Material resources, productivity and the environment
Natural resources are fundamental to the economy and human well-being. They provide essential raw materials and other commodities, and are an important source of income and jobs. They also support the provision of ecosystem services necessary to develop human and social capital.
The way natural resources and materials are managed and used is important, not only from an environmental perspective but also from an economic perspective. Improving resource productivity is thus central to achieving green growth and has become a priority for governments and businesses alike.
Resource productivity contains both a quantitative dimension (producing more with a given amount of natural resources), and a qualitative dimension (reducing the environmental impacts of natural resource use).
The forthcoming OECD report Material resources, productivity and the environment examines how material resources flow between the economy and the environment, and the factors that drive changes in resource productivity over time and across countries.
The report uses concepts and tools from material flow analysis and accounting, and provides a factual basis to help understand some of the key challenges and opportunities associated with material resources and resource productivity in OECD countries.
The amount of materials extracted worldwide doubled since 1980, reaching close to 72 Gt in 2010, and is projected to reach 100 Gt by 2030.
Materials consumption is driven primarily by construction materials (36% of OECD materials consumption in weight), fossil fuel energy carriers (28%), and biomass for food and feed (20%).
In recent years, there have been signs of decoupling between GDP growth and the growth in materials extraction and use: OECD uses 45% less material for every unit of economic output. This decoupling is particularly noticeable in countries in which efforts in waste management and recycling have been instrumental in improving overall resource productivity.
Despite these relatively positive signs, environmental pressures and risks of resource scarcity will continue to intensify as greater demands are placed on the environment with, notably, the quadrupling of the population by 2050.
The way forward
Governments should scale up existing policies in order to further decouple the use of material resources from economic growth. Possible measure to consider are: promoting integrated life-cycle-orientated approaches, introducing fees for the use of resources, charges for environmental damage, or supporting longer product lifespans such as through increased legal minimum warranty periods.
The private sector could identify new business models linked to improved resource efficiency of production processes and realise that “less material” can mean “more value”.
Consumers need to be more aware of the role that every one of us can play and contribute through better product choices and behaviour.