Global extraction of primary materials to triple by 2050 - UNEP


Nina Chestney

The amount of primary materials extracted from the earth will almost triple by the middle of this century if action is not taken, as emerging economies develop and consume more, a U.N.-backed report said on Wednesday.  The use of fossil fuels, metal ores and non-metallic minerals has accelerated rapidly since 2000 as emerging economies such as China transform their industries and cities, requiring unprecedented amounts of iron, steel, cement, energy and construction materials.

The global economy now needs more material per unit of gross domestic product than it did at the turn of the century because economic activity has shifted more from material-efficient economies such as Japan, South Korea and Europe to economies like China, India and countries in Southeast Asia that use far more material per unit of GDP, according to the report by the United Nations Environment Programme-hosted International Resource Panel (IRP).

Global extraction of primary materials more than tripled to 70 billion tonnes in 2010 from 22 billion tonnes in 1970, the report said.  If the world continues to provide housing, food, energy, water and mobility in the same way as currently, it will require 180 billion tonnes of material every year to meet demand by 2050.

"This is almost three times today's amount and will likely raise the acidification and eutrophication of the world's soils and water bodies, increase soil erosion and lead to greater amounts of waste and pollution," the report said.  It will also intensify climate change, result in shortages of critical materials and heighten the risk of local conflicts.

Europe and North America had the largest annual per-capita material footprints in the world, with 20 and 25 tonnes respectively in 2010; China had 14 tonnes and Brazil had 13 tonnes per capita, the report said.
The annual per-capita material footprints for Asia-Pacific, west Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, was between 9 and 10 tonnes in 2010, while Africa's footprint was less than 3 tonnes per capita.

Consumption of materials needs to be reduced but material efficiency also needs to be improved, the report said.  "The IRP also recommends putting a price on primary materials at extraction in order to reflect the social and environmental costs of resource extraction and use while reducing the consumption of materials," it said.

"The extra funds generated could then be invested in R&D in resource-intensive sectors of the economy," it added.

(Editing by Susan Fenton)