As it stands, economic growth is largely dependent on resource consumption. As a country grows, so does its use of natural—and limited—high-quality resources like oil, gold, and copper. But this is untenable in the long run, especially as growing countries like India and China model themselves increasingly on American habits of consumption (a car, two cell phones, and 30 pounds of meat for all!). The seemingly impossible solution: separating resource use and environmental impact from economic growth—a process with the unfortunate moniker "decoupling."
According to a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), decoupling is already happening, albeit at a small scale. The resources required per $1,000 of economic output dropped from 2.1 to 1.6 tons between between 1980 and 2002—but more needs to be done to prevent the world from devolving into Mad Max-like mayhem where we're fighting for every last drop of gas. Here are the current trends in increasing GDP and resource use:
And here is how that works on a country-by-country basis. Countries that use more, make more:
But if resource consumption continues at its current rate, we will see an annual total consumption of 140 billion tons of minerals, fossil fuels, ores, and biomass by 2050. If industrialized nations make moderate changes, that number could drop all the way to 70 billion tons of resource extraction by the same year. And if, by some miracle, all countries start scrambling to decrease resource use, we could see total consumption of 50 billion tons by 2050—the same as in 2000.
Some countries are already experimenting with large-scale decoupling. Japan, for example, represents "the most advanced examples (of) increasing resource productivity and minimizing negative environmental impacts in practice," according to the report. And China has developed both "decoupling indicators" and mandatory targets, as well as goals for CO2 emissions cuts of up to 40% by 2050.
It's certainly not fair to ask developing countries to give up a chance at prosperity because we already used all the good stuff and want to keep using what's left. But those countries may ultimately have an easier time decoupling than developed nations since they can leapfrog older, inefficient technologies (i.e coal-fired power plants) for more resource efficient ones, such as solar power. It's easier to simply adopt efficiency first than to tear down existing infrastructure and start over. In 2050, we may be waving goodbye to an ascendant solar-powered Africa while we scrounge for one last lump of coal.
The bottom line: This decoupling needs to begin on a large scale, and fast. The report notes that we're already having a hard time finding high-quality copper and gold, and peak oil is coming—if it hasn't already. We've seen the beginnings of this in the energy industry (giant solar installations in the desert, large-scale offshore wind turbine projects, etc.) and in the vehicle industry, but it's not enough. Without major changes, today's economic woes are going to seem like a joke. But not a very funny one.