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Aggravating resource scarcity

Demand for water, food, energy, land and minerals is rising substantially, making natural resources increasingly scarce and more expensive.

timeline and images small resources
(© Photo by Olga Serjantu on Unsplash)

Megatrend

A Megatrend is a long-term driving force that is observable now and will continue to have a global impact in years to come

Humanity’s well-being depends on healthy ecosystems that can provide vital materials (such as food and water) and benefits (such as pollination, climate regulation and protection from hazards). It also depends on the availability of mineral resources, such as sand, metals and rocks used for industry and buildings. Following the exponential increase in material consumption over the last fifty years, humanity has reached a point at which the earth’s limited resources can no longer meet the growing demand. Most of the land (75%) and sea (66%) on earth has been severely altered by humans. Only 3% of the ocean is currently considered to be 'free from human pressure'. Several planetary boundaries have already been exceeded, witness to the general ecological breakdown and sounding alarms on long-term human survival.

Analyses of this long-term trend have calculated national ‘fair shares’ for the use of natural resources over the period 1970–2017 and the degree to which countries have undershot or exceeded their fair share1. The results show that the responsibility for this ecological breakdown is concentrated in rich countries, who are responsible for 74% of global excess material use (USA -27% and EU-28 - 25%). China is responsible for 15% of global excess material use. This overshoot in higher-income nations is driven mostly by the use of mineral materials, whereas in lower-income nations it is by the use of biomass, with the associated impacts on biodiversity.

Adapting to these challenges, including climate change, and building resilience to disasters in the future will go hand in hand with ecosystem management. Increasing awareness, changing economic signals and behaviours, consumption patterns, business opportunities and evolving methods of resource management will help - but, a clear policy objective of decreasing material consumption in rich countries is urgently needed. The increasing availability of data can inform the development of solutions. A push for more re-use and repair of goods, as well as the reduction of waste (circular economy) is welcome. However, there is currently an increasing demand for raw materials, especially metals, to support the roll out of electric mobility and renewable electricity (e.g. batteries, wind turbines and photovoltaic power). While some new metals deposits are being discovered, the general trend is towards decreasing concentration in the ores (e.g. Cu concentration in commercial ore has decreased by 75% over the past century).

This Megatrend is part of the Megatrends Hub
 

Timeline

Resource Scarcity Megatrend timeline diagram

The driving forces of a megatrend change over time. This timeline indicates more established and newer trends that are influencing the future direction of this megatrend

 

They indicate a direction of change in values and needs which is driven by forces and manifests itself already in various ways within certain groups in society. 

Pressure!

Pressure on resources is continuing, with a growing demand for natural resources coupled with a drive towards reducing dependency on potentially unreliable countries. Global material extraction, i.e. the extraction of natural resources such as biomass, metals, fossil fuels, non-metallic minerals and so on, continues to increase worldwide. The amount is expected to double between 2015 and 2060 and to reach 190 billion tonnes. As more evidence is generated about the condition of the environment and the pressures on it, its limits are also becoming clearer. The potential of half of the ecosystems to deliver ‘services’ has already decreased significantly and the trend is continuing. About 54% of the demand for the so-called 'regulating ecosystem services' is insecure (i.e. climate, water, and disease regulation, as well as pollination) and cultural services (i.e. educational, aesthetic, and heritage values as well as recreation and tourism) are affected.

New sources of resources

The growing scarcity of natural resources and the increasingly visible environmental costs of resource production and use are driving the search for new sources (leading to new discoveries of deposits) and for alternatives, whether for food, mobility, housing or household goods and appliances. Technological developments and recycling are influencing the demand, supply and availability of resources, such as raw materials for appliances, or fibre for clothes. The shift towards a more circular economy is expected to further enhance awareness and the development and exploitation of new approaches to sourcing and using resources.    

Changing behaviours

Decisions behind ‘the consumption society’ drive the behaviour leading to high resource consumption and waste. Efforts are increasingly being made to increase awareness and influence decisions and behaviours to decrease material and energy consumption. As the impacts of increasing extraction and use of natural resources worsen, changes in the way we consume and the need to reduce waste are becoming both more obvious and more pressing. This will affect most aspects of our daily lives, some more visibly than others, and must be taken as an opportunity to create a positive future.  

Evolving resource management

Humankind is facing unprecedented (local to global) environmental challenges to try and preserve our planet and quality of life, while also achieving a more sustainable and just society. The careful management of resources is crucial and climate change will exacerbate the challenges for which good management is crucial, such as: biodiversity loss, sustainability of natural ecosystem services, food, water and energy security, resilience to natural hazards, pandemics of infectious diseases, population growth, inequalities, health, and the development of a sustainable economy. 

Sufficiency

The need to maintain a good quality of life and achieve a sustainable and just society in the face of the increasing pressure on natural resources is leading to the emergence of an increasing number of calls for sufficiency. This concept results from a combination of wanting to keep the material footprint of one’s way of life within the limits of sustainability while satisfying one’s (reasonable) needs. A sufficient way of life brings added benefits in terms of resilience and strategic autonomy as it minimises material and energy flows and reduces dependence on imports. This concept challenges the economic orthodoxy of the continuing pursuit of economic growth.

 

Previously Covered Trends

These are trends that were spotted in the past, and might have grown or faded away in time.

-    Emerging new ideas, technologies & alternative resources
-    Wastewater natural resources consumption management
-    More regulations addressed to environment & resources
-    The circular economy concept

 

Future Snapshots

A future snapshot shows a plausible image of what might happen in the future in relation to this megatrend. It is a creation built using knowledge and imagination. These snapshots presented here are excerpts of inspiring future-oriented reports written by other colleagues and organisations.

Peer-to-peer circularity

"The world has become more local. New technologies such as additive manufacturing, blockchain, collaborative platform and digital technologies enabling seamless peer-to-peer transactions facilitate a more decentralised distributed production and short supply chains. A parallel shift to a servitisation culture - emphasising use over ownership - facilitates the development of a circular economy. Active ‘prosumer’ engagement provides for new business models shifting from a focus on manufacturing to a focus on consumers and involving them in productive activities. Sharing, recycling, and renewable energy generation and storage at community level are the basis for reducing environmental impacts and using less resources."

Other sketched scenarios are: Planned circularity, Circular modernism, Bottom-up sufficiency

Circular futures: What Will They Look Like? Bauwens et al (2020)

 

Unlimited trade

"Growing consumption, also in emerging economies leads to increasing demand for raw materials in 2050, which cannot be satisfied by recycled secondary materials alone. Investment in technologies results in automation of mining, better exploration including formerly sub-economic mines or e.g. offshore locations. The geopolitical situation is characterised by cooperation rather than competition, further ensuring the needed supply in raw materials. Mining has lost its negative image, due to its reduced environmental impact."

Other sketched scenarios in this study are: 'Sustainability alliance' and 'National walls'.

The world of raw materials 2050 – Scoping future dynamics in raw materials through scenarios - Schimpf et al (2017) 


Sky 1.5

"In this future, the COVID-19 crisis has reshaped priorities towards health and collaboration. Pressure on governments by citizens has increased based on the understanding that the health of people is linked to the health of the environment. Clean technologies and deep electrification have led to accelerated decarbonisation, enabled by an alignment of policies and targeted green investments. International trade in credits for greenhouse gas emissions and carbon removal provides further impetus. By 2050, leading economies have reached net-zero CO2 emissions, and the world is close to reaching the Paris agreement."

Other sketched scenarios are: Waves and Islands

Shell The Energy Transformation scenarios - Shell (2021)

 

Coping with water scarcity in 2050

"In 2050 global warming has reached 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures; changes in climate, land use and water demands have further decreased the availability of freshwater. In the EU and UK, 60.5 million people and €1,158 billion of economic activity are exposed to water scarcity. This is 8.6 million people and €163 billion more than in the period 1980-2010. 
Water scarcity is no longer only a problem of the Mediterranean and new water scarce areas are now found in countries further north, such as Germany, Bulgaria, Romania and France. This has happened despite investments by Member States in water saving measures that started in the early 2020ies, such as the increase of irrigation efficiency, water re-use, and more efficient cooling technologies for energy production. In addition, shifts from conventional to renewable energy production have reduced cooling water demand and net water consumption. Further efforts in water saving are clearly needed with an emphasis on agriculture as one of the main net consumers."

Climate change and Europe’s water resources, Bisselink B. et al, 2020. EUR 29951 EN, doi:10.2760/15553 - JRC Technical Report: Climate change and Europe’s water resources

 

Dealing with resources in 2035

In 2035, the collaborative nature of society has translated into strong and widely shared values that structure the way many individuals behave. People act to secure the best possible quality of life for the lowest possible environmental impact at a local level. Familiarity with social platforms has changed the way citizens deal with policy issues. Robotics, information technologies and artificial intelligence have assumed such a role in reshaping the economy and society that the concept of ‘job’ has been radically affected. The subsequent reduction of working times has given people more free time.

By 2035, international governance has been transformed. For the use of natural resources worldwide, an internationally agreed set of values is being discussed at the UN that would guarantee equity among all people. Resource and energy efficiency are improving, promoted by new regulatory requirements. Threats to the EU’s fossil fuel supplies starting in the 2010s and culminating by Russia’s aggression of Ukraine in 2022 helped many people to realise that resource and energy efficiency also had short- and long-term benefits in terms of public health (through reduced pollution, noise, etc.), resilience and commercial advantage, in addition to reduced geopolitical vulnerability. Overall, the ‘throw-away culture’ has receded, essentially because of a shift in values. Wastefulness is considered unethical.

2035: Paths towards a sustainable EU economy, Bontoux, L. and Bengtsson, D., 2015, JRC Science for Policy Report, Foresight Series

Further Reading

Want to explore more? Some interesting readings below:

 

This Megatrends hub is a repository of foresight related information. It highlights long-term driving forces and its underlying shorter-term trends. This repository can help you understand the changing society in a broad and more systemic way. 

Disclaimer: this repository is by no means comprehensive and apart from established scientific knowledge contains also issues which are subject to scientific debate and where research is ongoing or only starting to give the reader some insights and ways to further explore the topics in more depth.