(ORDO NEWS) — Although rich countries make up only a small percentage of the world‘s population, they have a long history of over-extracting the planet’s raw materials, and a new study highlights just how excessive and harmful this way of plundering really is.
After analyzing nearly 50 years of natural resource extraction around the world, the researchers found that the US and high-income countries in the European Union accounted for the lion’s share of global resource overuse that exceeded environmental sustainability thresholds.
“The results show that rich countries bear a huge responsibility for the global ecological collapse and therefore have an ecological debt to the rest of the world,” explains economic anthropologist Jason Hickel of Spain‘s Autonomous University of Barcelona.
“These countries must take the lead in drastically reducing resource use to avoid further degradation, which will likely require transformational approaches to post-growth and degradation.”
In a previous study, Hickel attempted to quantify national responsibility for the climate crisis by looking at how far the world’s countries had exceeded their fair share of the safe carbon footprint.
In the new work, Hickel and his colleagues have applied the same methodology to resource extraction, which is widely believed to be the key starting point from which environmental degradation begins.
“The global use of materials has increased markedly over the past half century, to the point where, as of 2017, the global economy is consuming more than 90 billion tons of materials per year,” the team writes in the new paper.
“However, not all countries are equally responsible for this trend; some countries use significantly more resources per capita than others.”
To determine where countries are responsible for resource overexploitation, the team developed a “corridor of sustainability”, which is a safe or sustainable global cap on annual resource extraction (measured in billions of tonnes, or gigatonnes) from 1970 to 2017, and then calculated, by how much countries exceed or do not exceed this threshold each year, depending on the size of their population.
The results show that almost 2.5 trillion tons of materials were mined and used globally during the study period, with almost half of this volume (1.1 trillion tons) exceeding a safe, sustainable corridor.
High-income countries (as classified by the World Bank) are collectively responsible for 74 percent of this overuse, despite having only 16 percent of the world’s population.
An interactive website developed by the researchers makes it easy to explore the results of the analysis by comparing individual countries (for example, China, which accounted for a 15 percent excess) or wealth categories (showing that lower-middle and low-income countries never violated their fair share of resource use during this period, unlike high and upper middle income countries).
In addition to highlighting the global inequalities of resource overexploitation, the study’s findings also make it clear that consumption of raw materials must fall sharply if the world has any chance of coping with the environmental crisis.
“High-income countries urgently need to reduce their total resource use to sustainable levels,” the authors write. “On average, resource use needs to drop by at least 70 percent to reach a sustainable range.”
According to Hickel, this issue may require some rethinking of what the global economy should really be.
The ‘economy’ is our material relationship with each other and with the rest of the living world,” he tweeted shortly after the study’s release.
“We have to decide whether we want this relationship to be based on extraction and exploitation or on reciprocity and care.”
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