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    Asia Is Now Using More Natural Resources Than the Rest of the World

    Written by

    Mat McDermott


    Photo: Tauno Toehk/Flickr

    The Asia-Pacific region has passed another important milestone on its continued rise to the top of the world's economy. A new report from UNEP (with the rather dry title of "Recent trends in Material Flows and Resource Productivity in Asia and the Pacific 2013") shows that the region now is consuming more natural resources than all the rest of the world combined. 

    The rate of growth is astounding. Since 1970, the region's consumption rate of construction materials in the region has increase 13.4 times, metal and industrial minerals have increased 8.6 times, fossil fuels 5.4 times, and biomass 2.7 times. 

    Construction materials now account for 51.4 percent of the region's natural resource consumption, while consumption of biomass has dropped from over 50 percent to under 25 percent, as a result of the region's continued transition from a predominantly agricultural to industrial economy. 

    Fig. 1 from the UNEP report shows that the Asia-Pacific region
    surpassed the rest of the world's materials consumption in 2005.

    Unsurprisingly, China far and away is leading the increases, accounting for 60 percent of the increase in domestic resource consumption. From just 2005 to 2008, China's per capita resource consumption increased by 25 percent. Contrary to popular perception, most of the growth in materials consumption there is from increase in domestic demand, not export. 

    Recent surveys of China's per capita carbon footprint show that its people now emit greenhouse gases similar to low-emitting nations in Europe, such as France or Italy. For several years now China has been the world's leading consumer of energy, as well as the emitting more greenhouse gases as a nation than any other. It also has the ignominious distinction of using nearly more coal than the rest of the world combined, despite impressive efforts to rapidly expand use of renewable energy.

    All of which makes China's claims that it should still be entitled to special dispensations as a still developing nation in international climate negotiations patently ludicrous. Even if there are wide income disparities, and therefore wide discrepancies in resource consumption, as a whole China is really in the same class as the developed nations of the world, at least in terms of its contribution to furthering climate change.

    India, in second place, trails at just 14 percent of the total increase in consumption. Strikingly, from 1998-2008, India's consumption of metal ore and industrial minerals increased 8.5 percent per year.

    The Asia-Pacific region has a larger population than other economic
    regions, but even per capita consumption is nearing the rate
    of the rest of the world's resource consumption.

    All this said, the average resource consumption in the region stands at 86 percent of that of the rest of the world. 

    It may be tempting to think that population growth is behind the increases in resource consumption—after all both India and China now have over one billion people each—but the report makes the clear point that, in fact, population growth is one of least-important factors. Rather, the growth comes down to increased resource intensity of nation's economies (greater materials needed per unit of GDP, to the tune of three times that of the rest of the world), plus, more importantly, growing affluence and the resultant rise in consumption of consumer goods. 

    All of this means that in order to sustain such growth, importing resources will become more and more important. The region has already outstripped the local ability to supply natural resources in many areas. In such a light, China's (and to a lesser degree India's) neocolonial adventures to acquire agricultural land and oil exploration rights in Africa, become all the more clear in motivation. 

    In short, "stabilizing population, while helpful, will not grant much reprieve from growing environmental pressures," rather efforts must be concentrated on reducing materials intensity and the connection between growing affluence and increased per capita materials consumption. 

    Another way, taking a reach (and this is my phrasing, not UNEP's: We need to redefine what it means to live a good life so that becoming affluent doesn't mean simply consuming more goods, buying into the consumer society. That we have such a hard time doing so in places that are already "developed" doesn't bode well for doing it in places simply trying to emulate what they've been encouraged to emulate for decades.