Natural resources, especially raw materials, are key production factors and are therefore foundations of our prosperity. More than 68 billion tonnes of raw materials were used worldwide in 2009. This is around one third more than in 2000, two thirds more than in 1990 and about twice as much as at the end of the 1970s. With a predicted world population of over 9 billion people in 2050 and rapid economic growth in newly industrialising countries, demand for raw materials continues to grow strongly. Per capita consumption of raw materials is currently about four times greater in industrialised countries than in less developed countries.
This is a major challenge from an economic, ecological and social perspective. Rising and fluctuating raw material prices and supply risks are a strain on the German economy. It is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain some key raw materials such as crude oil, cobalt and heavy rare earths from readily accessible sources. At the same time, resource use has adverse environmental effects across the entire value chain, ranging from the emission of greenhouse gases, to the release of pollutants into the air, water and soil, to the degradation of ecosystems and biodiversity. The current use of natural resources already far exceeds the Earth’s regenerative capacity.
The responsible and efficient use of natural resources will therefore be a key competence for sustainable societies. Growth and prosperity must thus be decoupled from the use of natural resources as far as is possible. The goal must be to increase competitiveness, reduce the use of resources and lessen the resulting environmental pressures.
The German government's policy
In the National Sustainability Strategy of 2002, Germany's government established the goal of doubling resource productivity by 2020 compared with 1994. This target makes Germany an international pioneer. By 2010, resource productivity had already been increased by 47.5 percent. The German government wants to see this positive trend continue, so in 2012 it adopted a comprehensive strategic approach to increasing resource efficiency. The aim of the German Resource Efficiency Programme (ProgRess) is to help reach the targets of the sustainability strategy.
In 2007 the Resource Efficiency Network was established to bring together existing competence and experience in improving resource efficiency and to improve networking among the various players from the fields of politics, business and science. The network's key objective is to make Germany's economy the most resource efficient in the world by 2020. It wants Germany to be a trailblazer in low-impact and environmentally sound use of energy and raw materials. The Federal Environment Ministry sees its role to be that of stimulating debate.
EU resource efficiency policy
At the European level, the Commission has made the topic of resource efficiency an important issue in EU environmental and economic policy with the Thematic Strategy for the Sustainable Use of Natural Resources (2005), the Resource Efficiency Flagship Initiative (2011) and the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe (2011). These measures aim at creating a coherent European framework for action to increase resource efficiency. In its resolutions on an effective raw materials strategy for Europe (2011) and on the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe (2012), the European Parliament has put forward suggestions for implementing sustainable and efficient management of natural resources.
People are beginning to realise the way we use energy and raw materials will have consequences for the climate. However, our society is still not aware of many other ecological consequences. The true amount of resources used to produce, for example, food, packaging, and other consumer goods must be calculated including the resources required for their production process and possibly also for their disposal. This factor is also called the "ecological backpack". For one 10-gram gold ring, for example, an average of 3.5 tonnes of earth must be moved. To extract one tonne of pure copper from the rocks, between 14,000 and 28,000 kilowatt-hours of energy input are needed, as much energy as a two-person household in Germany uses over a period of 4 to 8 years.
Today, Germany is already showing how resource efficiency can be increased in a highly developed industrialised country without any cost to prosperity and how overall consumption of raw materials can be reduced. During a period of strong economic growth from 2000 to 2010, resource consumption decreased by 11.1 percent. That puts Germany in an excellent position to lead the way in the necessary global transformation to resource-efficient economies.