Just transition and sustainable resource use

Anna Triponel

March 1, 2024
Our key takeaway: The data is clear: our use of natural resources and materials is increasing at a rate that will make it near impossible to deliver our climate and biodiversity goals of keeping to 1.5 degrees of warming and protecting and restoring natural ecosystems. Our use of natural resources has increased more than three times over the last 50 years and is projected to increase by 60% by 2060. The data shows that unsustainable resource use i.e., transgressing planetary boundaries is coupled with improved human development outcomes. UNEP’s report outlines a Sustainable Transition pathway that decouples resource use, environmental impacts and human well-being and development. As part of this scenario modelling, a just transition is core to efforts to achieve the sustainable use and management of natural resources while placing justice and sufficiency (reducing resource use in contexts of higher consumption and increasing resource use in low-development contexts) at the centre of such efforts. The report issues a call to action: “The science is clear. The key question is no longer whether a transformation towards global sustainable resource consumption and production is necessary, but how to make it happen now.”

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) published Bend the trend: Pathways to a liveable planet as resource use spikes (March 2024):

  • “Increasing resource use is the main driver of the triple planetary crisis”: The report highlights that the amount and the way in which we are using natural resources to produce goods and services drives climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. Material use has increased more than three times over the last 50 years and is projected to grow by 60% by 2060, which could “derail efforts to achieve not only global climate biodiversity, and pollution targets but also economic prosperity and human well-being.” The human health impacts from pollution and waste are significant and can be fatal, with more than 200 million life years lost due to fine particulate matter. Moreover, the benefits of resource use are not shared equally: “high-income countries are responsible for ten times more climate impacts per capita than low-income countries.”
  • The interconnection between resource use, the environment and human rights: The report uses the provisioning systems perspective to highlight the link between sustainable resource use and protecting the environment, as well as the link between healthy ecosystems and securing well-being for all. The provisioning systems are food, the built environment, mobility and energy, which “rely on the extraction of resources to deliver human well-being and the SDGs, while at the same time also creating impacts on the environment and consequently, people.” In short, measures taken to reduce resource use to advance the environmental agenda must also look at the impacts that this may have on people, and vice versa. The report outlines the Sustainability Transition pathway that models how “[t]argeted and coordinated sustainability actions can limit resource use and reduce related environmental impacts, while delivering socio-economic development for all.” A just transition is a core component of this pathway, alongside resource efficiency, climate and energy and food and land. Under this scenario, it is predicted that we will see the following outcomes: 1) “[s]tronger economic growth and higher incomes; 2) “[r]esource use moderates”; 3) “[g]reenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity aligned to global agreements; and 4) “Human Development Index rises across all income groups.”
  • Targeted strategies are needed to move towards the Sustainable Transition pathway: The report sets out key recommended strategies for reducing resource use across the four provisioning systems (food, the built environment, mobility and energy). In relation to food, it is recommended that we are: 1) “[r]educing the demand of the most impactful food commodities”; 2) “[r]educing food loss and food waste”; and 3) “[p]rotecting and restoring productive land while meeting demand for nutrition.” When it comes to the built environment, it is recommended that we are: 1) “[a]ssuring sustainability of the new building stock”; 2) “[r]etrofitting the existing building stock; and 3) “[m]ore intensive use of buildings.” For mobility, it is recommended that: 1) “[c]ities [are] moving towards active mobility and public transportation”; 2) we are “[r]educing carbon-intensive frequent traveling modalities”; and 3) we are “[d]ecreasing emissions intensity of transport modalities.” Last but not least, we should decarbonise “electricity supply through the scaling up of low-resource renewable energies and increased energy efficiency” in relation to energy.


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