Re-inventing our future in a material world

Australia’s extractive mineral industries may need to evolve beyond miners into product ‘suppliers’ as the world increasingly looks to resource recovery, recycling and re-use to stem the rising global use of materials. DAVID SIMPSON reports.

Article from resourceful: Issue 8, November 2015

Global material use is increasing and despite a small dip in 2009, following the global financial crisis, is expected to keep rising. Since the 1970s the global economy has grown from 25 billion tonnes to 80 billion tonnes of material use in 2015.

Projecting that current use forward to 2050 (with a world population of 9 billion people, including an extra 3 billion middle class members) annual material use could grow to 180 billion tonnes.

The material footprint of consumption is one way of measuring this resource use. In Japan it’s about 25 tonnes per person per year, in Australia, a much less efficient 35 tonnes per person per year. Other wealthy OECD countries tend to fall between the two.

"The overall picture tells us the global economy is going to use exponentially more resources to drive per capita and global GDP," according to Heinz Schandl, senior scientist at CSIRO and an adjunct associate professor at the School of Sociology, Australian National University.

Material use in the Asia-Paciific region, the rest of the world and the worl, 1970 to 2015. Matrerial use has grown strongly globally over the past 45 years, with the highest average yearly growth ratyes of over 6 per cent in Asia and the Pacific. Source: UNEP (2015)

In the past, physical resources appeared to be abundant, while economic management and drivers seem to be of more importance. Now, without changes to traditional approaches, we are on road to potential disaster.

"Traditionally when we looked at resource use and the environment, we considered factors individually. For example, energy use or climate change, biodiversity loss or water and soil quality.

"We rarely link them to gain a perspective of how society is using natural resources in a very organised and intentional process, called industrial or social metabolism."

The economy is an open system, exchanging materials and energy with the environment. The earth is a closed system with material circulating within the system but open for energy intake from the sun.

There are many more open cycles; metal ore extraction and use is a typical example, according to Dr Schandl. The resource is removed from the ground and subjected to various processes until it is suitable for end use. At the end of its service life it is either disposed of (a true open-ended cycle) or recycled or reused to some degree (a hybrid cycle).

Resources extracted from the environment include biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores and non-metallic minerals. These resources are processed or transformed, used and disposed of, largely in an open-ended way.

The scale of our industrial metabolism and the way we are using it results in a myriad of environmental effects, ranging from air quality to climate change, to biodiversity loss and resource depletion.

Understanding of this global resource use, material flows and the effects on the environment is changing rapidly.

In July 2015 the G7 Summit of seven leaders of the world's most powerful economies met in Germany and delivered a statement with two main priorities:

  • to reduce carbon emissions substantially by phasing out fossil fuels; and
  • to invest in resource efficiency to reduce material use and waste through resource circulation, recovery, recycling and related strategies.

The good news is that we don't have to do things as we have in the past and the research of Dr Schandl and others helps provide the way forward.

Reducing material waste through recycling, and reducing carbon emissions substantially through phasing out fossil fuels, were two key priorities of the G7 Summit.

The technological potential exists in large resource systems such as construction and housing, agriculture and food, transport and mobility, energy and water, to lift overall efficiency in some areas by about 80 per cent.

"This is called decoupling: creating human wellbeing and economic growth at much lower levels of materials and energy use, and with less waste and emissions."

What does all this mean for Australia's extractive mineral industries? While there has been much talk about the end of the mining boom, what has really happened is that one business cycle has ended and the new one has yet to gain traction.

With the exponential world demand for materials, demand for mineral resources will remain strong for most companies in the short to medium term. However, the search for efficiencies in recovery, recycling and reuse may lead many companies to explore broader roles as product 'suppliers' rather than merely miners.

A faster response is likely for carbon intensive companies as their markets move to less emissions intensive alternatives.

R&D innovation will have an important part to play in this 're-invention' of the industry.


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