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Raw materials use tipped to nearly double by 2060, OECD report says

World needs dramatic turn-around in how products are produced, used and recycled
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(Forests News) — Rising living standards and population growth will push the use of raw materials to unprecedented levels in the coming decades, according to projections in a new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Around 90 gigatons of raw materials are used each year across the globe, say the report’s authors. That is a lot of stuff — the total raw materials consumed by an average family in a day would fill up a bathtub, volumes that will only become larger between now and 2060. The quantities are set to almost double to 167 gigatons by 2060, as global population grows to almost 10 billion, the global economy quadruples and average incomes per capita rise to converge with current OECD levels of about $40,000 a year. This will place twice the pressure on the environment that we are seeing today, said the authors in a press release.

The environmental implications of this increased extraction and use of resources such as wood, oil, gas, metals and building materials could well be disastrous. It’s “likely to worsen pollution of air, water and soils, and contribute significantly to climate change,” the authors of the report observed.

Over half of all current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are related to materials management activities. These come from fossil fuel and biomass combustion for energy, as well as from agriculture, manufacturing and construction. Annual emissions from these activities are tipped to rise to around 50 gigatons of CO2 equivalents by 2060, a significant increase on current levels of around 35 gigatons.

DEMAND FOR BIOMASS

Furthermore, demand for materials and energy places pressure on one of the most important resources for carbon sequestration: the world’s forests. According to the report, use of biomass – particularly as a source of energy, rather than timber for construction – is likely to increase from 20 gigatons in 2011 to 37 gigatons in 2060. As such, under a business-as-usual scenario for materials use, the ambitions of the Paris Agreement to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels would not be met.

It is not all bad news: the report does offer some glimmers of hope. As the global economy shifts from manufacturing to service industries, and the efficiency of manufacturing improves, economic growth is becoming decoupled from resource use, say the authors – meaning the amount of resources used per unit of gross domestic product is decreasing. Recycling is also projected to become more competitive than the environmentally-damaging extraction of primary materials.

But additional policy efforts are urgently required to create more circular economies that deliberately and effectively minimize resource input, waste, emissions and energy leakage, the report urges. Such policies will need to be context-specific because, as the authors point out, countries at different levels of development use different material resources and have different opportunities to decouple materials use from economic growth. They call for a “granular approach” to ascertaining which policy interventions will improve resource efficiency, and avoid major environmental consequences, in each context.

The authors also emphasize the need for coordinated approaches to building resource efficiency at the international level, given the increasing globalization of the world’s economies and the multi-jurisdictional nature of many value chains.

This means governments need to co-operate more, by supporting businesses to manage international supply chains more sustainably; dropping barriers to trade and investment in environmental goods and services; mainstreaming resource efficiency into official development assistance; harmonizing environmental labels across international markets; and improving data, indicators and analysis of resource efficiency across the board.

“We need more efforts to increase the lifetime of products and make them more easily recyclable when they are no longer useful,”, said Christopher Martius, team leader for climate change with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). “Product hypes and the need to sell throw-away products on the market that are not built for longevity and recycling creates a lot of pollution, as well as emissions. Plastic micro- and nano-pellets are now showing up in human food and end up in our bodies: this is disgusting. Current efforts to reduce single-use plastics in Europe are laudable in this regard, but we are far from the needed dramatic turn-around in how we produce, live with, and recycle products.”

The OECD’s RE-CIRCLE project – of which this report is one element – aims to contribute to the mission of moving toward more sustainable materials use, by helping decision-makers across the globe to understand the direction in which we are heading, and to “assess which policies can support a more circular economy,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría.

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For more information on this topic, please contact Christopher Martius at c.martius@cgiar.org.
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