We need to kick our resource habit before it ruins us
by Izabella Teixeira, Co-Chair of the International Resource Panel and Member of the UN High-level Advisory Board on Economic and Social Affairs
It’s the year 2060. In classrooms around the world, children learn about the apocalyptic climate catastrophe that had been threatening their planet just decades earlier and whose worst effects had been averted. They learn of historic, 90 per cent cuts of emissions and of the millions of hectares of forests saved from the axe. All of this achieved in four short decades, with a booming global economy and reduced inequalities. Impossible? Not according to the latest science.
The “miracle” that could make this vision a reality is still within our reach. It is called decoupling. In the very simplest of terms it means improving humanity’s well-being and growing the world economy without a corresponding increase in the resources we use and the damage that we do to our planet. The latest body of research by the International Resource Panel, which I co-chair, confirms that it is possible to grow our economies much faster than our environmental impact.
Over the centuries, humans have become accustomed to the notion of a free-of-charge, nearly infinite clean air, pure water, abundant fish stocks and fertile soil. Building on that assumption, we developed technologies that allowed us to extract and consume extravagant quantities of resources, sparing little thought to what happens when we drain them dry. Today, our planet is handing us the bill for our insatiable habits.
In 2017 alone, humanity extracted and consumed 92.1 billion tons of materials, compared to 27 billion in 1970. This is a staggering tripling of consumption rates in less than half a century in a world dominated by the linear pattern of “buy, use, and throw”. If we continue at this pace, by 2060, we will be using 190 billion tons of materials, way beyond the planet’s capacity to renew.
We are slowly waking up to our excessive resource use problem, but we have yet to implement the solutions of decoupling strategies. These readily applicable, holistic and science-based strategies aim to change our consumption and production patterns in a way that allows for simultaneously economic growth and a reduction of the resources we use.
In order to avoid dangerous trade-offs, a well-designed decoupling strategy should include three policy packages—resource-efficiency policies, climate mitigation policies and land and life-on-earth policies—accompanied by a shift in the way we behave as a society.
First of all, the resource efficiency policies should incentivize innovation and sustainable technologies, including through changing regulations, technical standards and public procurement policies, coupled with investments in research and development.
Secondly, climate packages should introduce measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This could be achieved through a levy on carbon covering all countries and emission sources. The revenue created could be shared equally among households and Governments. These efforts should be coupled with further decarbonization, carbon neutrality and reduction of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.
The third policy package would ensure that climate and energy policies are consistent with the global goals on land use and food systems. For example, the carbon levy should be administered over emissions produced by land clearing to prevent deforestation and forest degradation. And payments for biosequestration of carbon, for example through tree‑planting, should be restricted only to those activities that enrich biodiversity, and refused to big, monocultural plantations.
Finally, for decoupling to happen, we will need to shift to healthier diets and reduce food waste along the entire supply chain. Both interventions would have the added benefit of improving health and well-being and increasing food security.
Decoupling policies will also need to consider the very different situations of countries. For example, with the outsourcing of manufacturing, high-income countries show lower rates of resource use overall. But the per capita footprint of consumption paints quite a different picture. In 2017 alone, a statistical inhabitant of richer countries used approximately 27 tons of resources, 13 times more than a person in one of the low-income economies.
The growing resource use among developing economies, which is inevitable if they are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, could be offset by reduced use in high-income countries. There are also huge opportunities for developing economies to “get it right” from the start by adopting sustainable practices to avoid becoming locked in outdated technologies that many high-income countries are today seeking to replace.
With well-designed policies and practices in place, by the year 2060, we could reduce the annual extraction of materials to around 143 billion tons instead of the 190 billion tons under a business-as-usual scenario, while the global GDP could be 8 per cent higher than indicated by historical trends.
We can clearly see the impacts of past practices and most current ones. Now, we need to tell new stories and create new visions based on the future, not on the past.
For more information, read “Recover Better: Economic and Social Challenges and Opportunities,” a new volume by the UN High-level Advisory Board on Economic and Social Affairs.
*The views expressed in this blog are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of UN DESA.