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Use of natural resources and raw materials

The increasing use of natural resources is estimated to have caused about half of the greenhouse gas emissions and 90 per cent of biodiversity loss and water scarcity. The economic benefits of utilising natural resources are trickling down to fewer and fewer people. The economic, social and environmental impact varies greatly from country to country.
A quarry.
© Adobe Stock

Driven by huge technological leaps, the global economy has doubled since 1970, and the share of people living in extreme poverty has decreased. At the same time, the utilisation of renewable and non-renewable natural resources has tripled in the world.

Understanding the situation as well as planning and implementing the necessary actions require political decision-makers, companies, municipalities, organisations and citizens to be inventive and willing to change. Nature is living capital; in order for people, animals and plants to feel well, companies to retain their operating potential and our political system to remain stable, the use of natural resources must be designed from a sustainability viewpoint.

Several solutions for more sustainable use of natural resources

The use of natural resources can be made more efficient through both technological and social innovations, while creating new, sustainable business that does not focus on increased consumption but on a better-quality life.

Political decision-makers and civil servants create guidelines for the sustainable use of natural resources. Legislation, for example, can establish a minimum level that companies must achieve in terms of their environmental impact, but other societal means can also be used to support companies' efforts to improve even further. 

Citizens and consumers can influence the demand in terms of volume and type of products as well as the information and characteristics they require of products.

Improving resource efficiency, mitigating climate change, protecting biodiversity and supporting sustainable consumption are examples of solutions that can be used to bring the use of natural resources to a more sustainable level. Furthermore, the recycling of certain materials is an effective way to reduce the use of virgin raw materials.

The change does not take place very quickly in all respects, but due to the critical nature of environmental problems, it must be possible to assess the most effective measures that can be immediately addressed. This means that both the policy instruments used and the selected business solutions should be carefully weighed:

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages to the specific end-use of natural resources in comparison to other uses - for example, is it better to use critical raw materials for transport, energy production or electronics?
  • What are the tradeoff effects of their use in other systems: for example, how do we compensate for the material shortage caused by the increased recycling of plastics in energy production or, if we use edible material for fuel, how do we cover the need for food?
  • How to assess which raw materials should primarily be used for textiles, packaging and electronics? And how can these materials be recycled to reduce the use of virgin resources?

The selection of new solutions should be based on a life cycle assessment of the impacts on the current situation, and an assessment about whether the burden will be transferred from one actor or sector to another, or whether, at best, a solution that benefits several actors can be found.


Finnish Environment Institute (Syke)