Can we achieve economic growth and global prosperity whilst simultaneously reducing – or even reversing – the environmental degradation caused by extracting the resources required to fuel that growth?
This challenge – known as ‘decoupling’ economic growth and resource use – is the subject of intense debate and the focus of research.
The UN’s International Resource Panel (IRP) notes that, since the 1970s, the global population has doubled while global GDP has grown fourfold. These trends have required large amounts of natural resources and the economic gains they have brought have come at a tremendous cost to the natural environment.
In its Global Resources Outlook, published in 2019, IRP attempts to understand the impacts of growing resource use, and to develop ‘coherent scenario projections’ for resource efficiency and sustainable production and consumption that decouple economic growth from environmental degradation.
IRP presents an ‘Historical Trends’ scenario that shows the current trajectory of natural resource use and management to be unsustainable, and a ‘Towards Sustainability’ scenario which shows how resource efficiency and sustainable consumption and production policies could deliver economic growth, improve well-being, and support more equal distribution whilst simultaneously reducing resource use.
The Towards Sustainability model is not a forecast but a scenario that implies profound shifts in consumption, efficiency and production. Importantly, it does not take into account the metals requirement linked to the transition to renewable electricity.
The OECD’s Global Material Resources Outlook, published in 2018, finds that global consumption of raw materials will nearly double by 2060, with the largest increases coming from minerals and metals.
Globally the use of material resources grew from 27 billion tonnes in 1970 to 89 billion tons in 2017 according to the report. In the absence of new policies global materials use will rise to 167 Gt in 2060, say the authors.
The report projects demand for 61 materials – categorised as biomass resources, fossil fuels, metals and non-metallic minerals – and their environmental consequences. The largest demand increases, it finds, will be in minerals and metals, including construction materials.
Non-metallic minerals are projected to grow from 44 Gt to 86 Gt Between 2017 and 2060. Metal use is smaller when measured in weight but is projected to grow more rapidly. Metal extraction and processing is associated with large environmental impacts.
The report finds that population and per capita income growth will be the key drivers of increased materials use, although technology could “partially dampen” the increase. The report acknowledges the growing importance of recycling, but expects the sector to remain a significantly smaller industry than mining for primary materials.
Environmental and social impacts from primary material extraction – particularly around metals such as iron, aluminium, copper, nickel, lead, zinc and manganese – include air and water pollution, climate change, energy demand, human health and toxicity of water and land.
The overall environmental impacts of extraction and processing of key metals are projected to at least double between 2017 and 2060, mostly driven by the increase in the scale of materials use.
The report concludes that the decoupling of materials use from environmental impacts of GDP growth shows only limited progress.