This Weekend Essay (2): Pulling materials from earth is our biggest threatPublished by MAC on 2019-04-07
Source: The Guardian
Much of this essay will already be familiar to MAC readers (if not the actual data, then certainly the broad arguments).
What may shock us, however, is the UN Environment agency statement:
"The biggest surprise to the authors was the huge climate impact of pulling materials out of the ground and preparing them for use. All the sectors combined together accounted for 53% of the world’s carbon emissions – even before accounting for any fuel that is burned".
This conclusion justifies so much of our collective endeavours with this website, now stretching back nearly two decades.
Acces the full report (PDF)
Resource extraction responsible for half world’s carbon emissions
Extraction also causes 80% of biodiversity loss, according to
comprehensive UN study
13 March 2019
Extractive industries are responsible for half of the world’s carbon
emissions and more than 80% of biodiversity loss, according to the most
comprehensive environmental tally undertaken of mining and farming.
While this is crucial for food, fuel and minerals, the study by UN
Environment warns the increasing material weight of the world’s economies
is putting a more dangerous level of stress on the climate and natural
life-support systems than previously thought.
Resources are being extracted from the planet three times faster than in
1970, even though the population has only doubled in that time, according
to the Global Resources Outlook, which was released in Nairobi on Tuesday.
Each year, the world consumes more than 92b tonnes of materials – biomass
(mostly food), metals, fossil fuels and minerals – and this figure is
growing at the rate of 3.2% per year.
Since 1970, extraction of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) has increased
from 6bn tonnes to 15bn tonnes, metals have risen by 2.7% a year, other
minerals (particularly sand and gravel for concrete) have surged nearly
fivefold from 9bn to 44bn tonnes, and biomass harvests have gone up from
9bn to 24bn tonnes.
Illegal mining in Amazon rainforest has become an 'epidemic'
Up until 2000, this was a huge boost to the global economy, but since then
there has been a diminishing rate of return as resources become more
expensive to extract and the environmental costs become harder to ignore.
“The global economy has focused on improvements in labour productivity at
the cost of material and energy productivity. This was justifiable in a
world where labour was the limiting factor of production. We have moved
into a world where natural resources and environmental impacts have become
the limiting factor of production and shifts are required to focus on
resource productivity,” says the study.
The economic benefits and environmental costs are broken down by sector.
Land use change – mostly for agriculture – accounts for over 80% of
biodiversity loss and 85% of water stress as forests and swamps are
cleared for cropland that needs irrigation.
Extraction and primary processing of metals and other minerals is
responsible for 20% of health impacts from air pollution and 26% of global
The biggest surprise to the authors was the huge climate impact of pulling
materials out of the ground and preparing them for use. All the sectors
combined together accounted for 53% of the world’s carbon emissions – even
before accounting for any fuel that is burned.
“I would never have expected that half of climate impacts can be
attributed to resource extraction and processing,” said Stefanie Hellweg,
one of the authors of the paper. “It showed how resources are hiding
behind products. By focusing on them, their tremendous impact became
The paper highlights growing inequalities. In rich countries, people
consume an average of 9.8 tonnes of resources a year, the weight of two
elephants. This is 13 times higher than low incomes groups. Much of this
is unseen because huge amounts of materials are often needed for a small
end product, such as a mobile phone.
Izabella Teixeira, former environment minister of Brazil, said the report
highlighted how rich consumer nations have exported environmental stress
to poor producing countries. With this model now hitting climate and
biodiversity boundaries that affect everyone on the planet, she said it
was time for change. “Currently decisions are being based on the past but
we need to base them on the future. That means leadership.”
Where leadership could come from is difficult to see in the current
political environment. The US and Brazil are slashing existing
environmental regulations. China has moved ahead on renewables and
pollution, but its growth is even more material-intensive than developed
nations. According to the report, Asia is driving the fastest demand for
minerals among upper-middle income countries, which now – because of their
big populations – have a greater combined material weight than wealthy
Concrete: the most destructive material on Earth
The authors said it was essential to decouple economic growth from
material consumption. Without change, they said resource demand would more
than double to 190bn tonnes a year, greenhouse gases would rise by 40% and
demand for land would increase by 20%.
However, they said this dire scenario could be avoided if there is a
faster transition towards renewables, smarter urban planning to reduce the
demand for concrete, dietary changes to lower the need for grazing
pastures and cut levels of waste (currently a third of all food), and a
greater focus on creating a cyclical economy that re-uses more materials.
They also called for a switch of taxation policies away from income and
towards carbon and resource extraction.
“It is possible to grow in a different way with fewer side-effects. This
report is clear proof that it is possible and with higher growth,” said
Janez Potočnik, co-chair of International Resource Panel and former
environment commissioner for the European Union. “It’s not an easy job to
do, but believe me the alternative is much worse.”