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Brussels, 26 May 2011

Environment: shall we triple resource use by 2050, or improve efficiency and recycling?

Today the European Commission, together with the UN Environment Programme, launched two major reports that call for a radical change in the way we use scarce resources. The first report shows the immense potential for increasing metal recycling rates. Only 18 metals are recycled more than 50%, and the majority do not even attain a 1% recycling rate. The second report, first presented at the UN Sustainable Development Commission on 18 May, underlines the need for a radical decoupling to avoid a global resource crunch by 2050, and provides science-based scenarios on future resource consumption. The two reports, put together by the International Resource Panel, call on legislators and policymakers to find ways to reduce resource use and increase recycling. Their publication at Green Week opens the way for the Commission's upcoming “Roadmap towards a resource efficient Europe”.

Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: "These reports underline the urgent need for a switch to a resource-efficient economy. They clearly set out the enormous challenges ahead of us, but I am confident that we can rise to the challenge. The Commission is now finalising a “Roadmap towards a Resource Efficient Europe”, which sets a transformational agenda and prepares the ground for the steps ahead. We now need effective dialogue with the Member States, as important decisions will be required in areas such as tax reform and eliminating inefficient subsidies. I also welcome the call for an increased focus on recycling."

Achieving sustainable economic growth and generating decent employment, but in a way that keeps humanity's ecological footprint within planetary bounadries is the challenge for this generation,” said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of UNEP. “Decoupling growth from natural resource use underpins that challenge and will be key to realizing a transition towards a low carbon, efficient Green Economy. Innovation, including technological, fiscal and organisational innovation needs to be unleashed through smart and forward-looking public policies that support the aspirations of seven billion people, rising to over nine billion by 2050 in developed and developing economies alike. Europe has a key role to play in delivering the kinds of transformational partnerships and cooperative arangements that ensure the fair and equitable access to resources for all people world-wide.”

Metal Recycling

Despite industry concerns over scarcity and high prices, only around one per cent of certain crucial high-tech metals are currently recycled. The rest are simply discarded and thrown away at the end of a product’s life. The new report warns that without radical changes to these practices, critical, specialty and rare earth metals could become essentially unavailable for use in modern technology. Metals such as iron and steel, copper, aluminum, lead and tin, by contrast, enjoy recycling rates of between 25 per cent and 75 per cent globally, albeit with lower rates in some developing economies.

Boosting recycling rates through better collection systems and recycling infrastructure, especially in developing countries, could save millions if not billions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions, and generate potentially significant numbers of green jobs. Recycling metals is between two and ten times more energy efficient than smelting metals from virgin ores, according to the report.

Decoupling report

The report on "Decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth" finds that with business as usual, resource consumption would increase to three times its current level by 2050, resulting in the annual consumption of 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass. As this is clearly not feasible, the solution is to “decouple” economic growth from the rate of natural resource consumption, through an increase in resource efficiency. Three scenarios are suggested, the most ambitious one calling on the developed world to reduce per capita use by two thirds from the current level of 16 tons per year, with other countries remaining at today's levels. Resource consumption could then remain at 2000 levels.


Background: International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management

The Resource Panel was set up to provide independent scientific insight into the use of natural resources and their environmental impacts, in an effort to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation. It draws on the views of environmental experts from around the world. The Panel is co-chaired by IUCN President Ashok Khosla and Professor Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, former Chairman of the Bundestag Environment Committee.

Full report available at:

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