OECD report looks at ways to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation

November 27th, 2012 by Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

(please click on report cover to go to OECD report page - cover ©sevaljevic/Fotolia; ©Sport Moments/Fotolia; ©Stihl024/Fotolia)

Worldwide, 62 billion tons of natural resources – minerals, wood, metals, fossil and biomass fuels, and construction material – are extracted.

On average, that’s almost 10 tons for every person on the earth. Of that, about one fifth ends up as waste and must be reused, recycled or disposed of in a way that is safe for people and the environment.

Though new technologies have allowed greater resource efficiencies, over the past 25 years the volume of natural resources extracted has increased 65%.

Growing populations, the deteriorating environment and increasing raw materials prices are pushing governments, industry and citizens to look for ways to reduce waste, costs and health hazards.

OECD’s latest report Sustainable Materials Management highlights the benefits of a ‘green’ cradle-to-grave approach – from the extraction of raw materials, through design, production and consumer use, to the end of the product’s life.

The report notes examples of the hidden environmental costs that only become apparent when a whole-of-life-cycle approach is taken:

Production of one ton of copper emits seven tons of CO2 and uses 70 tons of water.

Recycling paper products saves seven up to 19 GJ of energy per ton compared to the virgin manufacture of paper.

Today’s washing machines halve energy and water use compared to those purchased 10 years ago – extending the machine’s life generates less waste but increases its impact on the climate, air and water.

Food has a larger environmental footprint than the packaging wrapped around it.

As milk production generates five times more CO2 than the carton it comes in, wasting milk is worse for the environment than buying smaller containers.

Sustainable Materials Management recommends new ways to further decouple economic growth from environmental degradation.

Because material flows involve many stakeholders throughout the supply chain and often over wide geographic areas, governments need to work closely with industry and other stakeholders in order to encourage cooperation, innovation and cost savings.

Governments’ role is to put in place the regulations, economic incentives, trade and innovation policies, information sharing and partnerships that can improve resource efficiency.

This will demand a whole-of-government approach to ensure coherence across different policy areas.

Industry can use designs that reduce products’ negative health and environmental impacts through their life-cycle.

And citizens need to make more informed choices, reducing use of unnecessary material, reusing and recycling, and taking advantage of advanced technologies to limit waste and toxins.

This OECD report is an input to the European Resource Efficiency Platform, an EC initiative that provides guidance to the European Commission, Members States and private actors on the transition to a more resource-efficient economy.

This report complements the OECD report ‘Material Resources, Productivity and the Environment’ which will be published in 2013 on the latest data and indicators on these issues.

Both reports were be discussed at the OECD Green Growth and Sustainable Development Forum held in Paris, France on 23 November 2012.


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