George Monbiot, a correspondent for Britain’s The Guardian newspaper and known for his environmental and political activism, has made a surprising call for people in the United Kingdom to cut the use of cars by 90 per cent over the next decade.
Many will balk at this idea but it is perhaps sounding somewhat less bizarre after the release by the United Nations of a new report which paints a scary picture of the rate at which we are gobbling up the Earth’s resources.
The global automobile industry requires huge amounts of mined metals as well as other natural resources such as rubber, and the switch to electric vehicles, while a necessary move to curb air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, is not without some adverse environmental consequences: large-scale lithium mining for the batteries required to run electric vehicles could cause fresh environmental headaches.
UN Environment’s Global Resources Outlook 2019, prepared by the International Resource Panel, examines the trends in natural resources and their corresponding consumption patterns since the 1970s. Its main findings:
- The extraction and processing of materials, fuels and food contribute half of total global greenhouse gas emissions and over 90 per cent of biodiversity loss and water stress
- Resource extraction has more than tripled since 1970, including a fivefold increase in the use of non-metallic minerals and a 45 per cent increase in fossil fuel use
- By 2060, global material use could double to 190 billion tonnes (from 92 billion), while greenhouse gas emissions could increase by 43 per cent
Besides transport, another major consumer of resources is the rapidly growing building sector.
Cement, a key input into concrete, the most widely used construction material in the world, is a major source of greenhouse gases, and accounts for about eight per cent of carbon dioxide emissions, according to a recent Chatham House report.
Both concrete and clay manufacturing (for bricks) include energy-intensive processes for raw material extraction, transportation, and fuel sources for heating kilns.
Building quality sand is currently being extracted at unsustainable rates.
“Extraction of materials is a chief culprit in climate change and biodiversity loss—a challenge that will only worsen unless the world urgently undertakes a systemic reform of resource use,” says UN Environment climate change specialist Niklas Hagelberg. “Such a reform is both necessary and possible.”
Urgent energy transition needed
Sixty-six per cent of global energy is provided by fossil fuels (World Bank, 2014). UN Environment Acting Executive Director Joyce Msuya has called for speeding up the energy transition from fossil fuels—coal, oil and gas—to renewable sources of energy like wind and solar.
“We need to see a near-total shift to renewable sources of energy, which have the power to transform lives and economies while safeguarding the planet,” she says in her letter to participants of the recent UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya.
The call comes just a few days after Norway's US$1 trillion sovereign wealth fund--the world’s biggest--signalled that it intends to sell some of its shares in oil and gas companies, dealing a symbolic blow to fossil fuels that will reverberate for energy companies and their investors.
“Now more than ever, unprecedented and urgent action is required by all nations” to reduce global warming, says UN Environment’s Emissions Gap Report 2018. “To bridge the 2030 emissions gap and ensure long-term decarbonization, countries must also enhance their mitigation ambitions,” it adds.
The International Resource Panel was launched by UN Environment in 2007 to build and share the knowledge needed to improve our use of resources worldwide. The Panel consists of eminent scientists, highly skilled in resource management issues from both developed and developing regions, civil society, industrial and international organizations.