The high standard of living that we enjoy here in Germany depends entirely on the availability of natural resources. Apart from abiotic and biotic raw materials, we use water, soil, air, biodiversity and land as habitats and for recreational purposes; and for energy we use wind power, solar power and tidal flows. These resources also serve as emission sinks, waste dumps, and as indispensable production factors for farming and forestry.
But unfortunately – and inevitably – resource use across the entire supply chain generates environmental pollution; plus worldwide resource use is growing steadily.
Environmental consequences across the entire supply chain
The way we use resources provokes often irreversible ecological change. Extraction and processing of non-regenerative raw materials are often energy intensive activities involving large scale interventions in ecosystems and the water balance and result in air, soil and water pollution. Even the extraction and production of renewable resources often involve extensive use of energy, materials, chemicals and in some cases water; and all this translates into pollution. Greenfield land is often transformed to create arable land and in some cases whole ecosystems are destroyed in the process.
In short, raw material extraction and processing always impact on the environment, resulting as they do in soil degradation, water shortages, biodiversity loss, damage to ecosystem functions and global warming exacerbation. And that’s not all. For the use of products made of raw materials almost always results in greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, ecosystem damage and/or biodiversity loss. Products need energy and water, as well as land for shipping, marketing and use. Improper product use provokes noxious emissions that can end up in our water, soil and air. The very infrastructure elements that we take for granted such as our homes, not to mention countless daily activities, often involve extensive resource use and result in greenfield land being paved over, damage to ecosystems and spoiling the beauty of nature.
And even at the end stage of the supply chain, environmental harm is unavoidable. For example, recycling requires energy, using waste for energy generates greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and greenfield land is permanently occupied by waste dumps.
Thus resource use already somewhat exceeds the earth’s regenerative capacities by virtue of the fact that non-renewable natural resources are finite and their quality is often mediocre. The increasing pressure on natural resources resulting from steady worldwide population growth may incite competition from other potential uses.
Resource use has social consequences too
The myriad social consequences of resource use are related to issues such as the distribution of raw materials, ready access to clean water, and worldwide food security.
Per capita use of raw materials in the world’s industrial nations is estimated to be four times greater than in less developed countries. However, while the lion’s share of value-added from resource use is generated in industrial nations, less developed nations often bear the brunt of the ecological and social impact of raw material production.
Raw material production
People in the regions in question report abuses such as severe human rights violations or permanent ecological damage in the wake of raw material extraction, which often provokes health problems resulting from air pollution and drinking water contamination. Other consequences include local populations being driven off their land and forced to settle elsewhere – not to mention growing poverty. In areas that suffer these consequences, efforts on the part of companies that engage in mining and similar operations to institute sustainable development are few and far between. Moreover, in some states profits from raw material production are used to finance armed conflicts. According to UN statistics, natural resources play a key role in 40 percent of all intra-state conflicts.
From a product lifecycle standpoint, we here in Germany are at least partly responsible for such ecological and social outcomes, by virtue of our increasing dependence on imported raw materials and the products made from them. In some cases this also holds true for sustainable raw materials such as the animal feed and energy crops that we use in such abundance and for which large tracts of fertile land are used. Fertilizer and pesticide use to some extent goes unmonitored, and no protective measures are taken. This can have a negative impact on the health of local populations. Displacement and forced resettlement of local populations, as well as land grabbing, can cripple the food supply of local populations, while non-sustainable production methods often provoke soil degradation and water scarcity, and destroy badly needed fertile land.
End-of-life product disposal
End-of-life product disposal can also have social consequences. Improper and illicit disposal of exported waste can provoke toxic emissions and severe illnesses – not to mention the fact that such work is often carried out by children.
Toward transparency and sustainable development
Here in Germany we pursue various strategies aimed at more efficient resource use and stewardship, with the goal of keeping the negative socioecological effects of resource use within reasonable bounds. Also key to such efforts are waste management programmes and product liability laws.
In the interest of furthering these objectives, we participate in knowledge and technology transfers aimed at promoting efficient resource use and stewardship.
However, sustainable and efficient resource use is often only achievable if sustainable-development standards are defined and enforced. Certification measures are a key instrument in this regard and for improving raw material production transparency. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) is a good example of this.
In the interest of furthering these goals, the UBA is working to strengthen sustainable-development standards as well as certification systems for land use and for the production and use of abiotic and biotic raw materials.