The EU sixth environment action programme (6EAP) expressly calls for 'breaking the linkages between economic growth and resource use'. This report, which contributes to the EEA's five-year report 'The European environment — State and outlook 2005', was prepared in recognition of the importance of the sustainable use and management of natural resources on the policy agenda.
Given the broad coverage of 'natural resources', it was decided to focus on a handful of natural resources: fisheries, forestry, water, fossil fuels, metals and construction minerals, and land use.
Global driving forces
The main driving forces of resource consumption are population and economic growth, and the pattern of development, broadly defined to include technological level, economic structure, and the patterns of production and consumption. The projected 50 % growth in the global population over the next fifty years will put a significant pressure on the environment.
If, over the next fifty years, the population of the developing countries achieves levels of material wealth similar to today's levels in industrialised countries, world consumption of resources would increase by a factor ranging from two to five.
Without dramatic technological improvements or changes in the patterns of consumption, growth in resource use and environmental impacts due to increased population and economic growth in developing countries are likely to outweigh technological efficiency gains in industrialised countries.
European patterns of resource use
In Europe, the relationship between the main driving forces that determine resource use differs from that at the global level. With population growth limited, the main driving forces are economic growth and the pattern of development.
The European model of wealth is based on a high level of resource consumption, including energy and materials. Current material consumption in industrialised countries is between 31 and 74 tonnes/person/year (total material consumption), and environmentally most significant is the consumption of materials for housing, food and mobility. The average material intensity in the EU-25 is slightly less than in the United States, but twice as high as in Japan. The picture is similar for energy intensity, where the efficiency of the Japanese economy is even more pronounced.
There are large differences between EU countries. On average, resource and energy productivity in western Europe is several times higher than in the new EU Member States in central and eastern Europe. Material intensity varies from 11.1 kg/EUR of GDP in Estonia to 0.7 kg/EUR in France.
Some relative decoupling of economic growth from materials and energy consumption has been achieved in many EU countries during the past decade. This did not necessarily lead to an absolute decrease in environmental pressures, because absolute resource use has generally remained steady over the past two decades. In part, this decoupling may be due to increased imports of natural resources, substituting for their declining production or extraction in Europe.
Measuring the use of resources and its impact on the environment
High use of natural resources increases the pressure on these sources (e.g. maintaining the availability of supplies and ensuring sustainable yields) and on sinks (e.g. managing the environmental impacts of resource use, and whether ecosystems can absorb discharges). It is generally accepted that there are physical limits to continuing economic growth based on resource use.