How resource-efficient actions can support sustainable development

Natural resources including renewable and non-renewable energy, metals and minerals, water, air, biomass and land, are key production factors. Restoring and maintaining the health of these resources by incorporating resource efficiency is a key element of sustainable development. It is not only needed to adequately feed current and projected populations, but also to provide a better quality of life to our future generations. UNEP has identified the term "resource efficiency" to encompass the technical efficiency of resource use (measured by the useful energy or material output per unit of energy or material input); the resource productivity, or extent to which economic value is added to a given quantity of resources (measured by useful output or value added per unit of resource input); and the extent to which resource extraction or use has negative impacts on the environment (increased resource efficiency implies reduced the environmental pressures that cause such impacts).

A strong economic argument for resource-efficiency is the significant potential for improved competitiveness and job creation. Further, a responsible and efficient use of resources will contribute to higher social welfare by making available more. Resource efficiency also has the potential to contribute to health through, for example, improved access to clean water and food, and improved waste management. Resource-efficiency can make a significant contribution towards achieving climate change targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions without necessarily having adverse effects on the economy. The International Resource Panel, hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in a recent (May 2016) report notes that more efficient resource use coupled with ambitious action on climate change, could achieve up to a 74% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, whilst also stimulating economic growth.Besides the positive economic, social and environmental advantages, the benefits from resource efficiency could be technical, monetary, aesthetic, cultural, etc.

If we take the example of cities, resource efficiency creates the link between the way cities use and manage the natural resources available to them and the quality of life for people in the city. Resource efficient cities combine greater productivity and innovation with lower costs and reduced environmental impacts, while at the same time are able to provide livelihood opportunities, particularly the green jobs, expand opportunities for consumer choices and promote sustainable lifestyles. Particular segments of the economy in which green jobs can increasingly be created include construction, ecosystem and resource management, renewable energy, and recycling and re-use of waste materials, especially electronic waste, packaging material, plastics and mineral materials. Reducing the overall demand for virgin resources by making better use of the existing stocks of materials available in the urban environment reduces harm to environmental resources, and therefore improves the resilience of ecosystems and ability to cope with natural hazards.

The 2030 Agenda for sustainable development defined by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have also assigned an important position to resource efficiency. This is directly reflected in Goal 12 on ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns specifically in terms of substantially reducing waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse. Eight other goals (Goals 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 14 and 15) also directly refer to resource efficiency or sustainable use of resources.

For a country like India, which is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, sustaining this growth is necessary to ensure that the living standards of hundreds of millions of people living in absolute poverty are improved. However, the developmental model being followed by the country is characterized by reliance extensively on natural resource extraction (both domestic and abroad), thus putting enormous pressure on natural resources leading to increased costs, higher rate of forest degradation and reduced availability of agricultural land. The Government of India adopted the National Environmental Policy in 2006, with an overall objective to conserve environmental resources through their efficient use, encourage intergenerational equity, ensure application of principles of good environmental governance and promote ways for environmental protection. However, resource efficiency through material-efficient production processes has so far not been adequatelyexplored by the Indian industries.

Given that resource efficiency has links to the attainment of the SDGs and the aspirations for GHG emissions reduction in the Paris Agreement, in the global context, resource efficiency should also rank among the top priorities for enabling sustainable development now and in the future. The flow of materials and resources along globalized supply chains and product life cycles strengthens the need for a global perspective of resources as well as a need for integrating various policy areas for promoting resource efficiency.