Put simply the global challenge for the future of resources is to find a way in which we can establish a commercially, socially and environmentally sustainable society where there is a balance between human consumption and the availability of natural resources. We are living through a time when there is an increasing number of people consuming more and we are using more natural resources than the planet can replenish. We should all be concerned about the increasing demand / supply imbalance.
Growing populations and rising consumer demand related to both higher standards of living across all societies and pressures of consumer capitalism are increasing consumption of resources. As we head towards a global population of around 9 billion, we can also see many economies expanding which means consumption per capita of many key resources is increasing steadily: China, for example, has used more cement in the last three years than the US used in the entire 20th century, and yet there are still around 150 million Chinese people living below the poverty line.
The evidence of an unsustainable trajectory is clear despite the fact that there has been a decline in global trade growth since 2010, it is still growing and the WTO expects global GDP to continue at rise at well above 3% per annum in the years to come. Oil prices have recently been declining but we can see rising commodity prices across many areas from wheat and rubber to nickel and steel. Production of most commodities has risen sharply over the past decade. The world’s output of iron ore, for example, has roughly tripled since 2000. With nickel and copper production both now rising at more than 10 per cent over the past couple of years, we are also faced with declining grades of ore which in turn require greater energy input to extract the target resource. Demand is increasing but production efficiency in some areas is declining.
At the same time we can see growing volumes of waste especially in cities, particularly food waste – 30% of which is now thrown away every day in Europe. While energy use per capita generally improves as people move into urban environments, rising urban populations means that net energy use continues to increase in most nations. Furthermore with limits to cheap energy increasingly apparent, as we reach resource thresholds such as peak oil we are forced to exploit secondary sources such as tar sands and shale oil, which are more costly to extract and have significantly larger ecological footprints than the original oil reservoirs. This is true for the majority of minerals we need for modern society and while fracking is providing a short-term fix in some countries, it is not a long-term solution.
With increasing global focus on trying to (finally) make greater progress at UN climate talks, key questions are being asked for the future. Most significantly more are questioning when the perpetual economic growth model can be substituted – whether we can achieve ‘prosperity without growth’ and what role decoupling of these two can play. With an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor in most regions of the world, others are asking what roles will social and economic instability and unrest play?
More are recognising that better leadership from government, business and civil society is required to ensure adequate access to resources for today and tomorrow’s population without depleting or devaluing them. As our individual and collective footprints become more tangible and better communicated, bold moves to shift the dial are needed across the board. New management approaches and business models are needed that can bring together advances in IT, industrial ecology and biotechnology for more sustainable production.
More specifically, as the principle of the circular economy gains wider traction and we see industrial and societal resources conversations shifting from ‘cradle to grave’ to the more holistic ‘cradle to cradle’, we need to better understand what changes are needed to bring this into the mainstream. We have to work out how best to see and use waste as a resource. What changes are required to industrial processes and how can we best establish an improved global accounting system that considers human wellbeing, resource use and pollution alongside GDP are two pivotal questions to address. And, at the same time, we have to fully recognize the limits to the circular economy if we are to continue with the forecasted dependency on fossil fuels as a major energy supply for the rest of the century.