The worldwide use of natural material resources, such as fossil fuels and metals, has tripled over the past 40 years. And it will triple again in the next 40, according to a United Nations report released July 20.
The data gathered in the report could add a level of precision to currently vague and immeasurable sustainability goals.
The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were drafted last year, setting targets for 2030. Some of the targets are relatively precise and easy to measure, such as ensuring no one in the world earns less than $1.25 a day.
But many of the targets have been criticized for being vague, including those related to natural resources, production, and consumption. For example, one of the targets reads, “By 2030, achieve the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources.”
Another states: “Support developing countries to strengthen their scientific and technological capacity to move towards more sustainable patterns of consumption and production.”
With the base measurements provided by the report, countries that have signed onto the SDGs may better track their progress and set concrete, number-based targets.
In 1970, 7 tons of raw materials were used per capita across the world. You can picture that as each person on Earth requiring 7 tons of metals, timber, and other materials to furnish the implements of his or her daily life. (Of course, the distribution isn’t so equal in reality; North Americans used some 25 tons each on average, while Africans used less than 3 tons).
By 2000, each person was using about 8.7 tons—that’s an increase of about 23 percent.
By 2010, each person was using about 11.1 tons. That’s an increase of about 28 percent in 10 years. Within the past decade, we’ve increased our material consumption more than we did in the previous three decades.
What Caused the Growth in Consumption?
The rise in the use of materials was largely caused by development in the Asia-Pacific region, according to the report.
As developing countries industrialize and the global middle class grows, the demand on material resources grows. Steel, cement, and energy are among the many commodities needed to build infrastructure in rapidly developing nations.
Countries at a more advanced level of development tend to use materials more efficiently, especially making use of technological advancements, the report explained. But in the early stages of development, there’s a lot of waste.
Consumerism has its role to play as well. This point is tacitly built into the report’s suggestion that employers reward workers with shorter working hours instead of rewarding them with higher pay, which would further fuel consumption. The report also suggests that products be built to last longer.
North America and Europe had material footprints per capita that were about double those in Asia, Latin America, and other regions (about 22 to 27 tons for each person in North America and Europe versus about 10 to 11 tons in the other regions).
Before the global financial crisis in 2008, North Americans required “well above” 33 tons of materials each on average.
The only time the material consumption footprint decreased in the world over the past 40 years was during the financial crisis. But the upward trajectory has resumed with the economic recovery, and it’s hard to predict exactly how much it will continue to grow.
But the report estimated that our consumption will triple by 2050.
Importers Versus Exporters
Europe and North America import more materials than they export. The Asia-Pacific region, on the other hand, is a net exporter.
The report noted that importers benefit more financially from using material efficiently, from achieving more with less. Exporting regions, however, have less economic reason to invest in material efficiency.
The relationship between economic interests and sustainability is a prickly one. The prices of natural material resources will impact sustainability plans and sustainability plans could impact the prices of materials.
The report states: “The economic success story of the twentieth century of Europe, the United States, and Japan post-WWII was enabled by stable or decreasing world market prices for most natural resources.
“Since 2000, the price of many natural resources has started to grow, creating a new economic context of higher and perhaps more volatile prices for primary materials. … At the time this assessment study is being written, it is hard to judge what the trend in prices for primary materials is going to be in the years to come.”
Scarcity is often thought to affect material prices, but this isn’t necessarily the case for non-renewable resources, according to the report: “The massive price increases experienced by most metals, for much of the decade post-2000, do not appear to have been caused by testing the limits of the Earth’s stocks of these materials.”
Instead, the high prices may have had to do with a rise in demand outpacing the ability of miners to develop the infrastructure to extract more.
Will We Run Out?
A projection of the increased rate at which we are using up non-renewable resources may naturally raise a question: Will we run out?
Projections of how long our resources will last have been made using current estimates of reserves. But the report warns that such estimates are likely very low compared to the reality. Among the many factors that make such estimates inaccurate are the changing market prices, advances in technology, and further exploration to find more reserves.
“The basic problem is that ‘reserves’ generally only include those portions of mineral deposits which have been found, closely defined (usually by costly drilling and chemical analyses), and can be economically exploited using current technologies and at current prevailing prices for the commodity involved,” the report states.
With these limitations in mind, the report lists the best estimates for when we will run out of various materials: Oil will run out in 65 years, coal in 188 years, natural gas in 67 years, iron ore in 72 years, copper ore in 53 years, and bauxite and alumina in 124 years.
Recycling is a limited solution: “Large amounts of biomass and energy carriers … have little potential for recycling, and construction minerals … [end] up in long-lived stocks.”
The report suggests focusing on the prices of primary materials at the point of extraction, instead of focusing on “end of the pipe” solutions.
It offers some general starting points for solutions: use improved building materials and insulation to cut energy costs, design walkable cities and boost public transport, increase fuel efficiency, reduce world consumption of meat and dairy, and create more durable products.
But the report is ultimately not meant to offer solutions, but to present data to inform policy-makers, especially as they figure out practical ways to implement the SDGs.