Only with a collective effort on the part of the entire global community can sustainable development goals be achieved. The challenges lie primarily in rural and regional structures. Through 2050, the OECD estimates the economic damage from nature degeneration will have amounted to USD 23 trillion, of which climate change alone will account for USD 7.9 trillion according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, a research service by the weekly magazine of the same name. Emerging economies in particular are being disproportionately affected by this trend – most all Africa, where political instability and high population growth pose an especially daunting problem. Thus, it is no surprise that 120 countries have already committed to a net-zero CO2 emissions strategy (for more on CO2 reduction, see the part 3 of this series, “Renewable energies and a circular economy”). And the fact that the German Umweltstiftung is pushing a popular initiative to have nature protection anchored in the Bavarian constitution can only be viewed as a logical consequence. This initiative follows the examples already set by Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Ecuador and even India, all of which have formally granted Mother Nature constitutional rights.
Without water, no life
Of all natural resources, water is arguably the most important. The 2018 United Nations World Water Report predicts that up to 6 billion people will face water scarcity by 2050 as a result of higher water demand, the depletion of potable water resources and increasing water pollution – all driven by economic growth and the rapidly rising global population. By 2050, the demand for food is expected to increase by 60%, thereby putting additional pressure on agriculture which already accounts for 70% of global water demand. An additional 20% is attributable to manufacturing, although this of course varies greatly from region to region. However, particularly in emerging countries which are already plagued by water shortages, industrial water demand is rising disproportionately: an 800% increase is expected for Africa, and 250% for Asia. Globally, the amount of water required for manufacturing alone will quadruple.
Political and societal pressure will increase on multinational corporations that consume disproportionately large amounts of water in emerging nations. This applies to food and beverage companies just as much as it does to mining operations. For example, 65% of potable water consumption in Chile is attributable to the extraction of raw materials, when at the same time natural drinking water supplies have fallen to historic lows.
When it comes to global value creation, three out of four jobs are directly or indirectly dependent on water. Water scarcity (or limited access to it) and pollution have an indirect impact on global economic growth, yet many countries still lack a comprehensive, ecologically sustainable strategy for addressing these problems. Take for example the highly water-intensive agricultural sector, where governments worldwide continue to subsidise environmentally harmful practices at a cost of USD 345 billion per year. According to the British newspaper “The Guardian”, government subsidies amounting to 1 million US dollars per minute are ultimately utilised for fertilisers, deforestation and land cultivation. It is urgently necessary that these funds be redirected.
On a brighter note, solutions to the problem of conserving groundwater reservoirs can be hoped for mainly from technological advances in the field of portable electric power storage units. Intensive research is already being conducted into the use of alternative raw materials such as sodium, silicon, aluminium and zinc. For the foreseeable future, though, lithium will remain a key element of batteries. But there is also promise that research into solid-state batteries will lead to a significant technological breakthrough.
Less is more
In the quest to progressively replace fossil fuels with renewable energies, electrification has taken centre stage. Photovoltaics, solar and wind energy, electric vehicles and rail transport are central elements of the decarbonisation strategies many countries have adopted. But nothing comes without a cost: the necessary power generation facilities such as solar and wind farms, but also the means to store the energy, create a disproportionate demand for other raw materials. Take for example aluminium, 90% of the demand for which comes from so-called “green industries” due to the important role it plays in the decarbonisation effort. Apart from this industrial metal’s low weight, it is the special physical, chemical and mechanical properties of aluminium that make it so valuable. When alloyed with zinc, silicon or magnesium, it produces up to three times the tensile strength of steel and thus offers solutions for electromobility, the aerospace industry and offshore wind turbines. By 2030, the green transition will have triggered an annual 18% increase in the demand for aluminium. However, producing it is extremely energy- and CO2-intensive and already today accounts for some 2% of all global greenhouse gas generation. Exploding in equal measure is the demand for other raw materials necessary for implementing the net-zero CO2 emissions strategy, namely copper, graphite, magnesium, zinc, cobalt and lithium.
Required raw materials in kg per megawatt