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Extraction of raw materials to rise by 60% by 2060, says UN report

Exclusive: Report proposes action to reduce overall demand rather than simply increasing ‘green’ production

A mine near Kolwezi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph: Junior Kannah/AFP/Getty Images

The global extraction of raw materials is expected to increase by 60% by 2060, with calamitous consequences for the climate and the environment, according an unpublished UN analysis seen by the Guardian.

Natural resource extraction has soared by almost 400% since 1970 due to industrialisation, urbanisation and population growth, according to a presentation of the five-yearly UN Global Resource Outlook made to EU ministers last week.

The stripping of Earth’s natural materials is already responsible for 60% of global heating impacts, including land use change, 40% of air pollution impact, and more than 90% of global water stress and land-related biodiversity loss, says the report, due to be released in February.

Janez Potočnik, a former European commissioner and a co-chair of the UN panel that produced the analysis, said a gouging of raw materials on the scale predicted would almost certainly trigger more frequent and more severe storms, droughts and other climate disasters.

“Higher figures mean higher impacts,” he said. “In essence, there are no more safe spaces on Earth. We are already out of our safe operating space and if these trends continue, things will get worse. Extreme weather events will simply become much more frequent and that will have ever more serious financial and human costs.”

The report prioritises equity and human wellbeing measurements over GDP growth alone and proposes action to reduce overall demand rather than simply increasing “green” production.

Electric vehicles, for example, use almost 10 times more “critical raw materials” than conventional cars, and reaching net zero transport emissions by 2050 would require increasing critical mineral extraction for them sixfold within 15 years.

More remote working, better local services and low-carbon transport options such as bikes and trains could be as effective as ramped up vehicle production in meeting people’s mobility needs, with less harmful environmental impacts, the report says.

“Decarbonisation without decoupling economic growth and wellbeing from resource use and environmental impacts is not a convincing answer and the currently prevailing focus on cleaning the supply side needs to be complemented with demand-side measures,” Potočnik said.

Much of Europe’s housing crisis could be resolved by making better use of empty homes, under-utilised space and more community-focused living, rather than building more houses on virgin land, the paper argues.

This sort of “systemic resource efficiency” could increase equity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80% by 2060, compared with current levels. Material and energy needs for mobility could be cut by more than 40% and for construction by about 30%, according to the report.

Our relationship with nature “will be resolved either with collective wisdom and effort or in a hard and very painful way [with] conflicts, pandemics, migration,” it says. “The future will be green or there will be no future.”

Zakia Khattabi, the climate and environment minister for Belgium, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, told the Guardian: “Resource use is a main driver of the triple crisis of climate, biodiversity and pollution. Reducing our resource consumption is essential to minimise those interconnected environmental pressures. Future EU policies on the circular economy need a stronger focus on demand-side measures as well as on a just transition in order to address this.”

Under the European Green Deal, EU countries’ material and waste footprints are monitored and logged online. The bloc has not so far moved to legislate for use reduction targets but the issue is expected to be discussed at a meeting of EU environment ministers in June.

One EU presidency official said: “Over the years, indicators were elaborated to monitor progress on the circular economy in the EU, including on the footprint of our material consumption. What we lack in addition, however, is a common European understanding of what our aim is in terms of reducing this footprint.”

Insiders say privately the EU is the most likely grouping of developed countries to support such a policy, with the US, Japan, Australia and Canada all opposed to a target.

On average, Europeans have an annual material footprint of 15 tonnes per person, with Finland topping the list at 46 tonnes per capita, and the Netherlands at the bottom on 7 tonnes per capita.

Finland also generates the most waste per person in the EU (20,993kg), while Croatia produces the least (1,483kg). The average EU citizen’s waste footprint in 2020 was 4,815kg.


(c) 2024, The Guardian


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