Resource use ‘must be separated from economic growth’, says UNEP

The unsustainable use of natural resources will continue to have a 'crippling' impact on price volatility and the environment unless economic growth is decoupled from resource consumption, according to a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The report – Decoupling 2: Technologies, Opportunities and Policy Options – is based on research undertaken by UNEP’s International Resource Panel (IRP. It points to a 260% hike in energy prices since the year 2000, along with a 176% rise in metal prices and 350% increase in rubber costs as just a few examples of the costly results of current consumption of non-renewable resources.

The best solution to the issue would be to harness existing technologies and appropriate policies to increase resource productivity, which the report estimates could save up to US$3.7tn globally each year and insulate future economic growth.

“The worldwide use of natural resources has accelerated – annual material extraction grew by a factor of eight through the twentieth century, causing severe environmental damage and depletion of natural resources,” said UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP’s executive director Achim Steiner. “Yet this dangerous explosion in demand is set to accelerate as a result of population growth and rising incomes.”

“Dramatic improvements in resource productivity are a vital element of a transition to a Green Economy that will lift one billion people out of poverty and manage the natural resources required for the wellbeing of nine billion people by 2050. This requires an urgent rethink of current practices, backed by a massive investment in technological, financial and social innovation.”

This builds on an earlier study, which warned that developed nation consumption patterns and increases in population and prosperity will put humanity on track to consume 140 billion tonnes of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year by 2050 unless economic growth is decoupled from resource consumption.

Barriers to growth

The report argues that existing barriers to decoupling can be removed – notably subsidies for energy and water use, outdated regulatory frameworks and technological biases. Such policy change can create stable, successful economies over the long-term, it says.

Responding to the report’s findings, the EU’s Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potočnik said: “The report clearly demonstrates that business as usual is not an option. Rising commodity prices mark the end of an era of cheap and abundant resources.

“On the contrary, the report gives many examples that show improving resource efficiency is a way out of the crisis. Resource efficiency provides innovation and market opportunities to business, allowing them to maintain competitiveness, enjoy sustainable profits and minimise the risks of resource scarcity and degradation.”

Last week, edie reported from European Green Week 2014 that Potočnik had announced details of a revised package of measures to accelerate Europe’s transition to a circular economy. Read more here.

Many countries have already put in place policy mixes that promote decoupling. At European Union level, the seventh Environmental Action Programme, the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe and the Energy Efficiency Directive of 2012 are all long-term strategies moving energy, climate change, research and innovation, industry, transport, agriculture, fisheries and environment policy all towards decoupling.

The issue of decoupling escalating resource use and environmental degradation from economic growth is further highlighted in a recent edie+ article from Michael Townsend, founder & CEO of sustainable business solutions firm Earthshine. 

To read the full report – Decoupling 2: Technologies, Opportunities and Policy Options – click here.

Luke Nicholls

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