I The need for and challenges surrounding circularity

Natural resources. Consumption, pollution, and health risks: developed versus developing economies


Throughout human history, natural resources have been essential to make human life easier. However, the need for and exploitation of natural resources has often been accompanied by wars and injustices, as well as environmental and health problems (Sciortino, 2003, 2008).

A number of environmental issues related to the consumption of natural resources exist. In addition, these resources and their benefits are often not equally distributed worldwide. Indeed, as will be shown in this chapter, on the one hand, several natural resources are mainly used in the so-called 'developed economies’; however, they are extracted in low- and middle-income countries. On the other hand, while environmental technologies to face pollution are more accessible in developed countries, in low- and middle-income countries, this is not the same, often resulting in poor environmental quality.

A further element to consider is the growing pressure on the Earth due to the rise in the human population. Indeed, according to the United Nations (UN, 2019), the human population in 2050 will stand at between 9.4 and 10.1 billion people. It is significant to note that in 1950, there were around 2.5 billion people, three times less than today.

As a consequence, if our global society does not reduce its consumerist approach and increase the efficient use of resources, in future, the need for natural resources will be much greater, sharpening the already significant global resources competition. Gulley et al. (2018) even asserted that, unlike the past and present period in which resource conflicts have often been related to fuel minerals, future conflicts could be more related to competition for the nonfuel minerals needed for emerging technologies. Rivalry between the United States and China might, therefore, become more contentious. In this scenario, the waste hierarchy principle, based on prioritising reduction, recycling, and reuse of waste, could be very helpful (Pires and Martinho, 2019).

Many classifications related to natural resources exist, reflecting the different physical characteristics of the resources as well as the geographic diversity of the producing areas. Among these, the United Nations’framework classification (UN, 2010) includes fossil fuels and mineral reserves and resources located on or below the Earth’s surface. This chapter focuses on the exploitation of these natural resources, analysing and comparing the related environmental pollution both in high-income and low-income countries. As will be shown, it is significant to note in comparing European countries with low-income countries, that while European countries are very low regarding the production of natural resources, they are at the top of the list in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), as well as, not surprisingly, environmental indexes, while the situation is often the opposite in low-income countries. A detailed series of case studies is presented, discussing both the environmental and health issues related to natural resource exploitation.

The use of natural resources

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