Humanity’s current voracious consumption of resources cannot be sustained, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) cautioned in a new report today, warning that the world was already running out of cheap and sources of some essential materials such as oil, copper and gold.
According to the report by UNEP’s International Resource Panel, by 2050, human beings could devour an estimated 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year – three times the current consumption rate, unless economic growth is “decoupled” from natural resource use.
Currently developed countries citizens consume an average of 16 tons of those four key resources per capita ¬¬¬– ranging up to 40 or more tons per person in some countries. By comparison, the average person in India today consumes four tons per year.
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, the report warns.
The report calls for improving the rate of resource productivity or “doing more with less.”
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 report recommends.
The trend towards urbanization may help as well, experts note, since cities allow economies of scale and more efficient service provision. Densely populated places consume fewer resources per capita than sparsely populated ones thanks to more efficient services such as water delivery, housing, waste management and recycling, energy use and transportation, according to the authors of the report.
“Decoupling makes sense on all the economic, social and environmental dials,” said Achim Steiner, the UNEP 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. 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,” added Mr. Steiner.
The report is the fourth one in a series and was launched earlier this month in New York at the annual meeting of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, where sustainable consumption and production are key issues.