In a welcome sacrifice for the good of the planet, a United Nations’ International Resource Panel study found that saving the environment may require people work fewer hours in the future. A growing middle class has led to a rapid pace of raw material extraction around the globe, which has tripled over the past 40 years. Thus, more efficient use of the planet’s remaining resources is necessary to stave off grave environmental consequences.
In other words, the global economy will need to make huge improvements in material and energy efficiencies in order to provide housing, food, electricity, water and modern consumer goods to a growing world population with aspirations for middle-class comforts. To address this issue, policy recommendations from the study call for transformative changes that include a reduction in work hours, as well as to price raw materials in a way that accounts for the social and economic costs of extraction.
The study provides a coherent account of material use globally and for every nation, and covers 40 years of extraction, trade and consumption of biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores and non-metallic minerals. From 1970 to 2010, world-wide extraction of materials grew from 22 billion tons annually to around 70 billion tons, with non-metallic minerals used in construction the fastest growing.
Since 2000, material use has accelerated due to increasing demand from China and other Asian economies, while efficiency has declined. Part of the reason is the shift in production away from material-efficient economies such as Japan, South Korea and Europe.
At the same time, a substantial gap remains in the standard-of-living between North America and Europe and the rest of the world, as the richest countries consume 10 times the materials as the poorest countries, on average. Though a number of developed countries have committed to decoupling economic growth and well-being from rising consumption, achieving this by increasing the circular nature of their economies through remanufacturing, recycling and reuse.
Even so, on its current trajectory, the estimated population of nine billion by 2050 would require about 180 billion tons of materials annually, roughly three times current consumption levels. This will reportedly result in continued climate change and overall environmental degradation, including greater loss of biodiversity, more soil erosion, and more waste and air pollution, as well as decrease human health and quality of life.