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Rich countries contribute more to climate impacts than low-income countries – report

Friday, March 1st, 2024 19:58 | By
The 6th Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6) PHOTO/UNEA Website
The 6th Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6) PHOTO/UNEA Website

The curtains fell on the 6th Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6) on Friday afternoon after four days of intense discussions on the best possible way to urgently address the triple planetary crisis.

This comes after the glaring failure by countries, and member states of the UN, to deliver on many policy commitments within numerous Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs).

Subsequently, the contents of a report by the United Nations Environment Programme’s International Resource Panel (IRP) reinforce the reasons behind the failure of countries to deliver on the MEAs.

The IRP is a global science-policy platform established by the UNEP in 2007 to build and share the knowledge needed to improve the use of natural resources.

According to the 2024 Global Resource Outlook report, extraction of the Earth’s natural resources tripled in the past five decades, attributed to the massive build-up of infrastructure in many parts of the world and high levels of material consumption, especially in upper-middle and high-income countries.

"Rich countries use six times more resources and generate 10 times the climate impacts than low-income ones, far exceeding human needs and nature’s capacity," the report underscores.

It further indicates that material extraction is expected to rise by 60 per cent by 2060 and could derail efforts to achieve not only global climate, biodiversity, and pollution targets but also economic prosperity and human well-being.

The report calls for sweeping policy changes to bring humanity to live within its means and reduce this projected growth in resource use by one-third while growing the economy, improving well-being, and minimizing environmental impacts.

The report finds that growth in resource use since 1970 from 30 to 106 billion tonnes – or from 23 to 39 kilogrammes of materials used on average per person per day – has dramatic environmental impacts.

Overall, resource extraction and processing account for over 60 per cent of planet-warming emissions and 40 per cent of health-related impacts of air pollution.

The extraction and processing of biomass, notably crops and forestry, account for 90 per cent of land-related biodiversity loss and water stress, as well as one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, the extraction and processing of fossil fuels, metals, and non-metallic minerals such as sand, gravel, and clay together account for 35 per cent of global emissions.

"The triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature loss, and pollution is driven by a crisis of unsustainable consumption and production," Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP said, advocating for the integration of nature into daily human undertakings instead of merely exploiting it.

“Reducing the resource intensity of mobility, housing, food and energy systems is the only way we can achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and ultimately a just and liveable planet for all,” she noted.

At the heart of global resource use lie fundamental inequalities: low-income countries consume six times fewer materials and generate 10 times fewer climate impacts than those in high-income countries.

Upper middle-income countries, as highlighted in the report compiled by science and policy authors, have more than doubled their resource use in the past 50 years due to their infrastructure growth and the relocation of resource-intensive processes from high-income countries.

At the same time, per capita, resource use and related environmental impacts in low-income countries have remained relatively low and almost unchanged since 1995.

Where consumption levels are very high, a greater focus on lowering resource and material consumption levels to complement action on production and resource efficiency can reduce around 30 per cent of global resource use as compared to historical trends, while growing the global economy, improving lives, and staying within planetary boundaries.

Where resource use needs to grow, strategies can be put in place to maximise the value of each unit of resource used and meet human needs in ways that are not resource-intensive, so that the benefits of resource use far outpace the rate of their extraction and the environmental and health impacts stay in line with international obligations on climate, biodiversity, and sustainability.

Incorporating environmental externalities in trade agreements, strengthening regulation of financial commodity markets, and putting in place impact-related border adjustment policies are just some of the ways that countries can prevent a race to the bottom on environmental and social standards of resource extraction, and maximise and retain the value from extraction processes in the country.

“We should not accept that meeting human needs must be resource intensive, and we must stop stimulating extraction-based economic success.

With decisive action by politicians and the private sector, a decent life for all is possible without costing the earth,” said Janez Potočnik, the International Resource Panel’s Co-Chair.

“Last year’s climate conference agreed to transition away from fossil fuels. Now is the time to bring everyone to the table to phase up solutions to make that possible. Now is the time to phase up resource-based solutions for climate, biodiversity and equity so that everyone everywhere can live a life in dignity,” said Izabella Teixeira, the International Resource Panel’s Co-Chair.

It concludes with specific recommendations that include; institutionalizing resource governance and defining use paths especially the consideration of sustainable consumption in strategies to implement the MEAs and improving the ability of countries to benchmark and set targets for resource consumption and productivity.

“Directing finance towards sustainable resource use by reflecting the true costs of resources in the structure of the economy such as subsidies, regulation, taxes, infrastructure, and planning,” the report further recommends.

Additional recommendations include channelling private finance towards sustainable resource use and incorporating resource-related risk into Public and Central Bank mandates.

Mainstreaming sustainable consumption options by making sure consumers have the right information, have access to and can afford sustainable goods and services. Such measures must be coupled with regulation to disincentivize or ban resource-intensive options like non-essential single-use plastic products.

It also calls for making trade an engine of sustainable resource use by creating a level playing field where the true environmental and social costs of goods are reflected in prices by introducing MEAs into trade agreements, for example.

Creating circular, resource-efficient and low-impact solutions, and business models to include refuse, reduce, eco-design, reuse, repair, and recycling, as well as supportive regulation and evaluation of existing systems.

Implemented together, these policies can transform the built environment, mobility, food, and energy systems, resulting in an upsurge in renewable energies and energy efficiency, decarbonization of material production, more walkable and cyclable cities with better public transportation and remote work opportunities, as well as reduced food loss and waste.

High- and upper-middle-income countries would see a dietary shift away from animal protein and more compact cities, while lower-income economies would experience a rise in resource use to enable dignified living.

Such systemic shifts are projected to peak resource extraction by 2040 and then decrease use to only 20 per cent above 2020 levels by 2060.

Greenhouse gas emissions would drop by over 80 per cent, stocks of transport-related materials and building materials would fall by 50 and 25 per cent respectively, and land use for agriculture would fall by 5 per cent.

Concurrently, food production would increase by 40 per cent to support populations. Even where there is growth and food security, the global economy would grow by 3 per cent, and the Human Development Index would improve by 7 per cent, boosting incomes and well-being.

Given the failure so far to deliver on many policy commitments in the Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) and the urgency of the triple planetary crisis, the report supports immediate actions, following the principle of 'best available science.'

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