The Sustainable Use of Natural Resources: The Governance Challenge - IISD

Still Only One Earth: Lessons from 50 years of UN sustainable development policy.

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Putting-the-Environment-in-Human-Rights-and-Environmental-Due-Diligence.pdf (190.9 KiB)

 

Over-exploitation of natural resources harms the health of ecosystems and the wellbeing of people. In the face of environmental crises and growing inequality, we need to act, including developing extended producer responsibility and supply chain legislation, guaranteeing green public procurement, supporting technical innovation to enhance resource circularity, and adopting decision-making processes that include and respect women, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities.

 

Natural resources are central to human wellbeing. We cannot live without the clean air we breathe, the plants we eat, or the water we drink. We need natural resources to put roofs over our heads and heat our homes. We need them to survive and to thrive.

The concept of natural resources refers to naturally occurring living and non-living elements of the Earth system, including plants, fish, and fungi, but also water, soil, and minerals. A prominent way to think about natural resources is to look at them in terms of depletion risk: do they regenerate, and, if so, at what pace? Some resources, such as trees and plants, are renewable because they regenerate relatively quickly. Others, such as copper and oil, take much longer to form and are considered non-renewable. Together, natural resources make up a dense web of interdependence, forming ecosystems that also include humans. As such, the distribution of resources shapes the face of our planet and the local distinctiveness of our environments. People have formed different types of cultural, spiritual, and subsistence-based relationships with the natural environment, adopting value-systems that go beyond economic framings.

Nature makes human development possible but our relentless demand for the earth’s resources is accelerating extinction rates and devastating the world’s ecosystems.

Joyce Msuya, Deputy Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme

The use of natural resources has long been considered an element of both human rights and economic development, leading the United Nations, amid its work on advancing decolonization in the 1960s, to declare that “[t]he right of peoples and nations to permanent sovereignty over their natural wealth and resources must be exercised in the interest of their national development and of the well-being of the people of the State concerned” (UN General Assembly Resolution 1803 (XVII)).

Natural resources are often viewed as key assets driving development and wealth creation. Over time and with progressive industrialization, resource use increased. In some cases, exploitation levels came to exceed resources’ natural regeneration rates. Such overexploitation ultimately threatens the livelihoods and wellbeing of people who depend on these resources, and jeopardizes the health of ecosystems. This risk of resource depletion, notably manifesting in the form of fishery collapses, demonstrates the need to regulate natural resource use to better preserve resources and their ecosystems. The very first UN conference on environmental issues, the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm, Sweden, adopted fundamental principles in this regard.

Stockholm Declaration

  • Principle 2: “The natural resources of the earth, including the air, water, land, flora and fauna and especially representative samples of natural ecosystems, must be safeguarded for the benefit of present and future generations through careful planning or management, as appropriate.”
  • Principle 3: “The capacity of the earth to produce vital renewable resources must be maintained and, wherever practicable, restored or improved.”
  • Principle 5: “The non-renewable resources of the earth must be employed in such a way as to guard against the danger of their future exhaustion and to ensure that benefits from such employment are shared by all mankind.”

 

The Stockholm Declaration not only addressed resource depletion, but also benefit sharing: the objective to ensure that natural resource use not only benefits the few, but the many, both within and across countries. It also speaks to the principle of inter-generational equity: ensuring that today’s resource use does not compromise the availability of natural resources for future generations. In fact, natural resource use relates to all three dimensions of sustainability: social justice, environmental health, and economic development. The sustainable use of natural resources strives for balance between these dimensions: maintaining the long-term use of resources while maximizing social benefits and minimizing environmental impacts.

 

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