Limits of resource consumption? Linking the Planetary Boundaries concept to the use of abiotic resources

In recent decades, the extraction and use of raw materials has intensified, increasing the pressure on natural resources, such as soil, water and air. This is particularly worrying, as resource pressure may contribute to destabilizing the earth system as a whole. Against this background, governments intend to reduce resource use – particularly in rich countries – by means of resource efficiency policy. This project attempts to go further and derive limits for resource use from associated environmental impacts; in particular from impacts of abiotic resource use on the earth system. The starting point for this exploration is the concept of planetary boundaries, developed by the scientist Johan Rockström and colleagues in 2009. The planetary boundaries relate to the biological, chemical and physical earth system processes. Most of these boundaries have defined control variables; crossing the boundaries implies moving into a zone of increasing risk of exceeding tipping points or undermining the earth system's resilience. Four of the planetary boundaries have already been crossed.

Against this backdrop, and on behalf of the Federal Environment Agency, this project explored the following questions: To what extent can the environmental impacts of the use of abiotic raw materials (such as metals and sand) be linked to the planetary boundaries concept? Is it possible to derive resource policy targets from this analysis? In a first step, the project considered how the use of abiotic material affects the environment. It then examined how the concept of planetary boundaries can be operationalized and disaggregated to the national and regional level; the project also looked at the environmental impact categories that can be linked to the nine planetary boundaries and what opportunities such linkages offer for life-cycle assessment (life cycle assessment is an approach to assess the environmental impact of products and services). In a third step, the project undertook case studies to link environmental impacts with the planetary boundaries concept as well as in-depth studies.

adelphi explored ways to operationalize the planetary boundaries concept for abiotic resource use. In particular, adelphi contributed to answering the question of how to translate the planetary boundaries, originally formulated for the earth system, to the national and regional level. adelphi also contributed to case studies and in-depth studies.

Publications of this project