Towards a sustainable use of natural resources
Stichting Natuur en Milieu, January 2001 H.Muilerman, H.Blonk.
Contents 1 2 3 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4 4.1 4.2 5 6 7 8 Aim of the report Depletion of natural resources Sustainability of natural resource use Environmental impacts of natural resource use Ecological limits Social and economic sustainability: fair shares The challenge facing the Western world Indicators of the pressures on reserves of natural resources Type of indicators Consumption indicators for the Western world – the Netherlands as example Trends in natural resource use – the Netherlands as example Reduction targets and strategies Policy requirements References
Aim of the report
The aim of this report is to demonstrate the need to reduce the consumption of natural resources (environmental impacts) in the economy and provide the initial impetus for a new policy to keep the use of natural resources within sustainable limits. (By ‘ natural resources’we mean the global reserves of natural resources and raw materials by used human beings.) Reduction of the use of natural resources in production and consumption is often referred to as ‘ dematerialization’ . 2 Depletion of natural resources
Three kinds of reserves of natural resources can be identified (Reijnders 1999, Chapman 1983): continuous resources such as sunlight and wind, the use of which does not lead to a reduction in their size; renewable resources, such as wood and crops that can be harvested – but not faster than their rate of replenishment; and non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels and minerals. The last are created by very slow geological processes, so slow in human terms that their use diminishes the available stocks. Resources such as clean water, fertile soils and biodiversity, given the time required for their recovery, can also be considered to be non-renewable. The Club of Rome first drew attention to the depletion of resources at the beginning of the 1970s. At that time the emphasis was on the depletion of fossil and mineral resources. It was assumed that various important natural resources such as oil and various metal ores would be exhausted within a few decades. In fact, this turned out not to be true. Discoveries of new deposits, technological advances and falling energy prices have made possible the recovery of lower grade ores, and the estimated remaining lifetimes of some resources have been considerably extended. But this is no reason for complacency. Sooner or later, at the current rate of consumption, the reserves of certain resources will be exhausted. This may be a long way off for a number of fossil fuels and mineral ores, but other resources such as biodiversity and fertile soils are being used up so quickly there is a danger that critical thresholds will be crossed. The drain on biotic resources is particularly alarming; biodiversity and fertile soils are being rapidly used up. Research by WWF indicates that the ‘ health’of the world ecosystem, based on measurements of the loss of forest area and freshwater and marine animal species, has declined by 30% in 25 years (WWF 1998).
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Half the natural forest cover worldwide has already disappeared, 13% in the last 30 years. Europe only has 1% of its original forest cover left. And there is no sign of this attack on biodiversity diminishing.
Health of the world ecosystem § Area of natural forest § Freshwater ecosystem index § Marine ecosystem index Fertile soils § § § Africa Asia Latin America -30% in the last 25 years § -13% in the last 30 years § -50% in the last 25 years § -40% in the last 25 years -25% in the last 50 years § § § -30% -27% -18%
... response, civil society groups have mobilised demanding reconsideration of the project. Exploitation of natural resources carried out in an unsustainable manner that ... governments and private investors to look for cheap resource-rich land close to infrastructure. The land is often taken from farmers who are ... to an UNEP study in the same land, it would take up to 30 years to clean up the oil . ...
Continuing decline More rapid reduction
Same or greater reduction
Table 1: Some trends in the depletion of natural resources WWR, 1999, Anonymous 1999) 2
Poverty is an important underlying cause of further deforestation, of which about twothirds is carried out by small farmers clearing land for cultivation and to obtain wood for fuel. Commercial logging for timber is responsible for most of the rest. The pressure on the remaining forests is increasing as the numbers of people with a low income and worldwide demand for commercial timber products grow. The demand for food, and therefore for agricultural land, will also rise sharply as the world’ population rises and people’ diets s s contain more protein (Matthews 1999).
Almost all the best agricultural land is already cultivated and so less suitable land is being brought into cultivation, leading to more soil erosion and loss of biodiversity. Fertile soil is the basis for agricultural production. In the last 50 years 25% of all fertile soils have been lost and/or degraded, and intensive efforts will be needed to prevent this process speeding up. The poorer countries are worst affected, and major problems are forecast in a number of important food producing areas in third world countries (PinstrupAndersen 1999).
Soils recover naturally at an extremely slow rate and the costs of restoration are so high they are, in effect, unaffordable for these countries. The growth in biofuels is also increasing the pressure on the reserves of suitable agricultural land. The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) in the Netherlands has calculated that if a large-scale conversion to biofuels – stimulated by greenhouse gas policies and the reduced availability of fossil fuels – implies that 20–25% of all suitable agricultural land will be needed for biofuel crops by 2050 (RIVM 2000a).
It is hardly conceivable that this could happen given the considerable rise in the demand for land for the production of food. The worldwide demand for fossil and mineral resources also continues to grow. Global policies to reduce greenhouse gases may inhibit growth in the use of fossil fuels, but there is little sign of this (RIVM 2000a).
Demand for a number of mineral ores may even be rising faster than for fossil fuels, and the demand for metals is forecast to double over the next 50 years. The use of agricultural fertilizers (N, P, K) is rising even faster. Primary resource use may be checked by closing cycles, but increases in the percentages of materials recycled are nowhere near high enough to compensate for the growth in demand. The end result is that the availability of many reserves is declining as the world population grows and demand for raw materials rises. 3 Sustainability of natural resource use
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The exhaustion of reserves is in large part due to the use of raw materials. Of course, there are other causes; land, for example, is also needed for housing and infrastructure. But the use of raw materials largely determines the rate of consumption of natural resources. The extraction and use of natural resources are responsible for environmental problems all over the world, and the social and economic impacts of their use cannot always be justified. We now take a closer look at these three aspects of natural resource use. 3.1 Environmental impacts of natural resource use
The use of natural resources can lead to a variety of environmental impacts:
• Direct impacts of extraction, for example the impacts on nature and the landscape of opencast mining. • Disruption of materials cycles by the introduction of previously unavailable matter into the biosphere (such as carbon, phosphate and heavy metals), or major movements of materials through the biosphere (e.g. the nutrients N and P), or the loss of natural areas (loss of fixed C, N and P as a result of deforestation and erosion).
Various other environmental impacts are also associated with the use of natural resources, such as pesticides used in the production of food and acidification caused by the combustion of fossil fuels. The following table gives an indication of the type of environmental impacts resulting from the use of a number of important groups of natural resources, throughout the whole chain from extraction to disposal.
Direct impacts of extraction and distribution Large local/regional impacts on the landscape and ecotoxicological pollution Disturbance to material cycles Carbon cycle is greatly enlarged (greenhouse effect) Metal fluxes are increased (metals are present as contaminants) Sulphur cycle is enlarged Other relevant environmental impacts Greatest cause of acidification, important source of acidifying compounds in Western countries Calamities during extraction and distribution with large impacts on nature Disasters during extraction and distribution with large impacts on nature.
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Use of fossil fuels
Use of mineral reserves
Use of wood fibres as fuel and material (forestry)
Use of agricultural products: food, material and fuel
Use of water
Large local/regional impacts The use on non-ferrous on the landscape and metal in particular (e.g. ecotoxicological pollution copper, zinc, lead and cadmium) is responsible for a steep rise in metal fluxes Clearance, loss of forest Carbon storage function area and loss of biodiversity reduced in plantations and secondary forest, soil erosion Clearance and loss of forest Disruption of nutrient cycles, area, loss of soil, reduced carbon storage consumption of groundwater function reserves Other greenhouse gas cycles affected Eutrophication and acidification due to use of nutrients or exhaustion due to use of nutrients Overexploitation and Disruption of nutrient cycles shrinkage of fish stocks, loss of biodiversity Falling water tables, salination, exhaustion of groundwater reserves, damage to ecosystems
Ecotoxicological impacts of pesticide use
Table 2: Overview of environmental impacts from the use of natural resources The extraction of fossil fuels and minerals not only causes large local environmental impacts, but is also associated with regular disasters that have far-reaching impacts. Examples are the recent disasters in Spain (1998) and Romania/Hungary (1999) and the oil spills from Russian oilfields (2000).
Accidents continue to occur during the transport and distribution of oil and these can have severe impacts on the marine environment.
The use of natural resources is the most important human activity in terms of global environmental effects. Table 3 indicates the relative significance of the use of different types of natural resources in terms of environmental impacts.
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Land use Adverse effects on biodiversity from land use * Greenhouse effect (incl. fuel consumption) ca. 70% Ecotoxicological impacts
Use of fossil resources Use of minerals
0 (ca. 10%)
approx. 5% (8%)
approx. 38% NA ?
**** *** **
approx. 25% (42%) (
Ecotoxicological impacts relate here to toxic and hazardous substances, acidification and eutrophication. The greenhouse effect shown in brackets includes the combustion of fossil fuels. About half the total combustion of fossil fuels, which accounts for about 70% of the total greenhouse effect, is for the direct use of energy. The other half is used in the production of foods and other products. * = relatively limited contribution on a global scale; ** moderate contribution globally; *** large contribution globally; **** very large contribution globally
Table 3: Overview of the significance of environmental impacts caused by the use of natural resources Sources: IPPC 1996, WRI, 2000, FAO 2000. The shaded boxes in Table 3 show the environmental impacts caused largely by use of the indicated resources. The production of agricultural raw materials has the greatest environmental impact worldwide. A great deal of land is needed for agriculture but fertility is diminishing. Large areas of soils are being lost, mineral use is not in balance with the needs of the crops and the use of pesticides causes ecological impacts and health effects (in farmers).
3.2 Ecological limits
The environmental impacts of using reserves of natural resources are so great that various ecological limits are easily exceeded. Greenhouse effect According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) the heightened greenhouse effect must be reduced by 50–70% from 1990 levels to keep the effects of climate change within manageable proportions (Watson et al. 2000, RIVM, 2000A).
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Signing the 1997 Kyoto protocol was the first step for the industrial countries. But so far little attempt has been made to achieve a reduction of 50%.1
This reduction target agrees well with the ecological footprint approach, which attempts to provide a picture of the use of global biological productive capacity. At the moment this is about 30 to 50% higher than that
Biodiversity At the 1992 ‘ Earth Summit’held in Rio de Janeiro (UNCED) it was agreed that current levels of biodiversity worldwide must be preserved as far as possible. Each country is responsible for the conservation of its own biodiversity. Nevertheless, the loss of biodiversity is continuing undiminished, despite a small number of successes (WWF 1998, RIVM, 2000b).
Various attempts have been made to estimate how large an area of the world’ land area s should be left undisturbed to enable biodiversity to be maintained at present levels (de Vries 1994).
These estimates lie around the 20% mark. At present about 30% of the world can be considered to be in an undisturbed state. This is not a reassuring figure, though, because the quality of the areas concerned is of great importance for the conservation of biodiversity. The increasing demand for land for agriculture, forestry and buildings will lead to the loss of areas of great value for biodiversity. We cannot conclude, therefore, that there is room for further uncontrolled exploitation of natural areas. 3.3 Social and economic sustainability: fair shares
Industrialized countries make a much greater claim on raw materials than developing countries. About 20% of the world’ population lives in rich countries and uses on average s about 50% of the world’ various reserves. Consumption of most resources is increasing s both in rich and poor countries, but faster in poor countries. For example, during the last 10 years fossil fuel consumption in China, with a fifth of the world’ population, has more s than doubled. Meat consumption in China has also doubled in the last 10 years; in 1996 it stood at 41 kg per person, a little more than half the figure for Europe and a third of the amount consumed in the US.
Production in poor countries Use in poor countries Growth factor at OECD levels of use throughout the whole world Growth according to forecasts for total world demand over the next 50 years
Fossil resources § § coal, oil and gas limestone PM 70% 52% 69% 3.8 2.5
1.7 to 2.9 with declining availability of oil and natural gas (RIVM 2000a)
Minerals § ferrous § aluminium § copper § N, P, K nutrients § Cars Wood fibre as fuel and material § § Firewood raw materials for industry 65% 60% 65% ? PM PM 90% 40% 40% 30% 30% 55% 15% 67% 90% 33% 4.8 5.6 5.6 3.6 6.8 2.4 NA 6.8
1.5 to 4 with declining quality of ores and poor accessibility (Vuuren 1999, Matthews 1999)
1.6 to 2.6 assuming growth of 1 to 2% per year with declining area of forest cover worldwide and halving of tropical forests (Matthews
produced naturally by the earth (Wackernagel et al. 2000), made possible by the use of fossil resources. The annual use of carbon is greater than the earth can fix each year in the form of organic matter. If we decide that biological productivity may not be higher than that provided naturally by the earth, then the use of fossil fuels will have to be reduced by about 75%. This assumes that it will be much more difficult to cut back on agriculture, forestry and housing.
1999) Agricultural products: food, materials and fuels § § grains meat 74% 60% 74% 60% 2.1 3.2 1.5 in the next 25 years with a declining availability of fertile soils
Table 4: Forecast growth of natural resource use The third column in Table 4 shows the growth that would take place if the use of resources was divided equally, based on a population of 9 billion in 2050 and present levels of consumption in the rich countries (average of OECD countries).
Growth in the consumption of resources in poor countries is an inescapable consequence of social and economic development, and is progressing on a large scale in a number of countries. However, it is highly questionable whether growing prosperity in poor countries can be allowed to be accompanied by a per capita consumption of resources comparable with that of the rich countries now. If in 2050 the population of the world consumes natural resources at the levels now enjoyed by the ‘ rich countries’of the world, it would consume 2 to 7 times the present amount of natural resources. This would multiply current environmental problems by 2 to 7 times as well, while the goal is an absolute reduction of environmental impacts. This is illustrated in Figure 1 for the greenhouse effect.
CO2-emissie: groeifactor 3,8; gewenst 0,5 prognose komende 50 jaar 1,7 – 2,9
500% 400% 300% 200% 100% 0% Huidige verdeling rijk arm Gelijke verdeling
Figure 1: The effect of an equal distribution of resource use on the growth in CO2 emissions CO2 emissions: growth factor 3.8; desired 0.5 Prognosis for the next 50 years 1.7–2.9 Current distribution of resource use Equal distribution of resource use
This presents us with a big challenge: to raise the efficiency of resource use, in some cases by a factor 10 (90% reduction), and achieving a comparable reduction in environmental impacts. For the use of fossil fuels, for example, efficiency needs to be increased by a factor of 7.6 (3.8/0.5).
The tasks facing the industrialized and the developing countries are different, though. The industrialized countries will indeed have to find ways of considerably reducing their use of raw materials and natural resources per head of the population. This will require great changes in the production and consumption of resources. For developing countries, the task is to generate growth in prosperity using efficient technologies, which are now hard for them to obtain. Many natural resources processed or consumed in the rich countries are extracted and produced in poor countries, generally because of natural circumstances, such as climate and the presence of mineral ores, and because wages are low. Under prevailing power structures in these countries the local population usually comes off worst (Spapens 1998).
Pay and working conditions in mines are generally bad, and mining activities often cause sweeping changes in the environment of the local population. Wages and working conditions also tend to be poor on plantations owned by multinationals, where many food crops, such as banana, tea and coffee, are grown. The current skewed distribution of production and consumption of natural resources results in resources being taken from poor countries and added to the reserves in the economies of rich countries. This will enable the rich countries to cope with a future scarcity of primary resources much better than their poor cousins. For example, rich countries have large stocks of recoverable metals in products and waste – which makes the high demand for primary metals from the rich countries highly suspicious. 3.4 The challenge facing the Western world
The Western world faces two challenges concerning the use of natural resources. First, that of achieving a fair distribution of resource use. Achieving this will require a literal ‘ dematerialization’of consumption. About 70% of the greenhouse effect is caused by the use of fossil resources. Of this 70%, more than half is used in the industrial production of raw materials, components and products. The potential for reducing the greenhouse effect by making changes to the energy system is limited by the demand for materials efficiency in the production of goods. To achieve a 50–75% reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases will be very difficult without large increases in efficiency of the materials system (and certainly not cost-effective).
The basic position of Dutch policy on the greenhouse effect is that these problems must not be transferred to biodiversity and food production. Dematerialization of the use of foodstuffs and wood will help free up land for the biofuel crops and carbon storage needed to combat global warming This, by the way, must not compete for land with the growing demand in developing countries for good food and timber.
Contribution to global warming 20% 14% 16% Main reduction measures Control of emissions from agriculture (N2O and CH4) Resist conversion to agriculture and forestry Increase greenhouse gas efficiency of the energy system, dematerialization by preventing waste, substitution, etc., resulting in a lower demand in agricultural production Increasing greenhouse gas efficiency of the energy system, dematerialization by system substitution, prevention and reuse Increase greenhouse gas efficiency, reduce demand from consumers by system substitution and more efficient use
Agriculture Land use changes Food production
Direct use of energy by consumers
Table 5: Contributions to global warming (IPPC 1996, Blonk 1992, Spapens 1998, Hekert 2000) Summing up, to reduce the greenhouse effect by a factor of 4 to 10 (75 to 90%) from 1990 levels, as required by policy and for a fair distribution of emission quota, consumption must be dematerialized. If we assume that half the reduction of the greenhouse effect from the materials system can be achieved by increasing energy efficiency, the other half will have to be achieved by increasing the efficiency of the use of the materials themselves. This means that the demand for primary resources other than fossil resources will have to be reduced by a factor of 2 to 4 (50 to 75%) from 1990 levels. At the same time this will reduce the land take by the same proportion, assuming the same levels of productivity. This extra land can be put to good use for combating global warming and meeting the rising demand for food and timber products, reducing the pressure to bring more virgin land into production. The demand for primary resources from agriculture and forestry must be reduced by a factor of 2 to 4 as well. Given the large contribution to total land use made by these sectors, this is more significant than for minerals. The second challenge facing the Western world is to produce raw materials within acceptable local environmental and social conditions, and in doing so contribute to meeting global sustainability targets. For the extraction of minerals and fossil resources this means that local environmental impacts must be minimized and international conventions, for example on working conditions and child labour, must be respected. Food and timber production must take global sustainability targets into account, such as reductions in global warming and the prevention of clear felling, soil erosion and biodiversity loss.
Challenge facing the Western world Reduction in use from 1990 levels Factor 4–10 Factor 2–4 in relation to greenhouse effect Factor 2–4 in relation to greenhouse effect Environmental impact targets for production Social and economic targets for production
Use of fossil resources Use of minerals Use of wood fibres as fuel and material (forestry) Use of agricultural products: food, materials and fuel
Factor 2–4 in relation to greenhouse effect
Limit local environmental impacts Limit local environmental impacts No use of timber for primary forests, conservation of biodiversity, sustainable forest management No new agricultural land, integrated agriculture, organic agriculture
Production within acceptable social and economic conditions Production within acceptable social and economic conditions Production within acceptable social and economic conditions
Production within acceptable social and economic conditions
Table 6: Challenge to the Western world in relation to dematerialization and natural resource use To help third world countries to achieve sustainable production the Western world should start by reassessing its imports from these countries. Radical changes are needed in the market structure. At present most natural resources are bought on world markets without full knowledge of their origin, let alone how the raw materials are produced. In future, each supplier of raw materials should be able to justify their production methods.
Indicators of the pressures on reserves of natural resources Type of indicators
There are various indicators that can be used to monitor the use of physical resources and materials. First, of all, there are indicators that represent all the material streams in society, aggregated in one figure. An example is the TMR, the Total Material Requirement (Adriaanse 1997), which aggregates the use of resources by society into one score by adding up all the weights of resources used. This approach has two important disadvantages: 1 The total score is heavily influenced by the large resource streams and movements of these effectively determine the score, while there is no reason to suppose that these streams are in fact the determining factors in the total pressure on natural resources. The use of sand has a completely different impact than the use of copper, for example. An environmental impact score is needed to indicate this. The total score is a sum of natural resources, the pressure on a number of reserves and movements of resources. Figures as different as the use of potatoes and the amount of eroded soil are all added up together. This combination of different units is highly confusing.
A theoretically more satisfactory approach is to add up all the environmental impacts caused by the various resource streams. However, this places high demands on the method and procedure for aggregating environmental impacts and requires much data. The attempt by Pré (2000) to do this using the LCA method must therefore be viewed as an exploratory exercise. The LCA method used is not suitable for expressing the most important environmental impacts caused by the use of resources, such as loss of biodiversity and the environmental impacts of agriculture. Moreover, the data on the extraction and production of imported raw materials used in Pré study are very sketchy.2 Another approach is to use ‘ resources’ Instead of looking at the actual extraction of key . specific resources such as ores and minerals, this method focuses on the use of reserves of a few specific resources that are ultimately essential for the functioning of the earth and human society. These key resources are energy, the use of land and biodiversity. The ecological footprint method is based on the same thinking. It expresses everything as a (weighted) land area (the ‘ footprint’ and has the advantage of allowing comparisons, for ) example between the use of sand and copper, via the claims made on a few key resources. The disadvantage is that it involves long and difficult calculations and considerable uncertainty. And the definition of ‘ resources’ is itself a subject for debate. How can the key consumption of energy be defined? And how can the use of biodiversity be calculated (see for example Blonk 1997)? A more practical approach is to identify the resources streams that make up a substantial part of all resources used and the environmental impacts caused by the use of resources.
The Pré study does provide insight into some environmental themes and a number of interesting conclusions are drawn. One third of the pressure on the environment exerted by consumption in the Netherlands takes place abroad. The study also shows that the Netherlands is a recipient of environmental pressures exerted by consumption in the EU region (particularly Germany) because of the country’ s geographical situation and economic structure.
The WWF takes this approach with its six indicators for consumption (WWF 1998): grain consumption, marine fish consumption, timber consumption, consumption of ‘ drinking’ water, and CO2 emissions. This report draws partly on the issues selected by WWF. 4.2 Consumption indicators for the Western world – the Netherlands as example
Production and consumption activities require different indicators of resource use. Consumption indicators are designed to reflect developments in consumer demand. The final use of resources, such as land, fossil fuels and biodiversity, and other environmental impacts can be obtained by combining these indicators with data on the environmental efficiency of production (such as energy consumption and emissions from production processes, materials reuse and losses from the production chain).
Production indicators reflect production activities within a country and are more suitable for monitoring the environmental efficiency of specific production activities. The OECD (1999) has developed a number of indicators for monitoring changes in the sustainability of consumption. This list of indicators, along with the WWF methodology, is used in this report. The indicators shown in Table 7 provide a good impression of the use of resources by the Dutch population.
Contribution to environmental impacts from consumption Land use Damage to Greenhouse Ecotoxicological impacts biodiversity effect