Sustainable Development

Our resources are running out. These charts show how urgently action is needed

View of Earth.

“With decisive action by politicians and the private sector, a decent life for all is possible without costing the Earth," says the IRP’s Co-Chair, Janez Potočnik. Image: Unsplash/NASA

Emma Charlton
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Future of the Environment

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • Global natural resource consumption is forecast to rise 60% by 2060, compared with 2020 levels, according to the United Nations.
  • Increasing demand for resources is due to urbanization, industrialization and a growing population, which is leading to severe consequences such as biodiversity loss, water stress, climate change and air pollution, it says.
  • Disrupted supply chains for critical goods and resources were among the top risks identified in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2024.

We’re racing into a resources crisis that’s set to intensify unless urgent action is taken.

Global natural resource consumption is predicted to increase by 60% by 2060, compared with 2020 levels, according to the United Nations Environment Programme's Global Resources Outlook, a report by the UN's International Resource Panel. That’s after material use grew more than three times over the past 50 years, it said.

Resources include crops for food, wood for energy, fossil fuels, metals like iron, aluminium and copper, non-metallic minerals, as well as land and water.

“It is no longer whether a transformation towards global sustainable resource consumption and production is necessary, but how to urgently make it happen,” said Janez Potocnik and Izabella Teixeirq, International Resource Panel (IRP) co-chairs.

Graphic showing how resource use is projected to grow by 60% by 2060.
Growing demand for our resources. Image: United Nations Environment Programme's Global Resources Outlook

The pace at which we’re using our planet’s resources has a connection to almost every aspect of our lives. This exploitation is the main driver for the triple planetary crises, which are defined by the United Nations as the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and the pollution crisis, according to the IRP.

A chart showing how material use has increased since 1970.
Growing demand for our resources. Image: United Nations Environment Programme's Global Resources Outlook
Discover

How is the World Economic Forum contributing to build resilient supply chains?

Disrupted supply chains for critical goods and resources were among the top risks identified in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2024 for the current risk landscape. Environmental risks were another significant concern identified in that report, with extreme weather ranked as the top risk likely to cause a global crisis in 2024.

Chart showing the top risks in the current landscape.
Top risks in the current landscape. Image: World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2024

Even so, the writers of the report still see scope to reduce resource use while growing the economy and achieving the other UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This will require a “decoupling” so that the environmental impacts of resource use fall, while the well-being contributions increase, they say.

A graphic showing why delivering on the SDGs required decoupling.
Action needs to include decoupling. Image: United Nations Environment Programme's Global Resources Outlook

“Reorienting demand and allowing resource use to grow where it is most needed will open pathways to achieving the SDGs and a shared and equitable prosperity for all,” the report says. Bold policy action will be required and there must be a “much stronger focus on demand-side – consumption – measures”.

High-income countries use six times more materials per capita and are responsible for 10 times more climate impacts per capita than low-income countries. Material inequalities must be addressed as a core element of any approach, the report warns.

A chart showing the inequality in material use between countries.
Inequality of materials. Image: United Nations Environment Programme's Global Resources Outlook

In areas where consumption levels are high, there needs to be a focus on lowering resource and material consumption levels and on efficiency. This could help reduce around 30% of resource use around the world compared with historical trends, it says. In countries where resource use needs to grow, it is possible to use strategies that maximize the value we get from resources.

Directing finance towards sustainable resource use is one potential solution, the report suggests, by making sure the true costs of resources are reflected in the structure of the economy. Providing consumers with information and access to sustainable goods and services is also crucial.

Regulation has an important role to play in disincentivizing or banning resource-intensive options – for example non-essential single-use plastic products, the report points out. Business models that build in refuse, reduce, eco-design, reuse, repair, and recycling initiatives are also necessary.

A graphic showing why reorienting resource demand and bold policy action is critical to phase out unsustainable activities.
Urgent need for action. Image: United Nations Environment Programme's Global Resources Outlook

Much needs to be done to transform our built environments, and the ways we move around, and consume food and energy. High- and upper-middle-income countries could also shift away from animal protein.

“We should not accept that meeting human needs must be resource intensive, and we must stop stimulating extraction-based economic success,” said the IRP’s Co-Chair, Janez Potočnik. “With decisive action by politicians and the private sector, a decent life for all is possible without costing the Earth.”

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Related topics:
Sustainable DevelopmentNature and Biodiversity
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