Background

“We need to break the links between economic growth and environmental degradation” 

Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP 

Natural resources are essential to meet the basic needs of humanity. We depend on them to nourish ourselves, build places in which we can live and work, and provide ways for us to travel and communicate. The trouble is, our exploitation of resources already exceeds the Earth’s biological capacity by 25 per cent. In 1950, we only consumed around half the resources Earth was able to supply but today we need the equivalent of 1.25 Earths to support us. Unless something is done to curb our appetite for resources, we will soon need two or more planet Earths to satisfy our needs, an entirely unsustainable situation. 

The current resource crisis is undermining the fundamental economic, social and environmental systems on which our development relies. It is having many detrimental impacts on the environment; fossil fuel consumption, for example, is wreaking havoc on global climates. Continued overconsumption will affect the security of supplies, particularly threatening weaker economies that do not have the financial capacity to deal with price increases. In the long term, the effects of the resource crisis may spread throughout global supply chains, inducing bottlenecks and shortages. Resource-related environmental, social and economic problems will become more and more interconnected. 

Being able to sustainably manage resources is critical to encouraging socio-economic development without further damaging the environment on which we depend. We must reduce the volume of resources we use, and limit environmental impacts to a level within the natural regeneration capacity of ecosystems, while increasing economic welfare and social well-being. This is referred to as ‘decoupling’ environmental impacts from economic growth. It is associated with using resources more efficiently, in other words, ‘doing more with less’. Aiming to use resources more productively is a ‘win-win’ strategy. 

International pressure to ‘decouple’ is mounting, in the face of converging priorities to create wealth, alleviate poverty and protect the environment. However, we do not yet have a general consensus about the goals and roadmaps for the way forward. Such consensus does not yet exist because the nature and scale of the problems and solutions are difficult to quantify. Despite developments in environmental sciences, results are often still disputed. The technical nature of debates has also impeded the application of scientific findings within natural resource management. A solid understanding and widespread agreement on the scientific basis for decoupling is urgently needed to achieve sustainable development. 

The International Resource Panel was launched in 2007 to help bridge this knowledge gap. Benefiting from the broad support of governments and scientific communities, the Panel aims to provide decision makers and other interested parties with independent and authoritative information about sustainable resource management. Brought together by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Panel is made up of eminent scientific experts, with many years experience in resource management. Their assessments evaluate the latest scientific, technical and socio-economic literature on global resource use and show policymakers ways to move towards more sustainable resource management. 

The IRP will play a key role in linking the efforts of the business and scientific communities with policy makers. The business community, with its first-hand knowledge of large-scale resource consumption and the benefits of resource efficiency, has already made strong contributions. In parallel, the scientific initiatives from academia and NGOs have forewarned us that humanity is facing severe resource constraints. They have also armed us with key knowledge resources such as life-cycle databases and material accounting. 

The UNEP, the G8 and the OECD have each developed programmes aimed at improving our use of resources. Resource efficiency is one of UNEP’s six crosscutting priorities. This theme is managed through targeted activities, including the 10-year framework of programmes on sustainable consumption and production (10YFP), the Life Cycle Initiative, and business-oriented programmes, such as Global Compact and Global Reporting Initiative. The European Commission aims to reduce environmental impacts associated with resource use though its Thematic Strategy on the Sustainable Use of Natural Resources. Meanwhile, Japan’s 3R Initiative (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) and China’s Circular Economy are promoting alternative national policies to move Asia towards a ‘sound material-cycle economy’. 

It is timely to build on the momentum generated by these initiatives and connect the different sectors and networks that can help us make wise use of our finite resources in the future. With its multi-stakeholder approach, the Panel brings together scientists, governments from both developed and developing regions, civil society organisations, industries and international organisations. As the scientists provide us with accurate data and observations on the state of planet Earth, governments and civil society organisations will ensure that information reaches the policy makers so they can steer us away from overconsumption to a more sustainable future.