and consumed worldwide doubled since 1980, an estimated tenfold increase since 1900.
- There are signs of decoupling from economic growth and of improvements in material productivity.
- Much of the change in recent years can be attributed to the slowdown in industrial output and construction activities following the economic crisis.
- An important aspect of the management of material resources is what happens after they have been used. It is estimated that about one-fifth of the raw materials extracted worldwide end up as waste.
- Efforts to transform waste into valuable resources are starting to pay off. Recycling rates increased for some high-volume materials, such as glass, steel, aluminium, paper and plastics, but remain low for many other valuable materials, including precious or speciality metals.
- Markets for secondary raw materials have expanded, but have to cope with volatile commodity prices. Unexploited “urban mines”, i.e. the materials locked in the economy that could one day be available for reuse or recycling free of technical or economic constraints (e.g.
buildings, cars, electric and electronic equipment) represent a potentially important source of raw materials in the future.
By 2050, the world economy is expected to quadruple and the global population to grow to over 9.5 billion. A growing population with higher average income requires more food, more industrial products, more energy and more water, thus placing additional strain on the earth’s material resources and the environment. This creates formidable economic and environmental challenges. As production and consumption have become displaced with increasingly globalised value chains, questions also arise about the distribution of the environmental burden associated with resource use.
- Confronting the scale of these challenges requires more ambitious policies to increase resource productivity at all stages of the material life-cycle.
- Governments have an important role in ensuring that all relevant policies and measures are coherent and well-integrated, and in establishing proper framework conditions.
- The environmental consequences and costs of material resource use are not yet fully understood, nor are the economic opportunities provided by improved resource productivity. More in-depth analysis is needed for specific resources and materials, and their interactions.
- Considerable progress has been made over the past fifteen years to develop methods to analyse material flows and measure resource productivity. Important information gaps remain to be filled.
Establishing a resource-efficient economy is central to achieving green growth. It involves putting in place policies that improve resource productivity and that ensure a sustainable natural resource and materials management building on the principle of the 3Rs —reduce, reuse and recycle— and encouraging more sustainable consumption patterns. Better resource productivity can both help to improve the environment, by reducing the amount of resources that economic activity requires and diminishing the associated environmental burden, and help to sustain economic growth by securing adequate supplies of materials, investing in new technologies and innovation, and improving competitiveness.
To be successful resource efficiency and material productivity policies need to be founded on a good understanding of the material basis of the economy, of international and national flows of materials, and of the factors that drive changes in natural resource use and material productivity over time, across countries and in the different sectors of the economy. Some natural resources, such as water, energy, forests, are monitored internationally, but the information is insufficient to give an integrated view of how minerals, metals, or timber flow through the economy throughout their life cycle. In addition, little is known about how this affects the productivity of the economy and the quality of the environment.
Lucubrate Magazine February 2020
The picture on the top of the article by lzf (Adobe Stock)