Managing our natural resources: can we build more with less?

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Tomorrow June 5th is World Environment Day. In today’s post Peter Borkey of the OECD Environment Directorate looks at how we use and manage natural resources.

I’m continually amazed at how our planet has a way of keeping things in balance. Of course we know there are limits but nature’s cycles go on maintaining an environment capable of sustaining life. Natural resources and the raw materials they provide are part of this balance. They are also the basis of our economies.

As the illustration at the top of the article shows, materials used in construction like sand and gravel account for the largest share (36%) of OECD materials consumption in weight. You won’t be surprised that fossil energy carriers such as oil, coal and natural gas are next at 26%; while biomass for food and feed (20%), metals and metal ores (11%), wood (3%) , and industrial minerals (2%) make up the balance.

Unfortunately for the planet’s balancing act, the more of these materials we consume, the more environmental pollution we cause. We see that extraction, production and processing, use and final disposal can cause problems such as water and air pollution from mining operations, carbon emissions from material transport and processing, and pollution from product use, landfill and incinerators for final disposal.

Globally, the extraction of material resources continues to grow, closely following economic growth, but I’m glad to say we are seeing some signs of “decoupling” between the two. In OECD countries, the growth of material extraction and use is slowing down while GDP continues to grow. Material consumption peaked at slightly above 18 tonnes per capita in 1980. Since then there has been a slow reduction to 17 tonnes per capita today. That may sound like very slight progress, but over the same period economic output (as measured by GDP) has doubled. We use 45% less material for each unit of economic output, a real improvement in resource productivity.

Put simply we are doing more with less, but overall we are still using more material. The sheer scale of this increased output means that environmental pressures are not falling – in fact they have continued to intensify in many areas, leading to a doubling of material consumption at the global level since 1980. Per capita OECD material consumption remains large, and is about 60% higher than the world average. In fast developing countries like China and India, material consumption is rapidly increasing, albeit starting from a much lower base than in the OECD. Global increases in material consumption intensifies competition for resources, sometimes contributing to volatile prices, and generally resulting in increased material consumption globally.

To balance these distressing worldwide statistics, several countries have been showing us how the worrying trends can be reversed. For example, Germany, Italy and Japan have succeeded in decoupling material consumption from economic growth in absolute terms and diminished their overall domestic material consumption. They have recognised that with the right policies, based on the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle), waste is not something to be discarded, but a resource that can be fed back into the economy. Efforts in municipal waste management (10% of total waste) and recycling have been central in contributing to this success, but we all need to make a bigger effort in sustainable waste and materials management.

Here is how a range of actors can make further efforts in sustainable waste and materials management:

Governments can encourage resource productivity, through fees for the use of resources, charges for environmental damage, or by supporting longer product lifespans such as through increased legal minimum warranty periods. For example, in 2010, increasing the lifespan of mobile devices by 50% would have avoided the generation of 50 million end-of-life mobile devices in the US alone, reducing waste by one­‑third.

The private sector (with the right incentives) can identify new business models linked to improved resource efficiency of production processes and realise that “less material” can mean “more value”. You may be one of the millions to have used car sharing (US) or a car club (UK) to rent a vehicle to escape for the day, or even to go and do the shopping. The streets of Paris are now full of Autolib vehicles. Another example that increases efficiency is chemical leasing where instead of selling a chemical a company provides the service that the chemical delivers, but keeps ownership of the chemical with the opportunity to recycle and reuse it.

Consumers need to be more aware of the role that every one of us can play and contribute through better product choices and behaviour. As my grandfather used to preach: “think globally, act locally”. Correctly separating household waste already contributes to minimising our material footprint but we still need to do better.

The OECD is helping member countries with the statistics, analysis and policy advice on how we can all make it easier for the planet to maintain the balance so that humans can continue to build, grow and prosper while using less natural capital.

Useful links

OECD work on material resources, productivity and the environment

OECD work on resource productivity and waste

OECD work on biodiversity, water and natural resource management

Guest author

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