Resource consumption has grown exponentially over the past: between 1970 and 2010, the quantity of extracted materials has tripled1. Not only the overall amount of resources extracted and consumed has risen rapidly, but also the diversity of resources has grown. While half a century ago, only a few materials such as wood, brick, iron, copper, and plastics were in high demand worldwide, today products are more complex and require a wide range of materials.
The consumption of extracted natural resources is divided unequally across the globe. North America and Europe have a very high material footprint, ranging between 20 and 27 tonnes per capita in 2010. In contrast, the material footprint of all other world regions was below 10 tonnes per capita. In Africa, it was even smaller than 3 tonnes per capita2.
The largest share of the extractive activities takes place in regions where the material footprint is low, especially in Asia and the Pacific and Latin America. In these regions, the increased demand for raw materials has led to an expansion of extraction frontiers as many countries started or increased the exploitation of natural resources. Although it offered an opportunity to increase revenue and boost the export of primary commodities, it also meant that resource extraction is increasingly happening in remote, ecologically sensitive or politically unstable regions where environmental and social standards are often either lacking or poorly implemented3. At the same time, there has also been an increase in the mining of ore with low metal content, which often involves increased use of energy, water, and chemicals.
The critical importance of sustainable consumption and production patterns for core foreign policy objectives
From a foreign policy perspective, sustainable consumption and production patterns are vital in ensuring stable and peaceful development. Food, water, energy and extractive resources such as metals and minerals are the basis for our livelihoods and economies. Overconsumption and unsustainable practices are having devastating environmental and social impacts on the local level, increasingly leading to tensions and conflicts. Tensions and local discontent arise because of various reasons: competition between different forms of land use (e.g., agriculture and resource extraction), water availability, pollution and environmental degradation, and displacement. Often the benefits are not distributed in a fair way, and working conditions at extraction sites are harsh beyond acceptance4.
On the global level, consumption and production patterns have increased in complexity and woven a network of co-dependencies. While global supply chains have improved efficiency, they also bear significant risks regarding supply shocks5. At the same time, commodity prices have become more interdependent. Price spikes in the oil and gas sector, whether caused by weather events or political crisis, affect prices of food and other sectors that rely on oil and gas, transmitting shocks across the system. Food price shocks can, in turn, contribute to political instability as seen during the food price crisis of 2008/9 and 2010/11 when high food prices sparked protests around the world. At the same time, supply shocks can increase the competition over resources between countries and lead to tensions over resource access.
Thus, improving the sustainability of resource extraction, production, and consumption does not only ensure the wellbeing and sustainable development of resource producing and consuming countries. From a peace and conflict perspective, these activities can also play an important role in minimizing negative environmental and social impacts and preventing conflicts and tensions that might follow. This links directly to SDG targets 12.1 and 2 that aim at improving sustainable consumption and production by implementing a “10-year frame-work of programmes on sustainable consumption and production, all countries taking action, with developed countries taking the lead, taking into account the development and capabilities of developing countries” and “by 2030 achieve the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources”.
Companies will play a pivotal role in increasing the sustainability of consumption and production as outlined in SDG target 12.6. It encourages “companies, especially large and transnational companies, to adopt sustainable practices and to integrate sustainability in-formation into their reporting cycle.” Efforts from the US, the EU, and the OECD to increase due diligence of companies mainly related to the so-called conflict minerals are essential starting points.
SDG 12 is a cross-cutting goal which relates to almost all other SDGs. The most apparent links are with those goals addressing specific resources such as food, energy, and water. For example, SDG 2 “Zero Hunger” calls for the resilience of global supply chains and the reduction of price volatility in its target 2.b to “correct and prevent trade restrictions and distortions in world agricultural markets” and target 2.c to “adopt measures to ensure the proper functioning of food commodity markets and their derivatives and facilitate timely access to market information, including on food reserves, in order to help limit extreme food price volatility.”
Illustration: conflicts around extractives in the DRC and Peru
The case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where government forces, neighbouring countries, and several militia groups fight for dominance, and where both - state and non-state armed groups - use minerals to fund the conflicts, shows how unsustainable consumption and production patterns are linked to violence and undermine stabilisation efforts6. However, also more stable countries such as Peru and Indonesia face high levels of violence and conflict on the local level. For instance, both the attempts by the Peruvian government to formalise the artisanal gold mining in the Amazon region and to suppress the protests of Andean communities against large-scale mining projects have led to the dire confrontation of the population with the security forces. While this might not escalate into more large-scale violence, it does create pockets of fragility within states. The state of emergency was declared in several Andean provinces of Peru twice (in 2011 and 2012) after violent protests against the Conga project7.
International efforts to improve governance of resource extraction
The international governance landscape on extractive resources (minerals, metals and fossil fuels) is fragmented. There is no overall framework or convention, similar to the three UN “Rio” Conventions – on Biodiversity, Climate Change, and Desertification. The existing conventions focus on specific resources and issues: for instance, the Minamata Convention on Mercury aims at minimising the adverse effects of this metal by seeking to control various products and processes in which it is used, including artisanal and small-scale gold mining. Furthermore, a number of international conventions and frameworks on human rights, labour standards, and the environment exist that are relevant and cover specific aspects of sustainable consumption and production, for example Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Rio Conventions mentioned above, the ILO Conventions, the Convention on Wetlands (or Ramsar Convention).
Financial organisations have played an essential role in ensuring certain fundamental human rights, labour, and environmental standards. In particular, the standards set by the International Finance Cooperation and the World Bank have had a global impact, and therefore an increasing number of banks and financial institutions are using them. In recent years, due diligence in supply chains and in particular regarding minerals and conflict financing has been a very dynamic policy field. Legislation in the US and Europe has been passed to improve the responsible sourcing of minerals of tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold.
The OECD has issued guidance documents supporting the implementation of these standards. Furthermore, a broad spectrum of public-private sector standard initiatives and certification schemes emerged to promote the sustainable production and use of specific renewable and non-renewable resources8. While some standard initiatives and certification schemes for renewable resources such as the Forest Stewardship Council or Fair Trade have been around for over 20 years, these initiatives have been expanding in the past ten years to non-renewable resources, for example with the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative.
As countries are transitioning to greener and more sustainable technologies and lifting themselves out of poverty, resource consumption will continue to grow. Improving the sustainability of consumption and production patterns will be vital in ensuring that these transition processes do not create new tensions and challenges. Foreign policy makers and diplomats have several entry points that can help prevent the risks that unsustainable production and consumption patterns create. On the global level, foreign policy and diplomats can play an important role in consolidating the fragmented governance landscape in particular regarding extractive resources. The goal would be to mitigate conflict risks on the local level by improving social and environmental standards, and ensuring the participation of affected population groups, and on the global level to improve the overall resilience of supply chains against supply shocks and crisis.
[This article originally appeared as part of adelphi's policy brief "A Foreign Policy Perspective on the Sustainable Development Goals" (2018) and its comprehensive annex.]