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By 2050, humanity could devour an estimated 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year three times its current appetite unless the economic growth rate is decoupled from the rate of natural resource consumption. Developed countries citizens consume an average of 16 tons of those four key resources per capita (ranging up to 40 or more tons per person in some developed countries). By comparison, the average person in India today consumes four tons per year. With the growth of both population and prosperity, especially in developing countries, the prospect of much higher resource consumption levels is far beyond what is likely sustainable if realized at all given finite world resources, warns this report by UNEP's International Resource Panel.
Already the world is running out of cheap and high quality sources of some essential materials such as oil, copper and gold, the supplies of which, in turn, require ever-rising volumes of fossil fuels and freshwater to produce. Improving the rate of resource productivity (doing more with less) faster than the economic growth rate is the notion behind decoupling, the panel says. That goal, however, demands an urgent rethink of the links between resource use and economic prosperity, buttressed by a massive investment in technological, financial and social innovation, to at least freeze per capita consumption in wealthy countries and help developing nations follow a more sustainable path.