Speech as delivered at the SDG 12 Hub virtual launch event at the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development

What are the key trends that we are seeing on SDG 12/SCP at the global level?

This audience understands well the importance of natural resource use and their material flows through the economy; and I congratulate you to this important initiative of creating a central platform to support this understanding.

According to International Resource Panel, extraction, and processing of natural resource materials - including metals, minerals, fossil fuels and biomass - causes around 90% of land-related biodiversity loss and water stress, 50% of global climate change, as well as one-third of global air pollution. Consumption footprints in high-income countries are 10 times higher than in low-income countries. They are also 40% higher than in upper-middle-income countries.

Why are these numbers so important? Because they point to overlooked solutions in the battle of the triple planetary crisis of climate, biodiversity, and pollution. The global material demand is projected to double by 2060 if current trends would continue. In no way we can decarbonize all that production, make our economies and societies sustainable, without massive trade-offs. Therefore, the only realistic chance for reaching our 2030 and 2050 targets, is to deploy all measures possible to address this likely potential increase. While we strive to improve our wellbeing, we must reduce the need for additional virgin natural resources as much as we can – we must decouple wellbeing and economic growth from natural resource use and environmental impacts. Important for all, but urgent for high-income countries.

Currently, if you google ‘emissions Germany’ or ‘emissions USA’ you will mostly find analyses of emissions by sector, such as ‘energy’, ‘industry’, ‘transport’ or ‘households. While that is certainly useful information, it is not enough to really identify the drivers of these emissions and therefore the most impactful solutions.

For example, if you see that industry emissions constitute about a quarter to a third of many countries’ emissions, the conclusion is usually that we need to clean up industrial production, by supplying it with renewable energy and capture the pollution. While certainly a sensible measure, we could not yet understand where the industrial products go, what is their destiny, and how useful they are for society.

If we look at emissions along the value chain of materials, we can connect the emissions from extraction, industrial production, retail and use to the ultimate purpose of the material, and therefore add solutions that improve the actual purpose of the production. For example, much of industrial emissions are related to the production of steel and cement. Much of that steel goes into underutilized cars, inefficiently built cities, or underutilized and under-maintained machinery. Therefore, to eliminate industry emissions, we do indeed need to clean up production processes, but we also need to use industrial products, and implicitly natural resources, smarter, making them fundamentally more efficient in how they provide societal function. In short, we need production and consumption solutions, underpinned by strong data. This is a key trend needing more attention.

What are the key challenges in terms of getting access to global level data and national-level data and generating actionable insights for specific policy interventions?

The SDG Hub does a great service to understand what concrete elements fall under SDG12 on SCP, and how to measure and report on them. But how could this data be categorized and explained so that it really enables meaningful action at the underlying drivers of resource use? I have 4 suggestions for further developing the Hub and its use.

First, connect SCP performance indicators to societal wellbeing, not isolated ambitions of economic growth. If you look at the Global Resources Outlook, basically any other global assessment, you will find the developments in resource use compared to developments in GDP, so the total value of production of goods and services. Outlook will tell you about productivity, meaning how much GDP was produced per ton of material extracted. It will tell you that the GDP produced per unit of resource use has since the year 2000 declined and then stagnated in the recent years. Certainly, very important information, telling us that the world is not currently getting significantly more resource productive despite all its technological progress. However, productivity per GDP is just a proxy, and will not guide meaningful action on the local level - nor should it guide action on the global level, in my opinion. What would be more significant to understand is the productivity of resource use in terms of human wellbeing, for example in providing economic security, equality, health, access to essential services and resilience to crises. GDP has long been used as a proxy to such wellbeing, but the developments in inequality, health and security of the last few decades tell us we must reconsider it. So, when we measure resource efficiency at a country or local level, it would be hugely valuable to understand its efficiency in terms of providing societal wellbeing.

Second, connect SCP indicators to provisioning systems of societal function. To understand where resource use has been performing well in providing societal wellbeing, it is useful to analyse the data in categories of ‘provisioning systems’, rather than economic sectors. For example, it is not meaningful enough to analyse the efficiency in the car industry, if the countries’ urban systems really don’t need any more cars but better public transport. It would be much more meaningful to measure the productivity of resource use in providing a well-functioning mobility system. It would be great to understand the resource footprints and efficiency developments in systems of mobility, housing, nutritional health, and everyday’s consumption goods.

Third, connect SCP data to life-cycle impact data. While resource use quantities, for example in metrics of tones, are meaningful indicators of sustainability, they cannot be translated directly into climate, biodiversity, or health impacts. This is because different material flows have different value chains and are used for different things with different impacts. Therefore, it would be important to connect data on resource use per previsioning system with evaluations of their environmental and health performance. This would also help identify those SCP strategies that have a multiplying positive effect. The IRP report ‘Resource Efficiency and Climate Change’ found out that shaping urban forms and living spaces more efficiently can reduce large amounts of life-cycle emissions from housing, on top of energy transition measures. This is because the better urban form saves not only materials like cement and steel, but it also leads to smarter multi-unit housing that is more heating efficient, land efficient, and requires less commuting. SCP strategy ‘better urban form’ would result in a lower material footprint and overall better climate performance. It would also reduce mobility needs and additionally contribute the material and energy reduction in a fight against climate change.

Forth, connect data to the economic incentives that production and consumption systems are facing. It would be extremely interesting to not only record changes in material use and environmental impact of provisioning systems, but also the fiscal policies, regulations, and investments that they are conditioned by. For example, in some regions zoning laws prescribe detached housing designs and thus prevent the development of more efficient multi-unit houses, while in other regions, legal and financial support to cooperative neighborhood ownership models has enabled retrofitting at scale.

Finally, dear friends, we all know you cannot act on what you cannot measure. Thanks to the work of all those who contributed to the SDG12 Hub and similar initiatives. Much information needed is now easily accessible. One of the tools is also the Global Material Flows Database developed by the IRP. It provides the data on material extraction, material trade and material footprint (SDG 12.2). Most countries in the world do not have the capacity to establish national material flow accounts yet. For the moment, the IRP fills that (knowledge) gap. Almost every aspect of our economy relies on materials. Knowledge of material flows is crucial to managing an economy in a sustainable way. It informs policy decisions e.g., in the domains of green economy, resource efficiency, circular economy and sustainable natural resource management. The database and indicators also support a process of defining sustainable levels of resource use.

I would like to encourage all stakeholders, especially national governments, to take up the tools and guidance made available by SDG12 Hub to expand on your monitoring and reporting capacities - it will greatly serve your national goals and policies. Act on it! Scientists are making the information available, and financial resources exist. We need to move from setting goals to making our common goals a reality. And please do invest in telling stories framed for different stakeholders to make the data speak.

Count on the IRP also in the future. We will be happy to explore further collaboration to closely connected our efforts.

Janez Potočnik 

Co-Chair of the International Resource Panel


Access the event recording and quotes here.

Access the SDG 12 Hub here.