Decoupling : natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth

Fischer-Kowalski, Marina ; Swilling, M. (United Nations Environment Programme, 2011-05)

Report is also available from http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Publications/Decoupling/tabid/56048/Default.aspx

Technical Report

"By 2050, humanity could devour an estimated 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year – three times its current appetite – unless the economic growth rate is “decoupled” from the rate of natural resource consumption. Developed countries citizens consume an average of 16 tons of those four key resources per capita (ranging up to 40 or more tons per person in some developed countries). By comparison, the average person in India today consumes four tons per year. With the growth of both population and prosperity, especially in developing countries, the prospect of much higher resource consumption levels is “far beyond what is likely sustainable” if realized at all given finite world resources, warns this report by UNEP’s International Resource Panel. Already the world is running out of cheap and high quality sources of some essential materials such as oil, copper and gold, the supplies of which, in turn, require ever-rising volumes of fossil fuels and freshwater to produce. Improving the rate of resource productivity (“doing more with less”) faster than the economic growth rate is the notion behind “decoupling,” the panel says. That goal, however, demands an urgent rethink of the links between resource use and economic prosperity, buttressed by a massive investment in technological, financial and social innovation, to at least freeze per capita consumption in wealthy countries and help developing nations follow a more sustainable path." - Source: http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Publications/Decoupling/tabid/56048/Default.aspx

Stellenbosch News 13 May 2011 Source: http://blogs.sun.ac.za/news/2011/05/13/stellenbosch-professor-co-authors-un-sustainability-report/. Stellenbosch professor co-authors UN sustainability report. By 2050, humanity could devour an estimated 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year – three times the current appetite – unless the economic growth rate is “decoupled” from the rate of natural resource consumption. This is according to a new United Nations (UN) report released on 12 May and lead co-authored by Professor Mark Swilling, the Head of the Sustainable Development Programme of the School of Public Leadership (SPL) at Stellenbosch University (SU). The report, called Decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth, is the work of the International Resource Panel of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and was released at a Commission for Sustainable Development meeting in New York. It details progress in four countries, including South Africa, where government policy supports decoupling. According to the research, citizens in developed countries consume an average of 16 tons of the four key resources (minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass) per capita (ranging up to 40 or more tons per person in some developed countries). By comparison, the average person in India today consumes four tons per year. With the growth of both population and prosperity, especially in developing countries, the prospect of much higher resource consumption levels is “far beyond what is likely sustainable” if realised at all given finite world resources, warns the report. UN Under Secretary-General Achim Steiner, UNEP’s Executive Director, says that “decoupling makes sense on all the economic, social and environmental dials”. “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,” he says. “Decoupling is part of a transition to a low carbon, resource efficient Green Economy needed in order to stimulate growth, generate decent kinds of employment and eradicate poverty in a way that keeps humanity’s footprint within planetary boundaries.” South Africa faces tough challenges. The report’s case study on South Africa reveals that the country faces some tough challenges. South Africa’s Constitution requires “ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources”, and policies explicitly call for “resource and impact decoupling” and greenhouse-gas emission cuts of 30 to 40% by 2050. Progress, though, is undermined by a growing reliance on exports of coal and other minerals. SA’s carbon intensity is the world’s highest and emissions per person are double the global average. Commenting on governments globally investing heavily in innovations aimed at improving resource productivity, Professor Swilling highlights one of SA’s mistakes. “Ten years ago neither China nor SA had a solar power industry. China decided to invest heavily in solar power and is now the world leader, and SA decided to invest in pebble bed nuclear power, which failed and has been scrapped. SA cannot afford these mistakes. SA could become a world leader in resource productivity innovations as the key driver of a green economy growth path. This report makes it clear that decoupling GDP growth from escalating resource use is key to a green economy.” Professor Swilling of SU is one of South Africa’s leading sustainable development experts. He has published over 50 academic articles, four books and written extensively for the popular media on a wide range of public policy issues. He is also the Project Leader of the TsamaHub, a focal point for studies in transdisciplinarity, sustainability, assessment, modelling and analysis at Stellenbosch University. It forms part of the institution’s HOPE Project, which is aimed at addressing societal challenges.

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