Humans could consume 60 percent more natural resources by 2060, UN finds
Daranda Hinkey, a Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribe member, holds a large hand-painted sign that reads, “No Lithium No Mine,” at her home on the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, April 24, 2023, near McDermitt, Nev. Global demand is expected to keep rising for lithium carbonate, a main component in the manufacture of renewable energy batteries and EV batteries. | Rick Bowmer/AP

The United Nations Environment Programme’s Global Resources Outlook — the flagship report of the UN’s International Resource Panel, due to be published later this month — highlights how the consumption of natural resources globally is set to rise by 60 percent by 2060.

Raw materials consumption worldwide is already four times higher than it was in 1970, and its continued expansion could spell disastrous consequences for the environment and climate, the analysis said.

The increase — caused by urbanization, industrialization and an exploding population — is responsible for upwards of 90 percent of terrestrial biodiversity loss and water stress across the globe, 60 percent of impacts from global heating and 40 percent of those caused by air pollution, reported The Guardian.

“Already, the technosphere — the totality of human-made products, from airports to Zimmer frames — is heavier than the biosphere. From the 2020s onward, the weight of humanity’s extended body — the concrete shells that keep us sheltered, the metal wings that fly us around — have exceeded that of all life on Earth. Producing this volume of stuff is a major contributor to global heating and ocean acidification, and the rapidly accelerating extinction of plants and animals,” Gareth Dale, associate head of the social and political sciences department at Brunel University London, wrote in The Conversation.

The extraction of natural resources used to make materials like concrete and metal is throwing Earth’s ecosystems off-balance. Large tracts of land are annexed for transportation and extraction related to the mining industry, whose energy consumption has increased three-fold since the 1970s.

As the demand for materials continues to rise, more energy is needed for extraction in increasingly deep and remote mining sites.

“More seams will be dug and more mountains moved to bring glittering fortunes to some while many regions, above all in developing countries, become sacrifice zones,” Dale wrote. “‘Critical’ and ‘strategic’ raw materials are those that face supply risk either in their scarcity or their geographical concentration, and which the major powers require for their military sectors and for competitive advantage in tech industries. Right now, the race for critical minerals is geopolitical: each major power wants to secure supplies in allied countries.”

Critical raw materials are needed for the transition to renewable energy as well. Nine times as many minerals can be necessary for a wind turbine than an average gas-fired power plant, and a typical electric vehicle contains from six to 10 times as many as fossil fuel-powered vehicles, the UN report said.

However, that doesn’t equate to a renewables-based economy using more materials than one that is fossil-fuel based, Dale said.

“Energy consumption due to mineral demand for energy transition technologies is dwarfed by that which arises from mineral demand for the rest of the economy,” Dale wrote in The Conversation. “Nonetheless, the mineral demand of the energy transition stokes the mining boom in such sectors as copper and lithium. Mining must change in order to reduce its environmental impact.”

Dale said recovering waste minerals can be increased, and household electronic waste recycled.

“In practice, however, the use of secondary materials relative to newly-extracted ones is declining,” Dale wrote. “The recovery rates of minerals from recycling remain low. Another UN study of 60 metals found the recycling rate for most of them was below one percent.”

Dale added that extracting minerals is easier and less expensive than urban mining under the current economic system because it involves purchasing cheap land, frequently in developing countries.

“That land gets dug up, pulverized and processed in a simple flow that is amenable to capital-intensive operations. Urban mining by contrast is often labor-intensive and requires a complex and state-enforced regulation of waste streams,” Dale wrote. “So, throwing more materials onto the market lowers prices, which tends to expedite economic growth, raise energy consumption, and proliferate environmental harms. In short, there is nothing intrinsically ‘green’ about urban mining or the circular economy.”

Dale explained that interest in “degrowth” strategies has been increasing.

“As the scale of the environmental crisis grows more daunting, even moderate voices — not degrowthers — have recognised that certain sectors, such as shipping and aviation, will have to be cut to virtually zero over the next 20 or 30 years,” Dale said.

According to Jason Hickel — a degrowth advocate and author of Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World — consumer and manufacturing applications that contribute to waste need to shift to those that advance the green transition.

“Factories that produce SUVs could produce solar panels instead,” Hickel said, as The Conversation reported. “Engineers who are presently developing private jets could work on innovating more efficient trains and wind turbines instead.”

This article was reposted from Ecowatch.

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Cristen Hemingway Jaynes
Cristen Hemingway Jaynes

Cristen Hemingway Jaynes covers the environment, climate change, oceans, the Arctic, animals, anthropology, astronomy, plastics pollution, and politics. She holds a JD and an Ocean & Coastal Law Certificate from the University of Oregon School of Law.