Mankind needs to do more with less, says new UN report

By Martin Leggett - 12 May 2011 17:30:0 GMT
Mankind needs to do more with less, says new UN report

A new report from UNEP outlines the need to make a break with a dogma that couples runaway economic growth to environmental and resource run-down. The UN's International Resource Panel says that 'decoupling' is the only way to avoid the looming crises of global warming, rising commodity prices, resource depletion and mass species extinction.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has released a report today that cuts to the heart of the global problems of pollution, poverty, rising commodity prices and climate change - recognizing that unfettered economic growth is hitting hard against the limits of Planet Earth. And if humanity is to carry on a path of real progress, the report says that our economies must be 'decoupled' from massive resource consumption - that we must learn to do more with less.

The report - entitled ''Decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth'' - was produced by UNEP's International Resource Panel (IRP). It was tasked, back in 2007, with looking at the wider picture of the looming nexus of multiple environmental crises - and how the circle of economic growth can be sustainably squared. This first report from the IRP outlines the scope of the task of 'decoupling' - an approach to growth which looks to improve the lives of all of the world's citizens without requiring ever higher levels of resource consumption.

The extent of the rise in humanity's hunger for resources is shown by the tracking of the consumption of four key resources over the last 100 years - ores, fossil-fuels, construction materials and biomass. In 1900, the world consumed 6 billion tons of these resources; by 2000 the global economy was devouring 49 billion tons of the planet's finite stock. If that rate of growth were to continue - as the developing world pulls its economy and consumption up to that of the developed world - the report says that, by 2050, 140 billion tons of ore, fuel, minerals and biomass would be swallowed per year.

The solution to avoiding the environmental crunch implied by those numbers, say the authors, lies in reducing the amount of resource needed for each unit of economic growth. If the rate of 'resource productivity' can be increased faster than the rate of economic growth, then a destructive resource grab can potentially be dodged - and the world will have 'decoupled' itself from railroading a growing economy to a dying planet.

''Decoupling makes sense on all the economic, social and environmental dials,'' says UN Under Secretary-General Achim Steiner, UNEP's Executive Director. ''People believe environmental 'bads' are the price we must pay for economic 'goods'. However, we cannot, and need not, continue to act as if this trade-off is inevitable.'' To that end, the report looks at four cases of nations that have already made steps to decouple.

Germany and Japan are praised for real progress towards that end. The report also highlights South Africa's focus on ''resource and impact decoupling'', and China's moves towards an 'ecological civilization'. Future reports from the IRP will focus on the more detailed technological and policy aspects of decoupling. But the hope is that this report's release will put decoupling firmly into the center of economic policymaking. Only then will we be able to start solving the multiple crises caused by our runaway degradation of the planet's environmental bounty.