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May 12, 2011

A United Nations report has found that the world is set to treble its consumption of natural resources by the middle of this century, unless countries are able to de-couple resource extraction from economic growth.

Oil pipelines
With oil in increasingly short supply, creative solutions are called forImage: AP

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report says that if the world continues using its resources at current rates, humanity will be getting through some 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass annually by the year 2050.

The report described this as "three times its current appetite," and an "unsustainable" rate of extraction.

At the moment, citizens of developed countries use four times more natural resources than those in some developing countries, but with consumption rates set to rise in tandem with population and prosperity, the depletion of resources all over the globe will be profoundly unsustainable.

The UNEP panel says the solution is to learn to do more with less and make what is there go further. The key to pulling that off is "decoupling" the existing links between resource use and economic prosperity.

"People believe the environmental 'bads' are the price we must pay for economic 'goods'," UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said, adding that it was time to stop acting as if the trade-off were inevitable.

"Decoupling is a part of a transition to a low carbon, resource efficient, green economy needed in order to stimulate growth, generate decent kinds of employment and eradicate poverty in a way that keeps humanity's footprint within planetary boundaries," Steiner said.

'Nightmares' need not apply

Two people showering
Better use of water is one example of resource efficiencyImage: Petar Labrador

The fact is, the world is facing a genuine shortage of natural resources and people will ultimately have to start getting creative with what remains. But motivating people to change old habits, particularly those which lead to financial gain, is not going to be easy.

Mark Swilling, one of the authors of the report says it is important to couch decoupling in the right terms, to make people aware that environmental protection is not synonymous with cut-backs and austerity measures.

"When Martin Luther King mobilized the masses, he didn't do it by saying 'I had a nightmare,'" Swilling told Deutsche Welle.

"The dream here is innovation, and we need to create a space for innovators and entrepreneurs to find ways of using our resources more efficiently."

Cars on a highway at night.
Slowing traffic is not the solutionImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Rethinking required

Swilling rejects the notion that cutting back the use of resources automatically throttles growth.

He argues that decoupling generates countless opportunities for the creative utilization of materials, which in turn lead to the creation of new outlets for investment and potential for jobs.

The report cites four countries – Germany, Japan, South Africa, and China - with an awareness of the need to decouple, and which have voiced their commitment to it.

Measures they have put in place, such as recycling and targets for energy and resource productivity are not misplaced, but neither, says the report, are they enough to make much of a difference.

According to the study, what is really needed is an acceptance of the absolute physical limits of the quantity of resources available for human use, and a realistic response.

"We see some countries introducing ad-hoc, short-term measures such as subsidies and speed limits to deal with rising oil prices, but those prices are not going to come down," Swilling said.

"No matter what we do there is simply not enough anymore, what we need is a new mindset."

He says innovators and entrepreneurs will likely face resistance from those with power and no interest in innovation, but adds that if the mayor of Seoul can decide to rip a six-lane highway out of the city centre to turn the land into a green, pedestrian-friendly space, then anything is possible.

Smoke pouring from chimney stacks
Both industrialized and emerging countries have work to doImage: picture-alliance / chromorange

Not quite paradise but a step in the right direction

The UNEP panel put forward three possible scenarios for developed and developing countries to consume resources equitably by 2050.

As far as Swilling is concerned, the most realistic idea is for industrialized nations to halve their average per capita consumption to eight tons, while other countries simultaneously rise to the same level.

"This scenario presupposes substantial structural change amounting to a new pattern of industrial production and consumption that would be quite different from the traditional resource-intensive Western industrial model," the report says.

Swilling admits that the idea is no small beer, especially for the average North American dependent upon their cars to get anywhere, but he is adamant that a new mentality can fuel the future.

Reporter: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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