The major challenge of resource availability in the 21st Century
The last half of the 20th Century comprised five decades of exponential growth and achievement in scientific progress. Over that short period, technological and medical innovation – coupled with economic alleviation of poverty – led to dramatic collapses in infant mortality rates and improvements in living standards. Global life expectancy in 1950 was 47; it is now 70. GDP per capita nearly quadrupled.
But that unprecedented shift in living standards also brought accelerating greenhouse gas emissions, large-scale exploitation of natural resources, and vast amounts of material extraction.
In key ways, the early 21st Century is already determined. Demographic momentum will result in an extra billion people by 2025, and global population is expected to exceed nine billion by 2040. Urbanisation will see around 58% of the world’s population living in cities by 2025. A continuing increase in overall prosperity is likely to continue, with the global middle class numbering nearly five billion people by 2030. Finally, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere now will drive changes in temperature for almost a decade.
Projections taking into account demographics, urbanisation and prosperity suggest radically increased demand for water, energy and food. The gap between existing supplies of water, even accounting for historical improvements in water productivity is 60% of projected 2030 demand. The anticipated future demand for food far exceeds historical yield improvements, even those achieved during the ‘Green Revolution’ of the 20th Century. And energy demand is projected to increase by around 40% to 2040. These challenges of food, water and energy security are all set against the risk multiplier of unavoidable climate change.
Technological innovation in the late 20th Century also resulted in the tools of renewable energy – in particular, wind and solar power – which are now being brought to scale. The system-wide implementation of these technologies requires significant infrastructure investment and further system innovation, in the form, for instance, of grid integration and storage and smart or mini grid systems. The need for new technology investment is also apparent in areas of transport (for instance for electric vehicles, alternative fuel vehicles, and public transport systems), in energy efficiency (for instance industrial energy efficiency measures, green buildings, lighting, and advanced materials), and also in agriculture (for instance in the development of green fertilizers).
A decarbonized economy has many environmental co-benefits: lower particulate matter in air; lower eutrophication in water; lower eco-toxicity in living biomass. At the same time, however, low-carbon technologies and infrastructure frequently have a high material footprint per unit of final energy delivered. Demand for materials such as aluminium, copper, iron and cement is anticipated to continue at a higher constant rate in a low-carbon future compared to one where business continues as usual. This is partly because new energy technologies have much higher bulk material requirements than coal or natural gas, particularly in their initial capital installation phases. New energy technologies – and new transport technologies – are also heavily reliant on metals, whether the common metals such as copper and aluminium or more specialised metals such as lithium, cobalt, and the rare earth elements.
The trend towards greater urbanization also has a substantial effect on demand for basic materials such as cement, concrete, glass and steel. The design of new cities is vitally important for our future climate: cities are responsible for 70-75% of global energy and materials, and buildings alone emit around 33% of GHG emissions. Furthermore, increased food demands require yield improvements which have historically relied heavily on fertilizers containing nitrogen and phosphorus.
For all these reasons, the 21st Century is likely to see extremely heavy demands on primary materials. If current systems of production are not changed, a world of nine billion people will be requiring around 180 billion tonnes of materials annually by 2050. That is almost 3 times today’s amounts.
In an ideal world, two types of decoupling will occur. Firstly, even as improvements of human well-being and economic activity occur, the increase in resource use can be slower. Secondly, even as resource use increases, the environmental impact of that resource use can be reduced, and made to decrease over time. This is the essence of a sustainable economic system. In terms of material use, that concept requires the redesign of product supply chains to contain multiple points of efficient design, optimization and recycling. That includes the most visible (and socio-politically complex) point of environmental impact, that of primary extraction.
These required changes are radical and come at a time of great uncertainty about the future. Those countries and institutions that adapt fast through the transition will be best placed to face these challenges. In a world where China is forecast to be the largest economic power by 2030, it is notable that one of the five goals embedded in that country’s national development plan is ‘ecological civilization’. This national strategy was reiterated at the recent 19th National Congress by Xi Jingping.
Whether concepts of a ‘green economy’, the ‘circular economy’ or indeed of ‘ecological civilisation’ can come to reality depends to a great extent on how scientists, businessmen and women, and policymakers approach the transition from a 20th Century fossil fuel economy to a 21st Century metals-and-minerals economy. Many energy carriers may end up in long-lived stocks; carbon dioxide-emitting cities last for generations. We are at the beginning of the pipe in a situation wherein end-of-pipe solutions may be limited. And in the words of Einstein, at the very beginning of the 20th Century, “the world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation”.
The Oxford Martin School is proud to partner with the Veolia Institute to explore some of the resource availability challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century through a joint conference, Strategic Materials for a Low-Carbon Future: From Scarcity to Availability. To learn more, visit the conference website.
This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.