We know that over the next decade, as there is a further rise on consumer capitalism across the developing world, we will continue to see rising consumption but that in China demand for some key resources such as copper, steel and coal will finally peak. With the dual challenges of rising costs and poorer quality resources we also know that there will be improvements made in resource productivity – both in extraction and use. We also know that greater digital connectivity and innovation will have an impact in enabling us to both reduce the need for some human mobility and provide greater transparency on how we use our resources and with what environmental, social and financial impact. AirBnB and Uber are just two of the most newsworthy digital platforms that provide the connectivity for a more collaborative economy with better use of material capital.
What we don’t know is whether there will be fundamental macro shifts that help or hinder progress. With economists debating whether or not several major regions are entering, or will enter, recession and predict stagflation over the next decade, it is possible we will see another global, or multi-regional, financial crisis. Although there were some positive signs of movement at the Lima UN Climate Change talks in December 2014, we are unclear as to whether we will see significant global response to climate change in the next decade or if we will need to wait longer before we reach a tipping point for globally agreed collective action. At the same time, there may well be a significant bottom-up groundswell of opinion in society outside government and industry that creates a socio-political shift that recognizes the resource limits problem will occur before the ecological limits are reached.
Recognising that stemming the tide of rising consumerism across large tranches of global society may take some time to reset, potential solutions on the table already include improved design of products and services: This is about moving beyond transitional design for disassembly and reducing waste production to more fully embracing the principles of cradle to cradle and the circular economy. It is about net positive impact and not just being carbon, water or energy neutral.
In addition, there are many initiatives underway focused on resources agreements both globally and regionally: In December 2015, we will have the Paris summit where 196 countries will meet to hopefully sign a new climate change agreement while the EC’s Europe 2020 strategy includes the target of a more resource efficient Europe: (to help decouple economic growth from the use of resources, by decarbonising the economy, increasing the use of renewable sources, modernising the transport sector and promoting greater energy efficiency). Although nothing about such agreements and targets is certain, they do at least show intent. While bilateral trading relationships are more probable, the opportunity for global and regional agreements has to be pursued.
Another potential change on the horizon is the influence of the divestment movement focused on taking action against the influence of the fossil fuel industry and calling on financial and other investment institutions to divest from associated companies. If this movement is successful and reduces the reliance on fossil fuels it could put in place the commitment socially and politically to keep existing fossil fuels in the ground. This will be accompanied by support for alternate energy systems and, with momentum may well be extended to encompass other resources.