The world is set to consume three times more natural resources than current rates by the middle of the century, according to a United Nations report.
It predicts that humanity will annually use about 140 billion tonnes of fossil fuels, minerals and ores by 2050.
The authors call for resource consumption to be "decoupled" from economic growth, and producers to do "more with less".
Growth in population and prosperity are the main drivers, they observe.
The report is the latest in a series by the UN Environment Programme's (Unep) International Resource Panel.
"Decoupling makes sense on all the economic, social and environmental dials, " said Unep executive director Achim Steiner.
"People believe environmental 'bads' are the price we must pay for economic 'goods'.
"However, we cannot and need not continue to act as if this trade-off is inevitable."
Co-lead author Mark Swilling from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, explained what would drive the surge in demand for resources.
"The reality is that there is another billion middle-class consumers on the way as a result of rapid industrialisation in developing countries," he told BBC News.
"If the resources required to generate these goods and services are used as efficiently as they currently are, then you are looking at that massive growth to 140 billion tonnes."
Professor Swilling added that population growth also played a role in the projected increase.
"If you add one Indian to the global population, you are talking about adding up to four tonnes of resource consumption each year. If you add an average Canadian, then you are adding another 25 tonnes," he explained.
"Developed world populations are stable, and some are even falling, so the real challenge... is in the developing world."
'Global test case'
The projection is based on data on four key resources: minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass.
Global average annual per capita consumption in 2000 was 8-10 tonnes, about twice as much as in 1900, the report said.
The combination of population growth, continuing high levels of consumption in industrialised countries, and increased demand for material goods - particularly in nations such as China, India and Brazil - saw total resource use grow eight-fold in the 20th Century.
Humanity Can and Must Do More with Less: UNEP Report
New York/ Nairobi, 12 May 2011 – By 2050, humanity could consume an estimated 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year – three times its current appetite – unless the economic growth rate is "decoupled" from the rate of natural resource consumption, warns a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme.
Developed countries citizens consume an average of 16 tons of those four key resources per capita (ranging up to 40 or more tons per person in some developed countries). By comparison, the average person in India today consumes four tons per year.
With the growth of both population and prosperity, especially in developing countries, the prospect of much higher resource consumption levels is "far beyond what is likely sustainable" if realized at all given finite world resources, warns the report by UNEP's International Resource Panel.
Already the world is running out of cheap and high quality sources of some essential materials such as oil, copper and gold, the supplies of which, in turn, require ever-rising volumes of fossil fuels and freshwater to produce.
Improving the rate of resource productivity ("doing more with less") faster than the economic growth rate is the notion behind "decoupling," the panel says. That goal, however, demands an urgent rethink of the links between resource use and economic prosperity, buttressed by a massive investment in technological, financial and social innovation, to at least freeze per capita consumption in wealthy countries and help developing nations follow a more sustainable path.
The trend towards urbanization may help as well, experts note, since cities allow for economies of scale and more efficient service provision. Densely populated places consume fewer resources per capita than sparsely populated ones thanks to economies in such areas as water delivery, housing, waste management and recycling, energy use and transportation, they say.
"Decoupling makes sense on all the economic, social and environmental dials," says UN Under Secretary-General Achim Steiner, UNEP's Executive Director.
UNEP's International Resource Panel
published a report in 2010 that used
environmental assessment tools to assess
the environmental impacts of global
production and consumption activities over
the life cycle, and established a link
between different categories of materials
and environmental impacts. For more
information, please see www.unep.org.
The report identified biomass as one of the
most important drivers of environmental
pressures, especially habitat change, climate
change, water use and toxic emissions. The
use of fossil fuels for heating, transportation,
metal refining and the production of
manufactured goods is of comparable
importance, causing the depletion of fossil
energy resources, climate change, and a
wide range of emissions-related impacts.
The impacts related to these activities are
unlikely to be reduced, but rather
enhanced, in a business as usual scenario
for the future. These dynamics are also
important considerations when it comes to