The dark side of the construction industry: Global extraction of minerals

Extravagant, individual and as high as possible – construction projects around the world symbolise economic growth and prosperity. Global construction market is expected to grow by 85% until 2030, with China, India and the US taking the global lead in growth rates [1]. The rapid increase is due to three main key drivers: residential construction, infrastructure and refurbishment [2]. As a result, extraction of construction minerals (sand, gravel, and limestone) increased by a total of 133% worldwide between 1980 and 2008 [3]. Thus, extraction causes enormous environmental threats. Associated risks concern both the negative effects on the landscape through extracting and disposing non-metallic minerals  [4] and the energy requirements for further processing and transport. Unsustainable waste management poses an additional risk. Since 1900, 72% of all extracted materials have ended up in the environment as high-entropy waste, a very alarming observation [5]. Global recycling rates for construction minerals in particular are very low [6].

In order to guarantee a more sustainable resource use in the future, the topic was set high on environmental policy agenda (e.g. German Strategy for Sustainable Development or Japan’s 3R Initiative) with the aim of achieving absolute dematerialisation. Reaching absolute resource reduction “requires resource productivity to grow faster than GDP” [7] which means that the industry sector becomes less resource-intensive. Such absolute decoupling effects have been recognised, e.g., for Germany, Canada and UK but those countries simultaneously show “relatively low economic growth” rates [8]. However, conducted analysis predicts further increase in extraction rates all over the world [9].

This development is due to today’s aspiration for unlimited economic growth, an indication of unsustainable scale. Growth is maintained through the input of raw materials and the output of waste [10]. Scale refers to the physical size of our economy which is embedded and sustained by the environment, a finite system [10]. Hence, construction minerals which belong to the group of non-renewable resources are limited. For this reason, we cannot operate beyond the limits of our planet. But reality looks different.

Minerals used for construction strongly depend on annual growth of GDP and population [11]. Emerging countries seek to adopt lifestyles and prosperity of industrialised nations [12]. The estimated costs for China’s environmental pollution due to its rapid economic growth constitute a financial burden on its GDP [13]. Africa as a developing continent is expected to reach a global population share of 80% in 2050. The sharp rise implies high investments in housing and infrastructure and thus even higher extraction rates of minerals [14].

Additionally, our unsustainable economic system produces too many waste products. Minerals used in construction have a longer life cycle than minerals used for batteries for electric vehicles. They “build up long living stocks of manufactured capital” which means they are not directly consumed after extraction [15]. But when “these stocks reach the end of their lifetime” we will face the problem of large amounts of waste in the future [15]. Our planet will not be able to absorb and recycle it [15].

We seem to be trapped in a vicious circle caused by economic growth. Industrialised countries such as the EU pretend to have found a way out through the import of non-renewable resources, especially construction minerals. Up to 63% of imported resources originated from developing countries between 1976 and 2000 [16]. Rich countries shift their own environmental burden to less developed nations with high resource deposits. Wealthier countries appear more environmentally friendly and pretend absolute decoupling [17]. Ask yourself, is this the way to reach a sustainable scale? In this case, we also touch the problem of unfair distribution since countries around the globe are endowed with various natural resources [17].

Today’s ignorance of scale encroaches on future generations who bear the costs for our unsustainable mode of living [18]. Absolute dematerialisation does not mean to increase recycling rates, but rather to replace current unsustainable practices through more sustainable ones. We need a fundamental change of our economic system to resolve the issue of unsustainable scale.

Policy measures therefore play an important role. They must be designed to reduce material extraction rates in the long run. As a result, they help us to obtain a sustainable scale, one that guarantees an economic system operating within planetary boundaries. The focus is placed on achieving an optimal scale, where production costs for an additional unit equal the benefits each unit produces [18].

In my opinion, first of all, the amount of imported non-renewable resources must be restricted to counteract the distorted picture of seemingly resource-saving countries. This measure is achieved through the reduction of mineral export rates of developing countries by “encouraging the domestic processing of natural resources” [19]. Moreover, sustainable investments in infrastructure and housing are important to reduce future maintenance costs. Additionally, taxation of unsustainable waste disposal can lead towards a more conscious use of scarce resources [20].

But we cannot change everything overnight. Change can only be successful if both industrialised nations and emerging countries are willing to collaborate.

 

References

[1] Global Construction Perspectives and Oxford Economics. 2015. Global Construction 2030. A global forecast for the construction industry to 2030, Executive Summary. UK.

[2] Steger, S. and Bleischwitz, R. 2010. Drivers for the use of material across countries. Journal of Cleaner Production. 19(8), pp. 816-826.

[3] Dittrich, M., Giljum, S., Lutter, S. and Polzin, C. 2012. Green economies around the world? Implications of resource use for development and the environment. Vienna. p. 21-22.

[4] Miatto, A., Schandl, H., Fishman, T. and Tanikawa, H. 2017. Global patterns and trends for non-metallic minerals used for construction. Journal of Industry Ecology. 21(4), p. 925.

[5] Krausmann, F., Lauk, C., Haas, W. and Wiedenhofer, D. 2018. From resource extraction to outflows of wastes and emissions: The socioeconomic metabolism of the global economy, 1900-2015. Global Environmental Change. 52, pp. 131-140.

[6] Haas, W., Krausmann, F., Wiedenhofer, D. and Heinz. M. 2015. How circular is the global economy? An Assessment of material flows, waste production, and recycling in the European Union and the World in 2005. Journal of Industrial Ecology. 19(5), pp. 765-777.

[7] UNEP. 2011. Decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth. A Report of the Working Group on Decoupling to the International Resource Panel. p. 72

[8] Dittrich, M., Giljum, S., Lutter, S. and Polzin, C. 2012. Green economies around the world? Implications of resource use for development and the environment. Vienna. p. 34.

[9] Behrens, A., Giljum, S., Kovanda, J. and Niza, S. 2007. The material basis of the global economy. Worldwide patterns of natural resource extraction and their implications for sustainable resource use policies. Ecological Economics. 64(2), pp. 444-453.

[10] Daly, H.E. 2004. Ecological economics: The concept of scale and its relation to allocation, distribution, and uneconomic growth. In: Fullbrook, E. ed. A guide to what’s wrong with economics. London: Anthem Press, pp. 247-261.

[11] Steinberger, J.K., Krausmann, F. and Eisenmenger, N. 2010. Global patterns of material use: A socioeconomic and geophysical analysis. Ecological Economics. 69(5), pp. 1148-1158.

[12] Behrens, A., Giljum, S., Kovanda, J. and Niza, S. 2007. The material basis of the global economy. Worldwise patterns of natural resource extraction and their implications for sustainable resource use policies. Ecological Economics. 64(2), pp. 444-453.

[13] You, P. 2006. China’s Green Debt. [Online]. [Accessed 10 November 2018]. Available from:  https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/china-s-green-debt

[14] Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations. 2004. World population to 2003. [Online]. [Accessed 10 November 2018]. Available from: http://www.un.org/esa/population/publicationsa/longrange2/WorldPop2300final.pdf

[15] Krausmann, F., Lauk, C., Haas, W. and Wiedenhofer, D. 2018. From resource extraction to outflows of wastes and emissions: The socioeconomic metabolism of the global economy, 1900-2015. Global Environmental Change. 52, p. 136, 138.

[16] Schütz, H., Moll, S. and Bringezu, S. 2014. Globalisation and the Shifting Environmental Burden. Material Trade Flows of the European Union. Wuppertal: Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, Energy.

[17] Behrens, A., Giljum, S., Kovanda, J. and Niza, S. 2007. The material basis of the global economy. Worldwide patterns of natural resource extraction and their implications for sustainable resource use policies. Ecological Economics. 64(2), pp. 444-453.

[18] Daly, H.E. 2004. Ecological economics: The concept of scale and its relation to allocation, distribution, and uneconomic growth. In: Fullbrook, E. ed. A guide to what’s wrong with economics. London: Anthem Press, pp. 247-261.

[19] Behrens, A., Giljum, S., Kovanda, J. and Niza, S. 2007. The material basis of the global economy. Worldwide patterns of natural resource extraction and their implications for sustainable resource use policies. Ecological Economics. 64(2), p. 451.

[20] Arlinghaus, J. and Van Dender, K. 2017. Environmental Fiscal Reform. Progress, prospects and pitfalls. OECD. [Online]. [Accessed 12 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.oecd.org/tax/tax-policy/environmental-fiscal-reform-G7-environment-ministerial-meeting-june-2017.pdf