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UN Paints Stark Picture of Global Resource Consumption

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 7 2014 (IPS) - UNITED NATIONS, June 7, 2014 (IPS) – A new UN report finds astronomical resource prices are doing little to stem their depletion around the world.

The study is the second released by the UN’s Environmental Program (UNEP) that looks at the prospect of “decoupling” economic growth from resource consumption and environmental degradation.

"...Annual material extraction grew by a factor of eight during the twentieth century” - Achim Steiner, UN Under Secretary-General and UNEP executive director
The numbers are stark: during the 20th century, extraction of materials from the earth grew eight-fold. Since the start of the 20th century, metal mining has grown at such a rate that the report required a logarithmic graph to illustrate it’s exponential increase.

Since 2000, metal prices have risen 176 percent, rubber prices by 350 percent and energy overall by 260 percent.

It is estimated that by the middle of the century, extraction of “minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass” will rise to three times their 2000 levels. That, says Achim Steiner, UN Under Secretary-General and UNEP executive director, is something the earth – or at least one humans can inhabit – is not made to withstand.

“The worldwide use of natural resources has accelerated – annual material extraction grew by a factor of eight during the twentieth century – causing severe environmental damage and depletion of natural resources,” said Steiner. “Yet this dangerous explosion in demand is set to accelerate as a result of population growth and rising income.”

Without slowing extraction and consumption, it is estimated that within 50 years the world economy will experience shortages of several metals vital to industrial production.

Decoupling technologies that would allow growth to continue apace but cut back on resource use are myriad – in theory.

By better utilizing existing technology and streamlining what industries squeeze out of their inputs, the report estimated the world could save 3.7 trillion each year on resources.

The opportunities are big and small – from switching to high efficiency engines in China’s oil fields to simply installing LED traffic lights in South Africa.

If developing countries were to make a just a partial switch to higher-grade steel, the resulting efficiencies could result in a 20 percent drop in the cost of steel worldwide.

But standing in the way of efficiency are over one trillion dollars spent annually to subsidize consumption of resources. Subsidies, the report found, often “support continued inefficient use of resources, not resource productivity.” In other words, not only do they lead to great pollution, but they are a net-loss for economies.

The danger, however, is that any savings resulting from energy efficiency will simply be plowed into new projects.

Last year, renewable energy captured a larger percentage of the energy market than in 2012, but overall consumption grew so much that global carbon emission still rose by 2.1 percent.

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