Slow Down, Planet-Eaters: UN Proposes Decoupling Economic Growth from Resource Consumption

"People believe environmental 'bads' are the price we must pay for economic 'goods.' However, we cannot, and need not, continue to act as if this trade-off is inevitable." -- Achim Steiner, Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme{1}

When I was a kid, one of the regular discussions that I had with my other comic book-collecting friends was about which superhero would win in fight against another superhero. How could Batman defeat Spiderman? Would the Green Lantern win against Flash? Superman could probably take them all on. But there was always one character who would end the discussion, because he was the most powerful comic book character of them all: Galactus.

In the Marvel Comics universe, Galactus stood out from the rest because he was really, really big. Actually, he was bigger than planets. In fact, Galactus ate planets for his sustenance. But when you think about it, devouring planets isn't an activity that is limited to the world of comic books: It's what humans are doing to Earth.

HOMO SAPIENS: THE REAL PLANET-EATERS

"By 2050, humanity could devour an estimated 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year—three times its current appetite—unless the economic growth rate is 'decoupled' from the rate of natural resource consumption," according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

"Developed countries' citizens consume an average of 16 tons of those four key resources per capita (ranging up to 40 or more tons per person in some developed countries).

By comparison, the average person in India today consumes four tons per year."{2} "Business as usual would triple global annual resource extraction by 2050, compared to 2000...far beyond what is likely to be sustainable," according to the 2011 UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report on decoupling, prepared by the International Resources Panel.{3}

DECOUPLING: AN URGENT RETHINK

The report notes that the planet is running out of resources like oil, copper and gold, supplies which require increasing amounts of fossil fuel and freshwater to transform into commodities. The panel asserts that improving the rate of resource productivity (i.e., "doing more with less") so that it outpaces the economic growth rate is the key concept of decoupling.

According to a statement by UNEP, achieving decoupling requires an "urgent rethink of the links between resource use and economic prosperity, buttressed by a massive investment in technological, financial and social innovation, to at least freeze per capita consumption in wealthy countries and help developing nations follow a more sustainable path."{4} 

DEVOURING THE PLANET: MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL MINING

The concept of humans devouring the planet is clearly exemplified by mountaintop removal (MTR) mining, what the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) called in a 2010 report "one of the world's most destructive practices for extracting fossil fuels."{5}

"This extreme method of strip mining is scarring the landscape and threatening communities," according to the report. "All across Central Appalachia—between the hollows of West Virginia, bordering the Blue Ridge of Virginia, beyond the bluegrass of Kentucky, and above the smoky vistas of Tennessee—companies are tearing down mountains to access the coal below. In the process they are clear-cutting miles of forests, filling the rivers with coal mining waste, polluting the waters with toxic runoff, and sacrificing the safety of the people who call this region home. MTR coal mining sites, which can exceed 10 square miles, have already leveled more than 500 summits so far." 

WEIGHING ECONOMIC VALUE AGAINST ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

Is destroying the planet's mountains really worth it? Citing 2002 data, the NRDC says that in West Virginia, MTR accounts for just 1.2 percent of jobs and a mere 2.6 percent of the state's total revenue. In the end, finding a way to accurately measure the value of resource extraction in both economic and environmental terms will be key to decoupling and increasing production efficiency.

In 2009, Galactus was ranked number five on the "Top 100 Comic Book Villains" list published by the pop culture website IGN.com. But when it comes to the greatest villain of planet Earth, Homo sapiens is the clear winner. And if we would rather be superheroes than supervillains, decoupling must become a reality.

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NOTES

1. http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Publications/Decoupling/tabid/56048/Default.aspx 

2. http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Portals/24102/PDFs/Decoupling_Press_Release.pdf 

3. Ibid., 1.

4. Ibid.

5. http://www.nrdc.org/energy/coal/mtr/files/MTR%20FS_May10.pdf  

image: mountaintop removal mining, West Virginia (National Resources Defense Council, Wikimedia Commons)