Resourcesarefinite

Natural resources are everywhere: in all the things surrounding us and the products we consume. It will require mindfulness and intelligent resource management to preserve them, to reduce their use and consumption for the protection of the environment and the needs of future generations. To this end, the political level is as important as the economy and households.

On 29 July 2021 – which marked that year's "Earth Overshoot Day" – humanity had already consumed as many natural resources as the earth can regenerate over the course of an entire year. As of that day, people lived and operated at the expense of ecosystem services that are the basis of our economies and our well-being. To avoid this, we need multiple eco-innovations, eco-intelligent and resource-efficient economic systems, products, services, and lifestyles. The growth markets for resource and energy efficiency are enormous.

To move towards a climate-neutral and resource-light society, the issue of resource efficiency, sufficiency, and consistency, will need to move to the center of the debate. At the same time, these efforts provide new development opportunities for companies and countries.

Raw material mining
To preserve natural resources, mindfulness is required to reduce use and consumption – for the protection of the environment, for social justice and for future generations.

As the demand for products such as refrigerators, washing machines and laptops increases with the economic development of countries – especially in the quickly emerging economies – this also increases the pressure on resources and leads to further shortages of individual raw materials, which in a globalized world economy are often the cause of conflicts, migration, environmental degradation and intolerable working conditions. This makes it all the more important to develop infrastructures, products and services that are resource-efficient and as accessible as possible to the general population. To achieve this, resource consumption and prosperity must be decoupled from each other, creating the least amount of resources and the highest quality of life and prosperity. In order to reconcile climate and resource goals with social balance – as also pursued by Agenda 2030 – sustainable technologies, economic models and consumption patterns as well as institutions must be intelligently linked.

Step one: calculate resource use

The actual resource consumption of the national or European economy can only be estimated if the systemic boundaries are set correctly, and the material flows associated with our economic processes are analysed comprehensively. This is because resource expenditures are increasingly transferred abroad through the import of (partly) finished and finished goods. The associated primary material expenditures are often ignored. And even in the energy-intensive basic materials industry, in infrastructure or in buildings, the energy and resource turnover of all basic materials must be taken into account.

The resource footprint of households, of the production of goods and the provision of services such as events, also play a role and can be calculated. It is essential that the entire life cycle is considered and that potential ecological and social conflicts are disclosed. To this end, the life cycle must be recorded from the source of raw materials, i.e. raw material extraction from nature or from recycling, through production and use to waste treatment and the resulting emissions. The Wuppertal Institute is developing methods for this purpose.

In everyday life it is often difficult to live in such a way to significantly reduce resource consumption. The Wuppertal Institute's resource calculator or the "SUSLA - Sustainable Lifestyles Accelerator" app developed in a project consortium provide some support. To reach the sustainable level of a climate-neutral and resource light society in the long run, a massive "dematerialisation" of the economy will be necessary so that products become "lighter" and can be used longer and better. Often this is a question of product design. How to design products that lead to sustainable use is also being researched at the Wuppertal Institute. This results, among other things, in guidelines such as the Transition Design Guide.

Step two: develop and implement policies and business models

Political support and education are key to reduce resource demand. As part of the German Sustainability Strategy, the German federal government is pursuing the goal of continuing the positive trend in overall raw material productivity of 1.6 per cent annually until 2030. From 2020 to 2030, this corresponds to an increase of around 17 per cent.

In the German resource efficiency program (ProgRess) it has also included the secondary raw material consumption. The latter takes into account both the utilized extraction of primary materials domestically and indirect resource expenditures from imports. The consideration of unused extraction – also called "overburden" - is still politically and methodologically unresolved. The Wuppertal Institute has accompanied the further development of ProgRess III and is working on proposals for future development in various projects.

A structurally important role is played by the transformation towards a circular economy, which is being pushed politically and is also attracting more and more corporate activity. To further support this strategy, innovative business models at the intersection of production, consumption and waste management are one of the key strategies. To this end, the Wuppertal Institute is working on new concepts.

Henning Wilts

To transform Europe into a more competitive, sustainable and resource efficient economy will mean significantly reducing resource consumption, closing material cycles and reducing waste as much as possible – all without simply exporting environmental damages to other parts of the world.

Dr. Henning Wilts
Director of Division Circular Economy

Topics

Read more on our research on resources:

News

Here you find up-to-date information on research findings and activities in the field of resources.

Projects

Research in the field of resources takes place in the context of policy as well as in the context of production an consumption. In the following you find selected sample projects. A complete list is available here.

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