May 13, 2011

UNEP Warns That Humanity Must Do More With Less

By the year 2050, global resource consumption could approach an average 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year -- three times the current levels -- unless the economic growth rate is somehow disconnected from the rate of natural resource consumption, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) warns in a new report released Thursday.

A UN environmental panel said the world cannot sustain the current rapid rate of resource consumption. It called on governments to "decouple" economic growth from the rate of natural resource consumption.

With the world population expected to surpass 9 billion by 2050 and as developing nations become more prosperous, the report warned "the prospect of much higher resource consumption levels is far beyond what is likely sustainable."

Achim Steiner, head of UNEP, told the Daily Telegraph that the pressure on resources will not only harm the environment but also push up prices and ultimately cause global conflict. The rich world must "freeze" per capita consumption by doing more with less. This means being more efficient with the use of water, replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy and using more public transport.

"Decoupling makes sense on all the economic, social and environmental dials," he told the UK newspaper. "People believe environmental "Ëœbads' are the price we must pay for economic "Ëœgoods.'"

"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," he said.

The UNEP panel said the world is already running out of cheap and quality sources of some essential materials such as oil, copper and gold, which in turn need rising volumes of fuel and water to produce.

Currently people in wealthy nations consume an average of 16 tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year. In some wealthy countries that figure can rise to 40 tons. However, in India, the average person only consumes four tons per year, the report said.

There needs to be a massive rethink of resource use and "massive investment" in technological, financial and social innovation to at least freeze consumption levels in the rich countries.

"China is, in many ways, the test case for the global economy," the UNEP report said of the most populous country with 1.3 billion citizens -- about 15 percent of the total global population. Beijing in 2007 set a goal of becoming an "ecological civilization."

China "wants to continue its rapid economic growth but use resources more sustainably," said the report. Beijing's steps to make those goals happen "will be of crucial significance for every other developing country with similar policy intentions."

The report said decoupling was already happening, but needed acceleration to work. World gross domestic product grew by a factor of 23 in the 20th century and resource use rose by a factor of eight.

"There is a need for policy changes. The market alone won't do it," Marina Fischer-Kowalski, a lead author of the report at the Alpen-Adria University in Austria, told Reuters.

"It's a common challenge to reach a different kind of growth," said Mark Swilling, the other lead author at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.

A steady shift to living in cities may help as people in urban areas generally consume less than those in rural areas.

Steiner said the level of resources consumed by each individual "may need to fall to between 5 and 6 tons" by 2050. Even so, the report acknowledged that seemed to restrictive as a global goal.

Per capita consumption in the United States, Canada and Australia are already well above 20 tons. A less drastic scenario would mean all nations aiming for an estimated 8 tons per capita by 2050, still demanding deep cuts by wealthy nations.

However, rapidly expanding trade 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, the global economy has grown faster than resource consumption growth.

Still, those improvements have only been relative.

Some decoupling is occurring, but only "at a rate that is insufficient to meet the needs of an equitable and sustainable society," the report said. Between 1980 and 2002, the resources required per $1,000 of economic output fell from 2.1 to 1.6 tons.

In addition to China, Germany, Japan and South Africa have governments that support decoupling. Some level of progress has been obtained in those countries.

Germany has established goals to double energy and resource productivity by 2020. It also has ambitious targets for meeting heating, electricity and other energy needs from renewable sources, and the target of a 30 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by that same year.

Japan is committed to becoming a "Sustainable Society" focused on low carbon, the reduction, reuse and recycling of materials, and harmony with nature. It carefully measures the flow of materials. Japan's measures "are probably the most advanced examples (of) increasing resource productivity and minimizing negative environmental impacts in practice," said the report.

South Africa's Constitution requires "ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources." Policies explicitly call for "resource and impact decoupling" and greenhouse-gas emission cuts of 30 to 40 percent by 2050. Progress, though, is destabilized by a growing reliance on exports of coal and other minerals.

"It is time to recognize the limits to the natural resources available to support human development and economic growth," the authors said. Decoupling "will require significant changes in government policies, corporate behavior, and consumption patterns by the public. "¦ Innovation, even radical innovation, will be required."


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