As we pull more from the ground, the earth warms

Rising consumption fuelled by a growing middle class has seen the amount of primary materials extracted from the Earth triple in the last four decades, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme-hosted International Resource Panel (IRP).

The dramatic increase in the use of fossil fuels, metals and other materials will intensify climate change, increase air pollution, reduce biodiversity, and ultimately lead to the depletion of natural resources, causing worrying shortages of critical materials and heightening the risk of local conflicts,warns the report.

The amount of primary materials extracted from the Earth rose from 22 billion tonnes in 1970 to a staggering 70 billion tonnes in 2010, with the richest countries consuming on average 10 times as many materials as the poorest countries and twice as much as the world average.

If the world continues to provide housing, mobility, food, energy and water in the same way as today, then by 2050 the planet’s nine billion people would require 180 billion tonnes of material every year to meet demand. This is almost three times today’s amount and will likely create environmental impacts that may further raise the levels of acidification and eutrophication of the world’s soils and water bodies, increase soil erosion and lead to greater amounts of waste and pollution.

The report also ranks countries by the size of their per capita material footprints – the amount of material required for final demand in a country, an indicator that sheds light on the true impact of a country on the global natural resource base. It is also a good proxy for the material standard of living in a country.

Europe and North America, which had annual per capita material footprints of 20 and 25 tonnes in 2010, are at the top of the table. By comparison, China had a material footprint of 14 tonnes per capita and Brazil 13 tonnes.

Global material use has rapidly accelerated since 2000 as emerging economies like China undergo industrial and urban transformations that require unprecedented amounts of iron, steel, cement, energy and construction materials.

Looking to the future, the IRP warns that low-income countries will require increasing quantities of materials to achieve the same level of development experienced by high-income countries. This expanding demand for materials will possibly contribute to local conflicts like those seen in areas where mining competes with agriculture and urban development.

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