Quantcast
Climate

Human Consumption of Earth's Natural Resources Has Tripled in 40 Years

By Alex Kirby

Humans' appetite for gnawing away at the fabric of the Earth itself is growing prodigiously. According to a new UN report, the amount of the planet's natural resources extracted for human use has tripled in 40 years.

A report produced by the International Resource Panel (IRP), part of the UN Environment Programme, says rising consumption driven by a growing middle class has seen resources extraction increase from 22 billion tons in 1970 to 70 billon tons in 2010.

Landscape deeply scarred by an open cut coal mine in Hunter Valley, Australia.Max Phillips / Flickr

It refers to natural resources as primary materials and includes under this heading biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores and non-metallic minerals.

The increase in their use, the report warns, will ultimately deplete the availability of natural resources—causing serious shortages of critical materials and risking conflict.

Growing primary material consumption will affect climate change mainly because of the large amounts of energy involved in extraction, use, transport and disposal.

Irreversibly Depleted

"The alarming rate at which materials are now being extracted is already having a severe impact on human health and people's quality of life," said the IRP's co-chair, Alicia Bárcena Ibarra.

"We urgently need to address this problem before we have irreversibly depleted the resources that power our economies and lift people out of poverty. This deeply complex problem, one of humanity's biggest tests yet, calls for a rethink of the governance of natural resource extraction."

The IRP says the information contained in the new report supports the monitoring of the progress countries are making towards achieving the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. It also shows the uneven way in which the materials exploited are shared.

The richest countries consume on average 10 times as much of the available resources as the poorest and twice as much as the world average.

This total—almost three times today's amount—will probably increase the acidification of the world's waters, the eutrophication of its soils and waters, worsen soil erosion and lead to greater amounts of waste and pollution.

The report also ranks countries by the size of their per capita material footprints—the amount of material required in a country, an indicator that sheds light on its true impact on the global natural resource base. It is also a good way to judge a country's material standard of living.

Europe and North America, which had annual per capita material footprints of 20 and 25 tons in 2010, are at the top of the table. China's footprint was 14 tons and Brazil's 13. The annual per-capita material footprint for Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean and West Asia was 9-10 tons, and Africa's was below 3 tons.

Unprecedented Amounts

Global material use has rapidly accelerated since 2000, the report says, as emerging economies such as China undergo industrial and urban transformation that requires unprecedented amounts of iron, steel, cement, energy and building materials.

Compounding the problems, there has been little improvement in global material efficiency since 1990. The global economy now needs more material per unit of GDP than it did at the turn of the century, the IRP says, because production has moved from material-efficient economies such as Japan, South Korea and Europe to far less materially-efficient countries such as China, India and some in south-east Asia.

The report says uncoupling the increasing material use from economic growth is the "imperative of modern environmental policy and essential for the prosperity of human society and a healthy natural environment."

This will require investment in research and development, combined with better public policy and financing, creating opportunities for sustained economic growth and job creation.

The IRP also recommends putting a price on primary materials at extraction to reflect the social and environmental costs of resource extraction and use, while reducing consumption. The extra funds generated, it says, could then be invested in R&D in resource-intensive sectors of the economy.

It is concerned that the expanding demand for materials that low-income countries are likely to experience could contribute to local conflicts such as those seen in areas where mining competes with agriculture and urban development.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Animals
Two baby Loggerhead turtles. U.S. Air Force / Senior Airman Veronica McMahon

A Record 589 Sea Turtles Killed By Florida's Toxic Red Tide

Florida's longest red tide in more than a decade has killed scores of the state's most iconic marine animals.

The current outbreak, which began in October 2017 off southwest Florida, has been tied to a record 589 sea turtle deaths and 213 manatee deaths, the Herald-Tribune reported, citing figures from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
Lake Baikal. W0zny / Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

Wildlife Under Siege at the World’s Oldest Lake

By Marlene Cimons

Lake Baikal is the world's oldest and deepest lake. It's at least 20 million years old, and roughly a mile deep at its lowest point. The Siberian lake contains holds more water than all the North American Great Lakes combined, what amounts to more than one-fifth of all the water found in lakes, swamps and rivers. It was formed by the shifting of tectonic plates, which created a valley that filled with water. That shift continues today at a rate of around 1 to 2 centimeters year, meaning the world's biggest lake is only getting bigger.

Keep reading... Show less
Insights/Opinion
Oil rig operating next to a walk and bike way in the Signal Hill area of Los Angeles. Sarah Craig / Faces of Fracking / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

U.S. Oil and Gas Industry Is Drilling Us Towards Climate Disaster

By Kelly Trout

As the 116th Congress commences, in the wake of dire reports from climate scientists, the debate over U.S. climate policies has taken a welcome turn towards bold solutions. Spurred on by grassroots pressure from Indigenous communities, the youth-led Sunrise Movement and communities from coast to coast fighting fossil fuel infrastructure, Capitol Hill is alive once again with policy proposals that edge towards the scale required to address the crisis we're in.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
Bumblebee on goldenrod. Jim Hudgins / USFWS

Half of Michigan's Bumblebee Species in Decline, One Extinct

Honeybees get a lot of attention for their worrisome decline, but many species of bumblebees—which are key pollinators—are also in trouble.

In Michigan, half of its bumblebee species have declined by 50 percent or more, Michigan Radio reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
Bound bales of crushed plastic bottles and containers sit stacked ready to be recycled at a recycling center in the Netherlands. Jasper Juinen / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Toward a Circular Economy: Tackling the Plastics Recycling Problem

By Margaret Sobkowicz

Why has the world continued to increase consumption of plastic materials when at the same time, environmental and human health concerns over their use have grown?

Keep reading... Show less
Oceans
Bleached coral at the Great Barrier Reef. The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey / Richard Vevers

2018 Was the Hottest Year Ever Recorded for Our Oceans

The year 2018 was the hottest year for the planet's oceans ever since record-keeping began in 1958, according to a worrisome new study from international scientists.

The findings, published Wednesday in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences, noted that the five warmest years for our oceans were the last five years—2018, 2017, 2015, 2016 and 2014 (in order of decreasing ocean heat content).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
EPA Acting Administrator Wheeler / EPA

Senate Shouldn’t Put Wheeler at the Wheel of the EPA

By Ana Unruh Cohen

As the longest government shut down in history drags on, and the experts protecting our air and water remain off the job, the Senate is barreling forward to put Andrew Wheeler at the wheel of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He is unfit for this public trust.

In his seven-month tenure as the acting administrator at EPA, Wheeler's relentlessly pushed to advance the pro-polluter agenda launched by Scott Pruitt, the worst administrator in the agency's storied 48-year history. Wheeler may lack Pruitt's scandals, but he's no improvement.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Westend61 / Getty Images

Top 20 Healthy Salad Toppings

By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD

Salads are typically made by combining lettuce or mixed greens with an assortment of toppings and a dressing.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!