While the COP28 presidency celebrates an “historic deal” to transition away from fossil fuels, we must remind ourselves that the future wellbeing of human societies in a livable planet depends on more than that. Keeping fossil fuels in the ground is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. To achieve the ultimate goal, we need to fundamentally rethink the value of natural resources and reassess their link to long-term human wellbeing. Having a world climate conference with a tunnel vision on fossil fuels does not help us in that.
At stake is the long-term ability of human societies to provide for wellbeing, especially in light of a growing global population and widening inequalities. Over the past decades, resource use has significantly improved living standards for many, particularly in high-income countries, but this now comes at an unprecedented cost to the environment and human health. According to the UN International Resource Panel, today resource extraction and processing are responsible for 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress, 50% of carbon emissions and 1/3 of air pollution health impacts.
The use of resources has more than tripled since 1970 and, if current trends continue, global material consumption is predicted to double again by 2060. This growth is especially prominent for metals and non-metallic minerals, which are the backbone of major industries and the enablers of the energy and digital transitions. The International Energy Agency forecasts that global demand for critical raw materials will quadruple by 2040 – in the case of lithium, demand is expected to increase by a factor of 42.
The value of nature ‘invisible’ in economic models
Resources are the bridge between economic productivity and ecological balance. A bridge that, in most policy and governance frameworks, has often remained invisible. The main reason for this lies in an economic model not valuing natural resources. Economists have severely downplayed the dependence of economic activity on resources and the natural systems that generate them. This has contributed to overexploitation, environmental degradation and the exacerbation of global challenges, such as climate change and biodiversity loss.
Distorted economic incentives and market signals are now ubiquitous, such as in the well-known cases of the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest or the depletion of fish stocks due to overfishing. Others are less discussed, especially in relation to the mining sector, which will become the engine of the global economy. If not responsibly managed, mining activities can lead to soil erosion, habitat destruction and contamination of water sources, impacting the local ecosystems and nearby communities who depend on those ecosystems.
A prominent example is the handling of mining waste and mining tailings, the residue remaining after mineral processing. Recent research reveals that a third of the world’s mine tailings facilities are located within or near protected areas, posing a significant threat to biodiversity and ecosystem integrity in the event of facility failures or accidents. Unfortunately, these accidents are not as uncommon as one may think. The disaster of the Brumadinho (Brazil) tailings storage facility in 2019 unleashed a toxic tidal wave of around 12 million cubic meters, which killed 270 people and destroyed a significant area of the Atlantic forest and a protected area downstream.
Look further than fossil fuels
Economic models are human-made and can be changed. If we are serious about sustainability and long-term human wellbeing, they must be transformed to better account for the unreplaceable value that natural resources provide. This shift, advocated for by participants at the World Resources Forum 2023, requires acknowledging the interconnectedness of economic, ecological and social systems, underpinning the need for new accounting models to integrate ecological and social indicators.
Profound changes need to permeate climate negotiations and international policies, if future COPs are to play a meaningful role in preserving life on this planet. This year we witnessed once again how climate change discussions tend to overlook the central role played by the excessive and irresponsible use of resources, and apply a tunnel vision focused on CO2 emissions. Which are a key aspect to tackle, but essentially a symptom of a more profound ill.
The cure goes through integrating natural resource management in the institutional fabric and extending the relevant policy options beyond the prevailing energy supply. Ecological health and human wellbeing are interlinked objectives which call for reassessing our values and rethinking how we use natural resources.