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

Please feed the animals

Nature's friend

If you kill all the leopards, don’t be surprised if you get diarrhoea or worse. That’s not because of some convoluted karma (though it might be that, too) but because of the many unexpected consequences of the loss of “apex consumers” – the beasts such as large predators at the top of food chains.

In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, with the leopards (and lions) gone, baboons flourished, and came into contact with humans more frequently, attracted by crops and other food resources. Increased population density favoured the spread of intestinal parasites among the baboons to start with, then to humans.

Although ecological theory had predicted significant impacts on ecosystems from changes in the numbers and distribution of large predators and herbivores, it was hard to show this in practice. First, because the ecosystem has to be disturbed, jolted out of equilibrium, for the interactions among species to be revealed.  Also, the time scales were often too long and geographical areas too wide to be studied.

Now, a team led by James Estes of the University of California has reviewed studies of land, freshwater and marine ecosystems worldwide, and concluded that the loss of apex consumers is arguably “humankind’s most pervasive influence on the natural world”.

Estes analyses  “trophic cascades” – the idea that impacts cascade down the food chain from the apex. However, chain is too simple a metaphor to describe what happens. An ecosystem is dynamical and complex with numerous non-linear interactions and the possibility of rapid changes from one state to another, for instance when a tipping point is reached. And each ecosystem is connected to others biologically, physicochemically and spatially.

Taken together, loss of apex consumers, nonlinearity and connectivity provoke changes in just about every aspect of ecosystems and help to explain a range of phenomena, especially when you add interactions with climate change, urbanisation, and industrialised agriculture. For instance, global distribution and amounts of vegetation are poorly predicted by rainfall and temperature alone, but adding wildfires to the equation improves predictions significantly. Wildfires burn up to 500 million ha of the Earth’s surface each year, and as you’d expect are influenced by herbivores: get rid of the buffalo and more fuel is left for the fires.

Estes’ review doesn’t suggest any easy solutions. More herbivores might not give the results you’d like. Trees have now disappeared from the Scottish island of Rum, because a few hundred years ago, the last wolf was killed and with it natural control of species like deer that damaged saplings. Similar impacts are underway elsewhere, and trees aren’t the only victims of getting rid of the big good wolf. Fish can suffer too because fewer trees mean more erosion of river banks, less shade from the Sun, and less cover for the fish.

Estes and his colleagues argue for a change in ecological thinking away from the view that the influence of large animals, and apex consumers in particular, is anomalous, occurring in some systems, but not in many others. In practical terms, recognising the influence of apex consumers has profound implications for conservation. You can’t restore them on an acre of land here and there. It’s going to require a large-scale approach.

Useful links

OECD work on biodiversity management

 OECD work on green growth

A lesson in resources management from Elinor Ostrom

You don’t expect big tough fishermen to go around tying bows on baskets, or to get worried if they see a bow they didn’t tie themselves. But speaking at a seminar on her work organised by the OECD Directorate for Trade and Agriculture last week, Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom explained why that happens.

Maine lobster fishermen use this system when another man sets his traps on their patch. It’s a warning to the poacher that he’s been found out. If he persists, he receives at visit at home. If that doesn’t convince him to mend his ways, he can expect a whole range of other sanctions, up to the destruction of his boat.

This is an example of a self-organising system to manage common pool resources.

These are resources such as fish stocks or forests to which more than one individual has access, but where each person’s consumption reduces availability of the resource to others.

One of the most well-known treatments of the question is Garrett Hardin’s 1968 book The Tragedy of the Commons, which describes how overexploitation of common pools was rapidly increasing worldwide. Traditional economists proposed two responses to overexploitation.

The first is privatisation with adequate means of measurement and control. This depends on having the necessary technical and financial means to exercise adequate control and may only be feasible if ownership is restricted to a few participants.

The second is government ownership and a tax on using the resource.

Ostrom proposed a third solution: retain the resource as common property and let the users create their own system of governance. In Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Ostrom argues that common property governance doesn’t have to be tragic, and that users themselves can devise rules and enforcement mechanisms that may be better than restrictions imposed by outsiders with little knowledge or understanding of local conditions.

One of the more surprising conclusions of her research is that users should take care of monitoring and sanctions themselves (or entrust this to someone accountable to them). As the Nobel committee points out, this “challenges conventional notions whereby enforcement should be left to impartial outsiders”.

Monitoring and sanctioning can be costly, if only in the time spent doing them, yet Ostrom’s case studies show that many people are prepared to carry out governance duties.

Her research raises questions as to exactly why individuals are willing to bear the burden of these often thankless tasks that benefit others.

Useful links

OECD Insights: Fisheries

OECD work on fisheries

OECD Forum 2010: Preserving scarce resources

Green growth has been one of the big issues of this year’s OECD Forum, but a session on Thursday afternoon has been taking an even more focused look at the environment. Under the heading “Preserving scarce resources”, speakers have been discussing some of the many ways in which resources like water, clean air and forests can be protected.

As several speakers have stated, most of us are not really aware of just how much of these resources we’re using. “We wear our water,” says John J. Harris, Chairman and CEO of Nestlé Waters, who has pointed out that it takes roughly 1,200 litres of water to produce a cotton shirt. According to Mr. Harris, the only part of our water usage that is not negotiable is the roughly 1.5 litres we need to drink each day to survive; after that, he says, we need to think a lot more about making better use of all the rest of the water we use both directly and indirectly.

The scale of the environmental challenge facing humanity has been underlined by several speakers. Thomas Kaissl, who leads the Green Economy Programme at WWF International, has commented that there’s a real lack of urgency in discussing these issues. For 20 years, he says, the international community has been drawing up all sorts of certification and standards, but the threats facing the environment have only grown – we urgently need to close “the gap between paper and practice”, he believes. Otherwise, he says, humanity will be like the frog in the pot who fails to realise the danger he’s in as the water comes slowly to the boil. Echoing that, moderator Simon Upton, Director of the OECD’s Environment department, has been wondering aloud how big a crisis would be needed to alert humanity to the need for action.  

Solutions? The need to encourage citizens to become active in forcing governments to take green issues seriously has been mentioned by several speakers, especially those from NGOs. There’s also been much talk about market solutions that put a price on environmental resources so as to reflect their true value. “The default value of many things we hold dear is zero,” Andrew Seidl of the International Union for Conservation of Nature says. An economist himself, he says that many in his profession instinctively favour “carrots” – or economic incentives – as a way to shape the behaviour of businesses and individuals.

But that sort of approach is seen in a less rosy light by Ambet Yuson, General Secretary of the Building and Woodworkers’ International labour grouping. While he sees some benefits in market approaches, he’s warned that pricing solutions can put a premium on owning, rather than sharing, resources. And, he says, as the financial crisis has shown, markets can always fail.

So, plenty of solutions on offer, but varying views on which work best. There was, however, agreement on the need to act – and act now – to better protect environmental resources.

Useful links

 OECD work on the environment  

 OECD Insights: Sustainable Development