Research Agenda for Systems of Resources

Comprehensive sustainability means developing and exploring future pathways for society to take—without blinders or hindrances. Society must acknowledge the linkages among crucial resources and find ways to address them. To do this requires the development of a truly interdisciplinary knowledge base to support sustainable development.

In the summary reports of our discussions during this Forum (Chapters 5, 11, 17, and 22), specific research needs were identified for the resource research communities that address land, water, energy, and nonrenewable resources. In the case of energy, Loschel et al. (Chapter 22) cite the use of future scenarios as an important issue, especially from the point of view of the different approaches one can take and values one can have regarding what constitutes as a "sustainable" society. The issue of implementation is high on the agenda: once a sustainable energy system has been defined, how might we get there? What are the societal constraints? For materials, MacLean et al. (Chapter 11) identified research needs of a more practical nature: dynamic models that incorporate co- and by-products are needed to understand the linkages and feedback loops within the materials system. For land, the main issue identified is called "re-conceptualizing"; that is, the need to describe land and land use in terms of the multiple functions of land, and the development of a comprehensive set of metrics. Seto et al. (Chapter 5) request special attention for the functions of natural ecosystems as free services from nature: What are the options for ecosystem service payment and could they be effective? For water, the link between, or de-linkage of, the natural and societal water cycle is placed by Lindner et al. (Chapter 17) on the research agenda, as is the mutual relationship between water quality and quantity.

These constitute widely divergent research needs, and each is important. More challenging, however, is the development of a comprehensive framework to characterize resources with regard to their availability and the dynamics of their supply and demand from a fully linked perspective. It is clear from the contributions in this book that the treatment of "other resources" as externalities is no longer sufficient. Indeed, the dynamics of the supply and demand of one resource must be evaluated together with those of others. The fact that the mining of metals has huge energy requirements will somehow come back to mining again, via the energy constraints. Scarcities will lead to price fluctuations, which in turn will have repercussions for other resources as well. Models need to be developed and databases established not only within, but also for the relations among resources.

A crucial research area, presently not in existence for many resources, is the development of scenarios for the purpose of exploring options for the future. Clear differences are visible between the various research fields represented at this Forum. Scenario development for energy is well established, with rich details in its specification. In the area of nonrenewable materials, supply—not demand—is the starting point: If we mine copper at its present rate, for how many years can we reliably supply the world with copper? For water, worldwide scenarios are not well developed. Insofar as they are, they remain embryonic in many ways. For land, the development of global scenarios is hardly a research activity at all: the quantity of land does not change, and translating different requirements into areas is not straightforward.

One can imagine that substantial benefits could accrue from harmonizing scenario development among resources, or, better yet, of creating comprehensive, multi-resource scenarios. For example, one could begin with similar assumptions about socioeconomic development and estimate future demand on that basis, or start from the function (demand) instead of the resource (supply). People need certain basic services rather than fossil fuels, square meters of land, or copper. Substitution, therefore, is also an important issue. For example, we must include ecosystem services in the characterization; if these are impaired, they will have to be replaced by human-made systems, often at great cost or at least with great energy and material requirements.

Differences in dynamics will be important in these scenarios. For example, it appears that energy demand will keep on rising with growing population and welfare. In contrast, the demand for materials seems in some cases to have reached a saturation point on a per capita basis, linked to the realization of adequate infrastructure in developed societies. This means that recycling cannot be expected to provide a large share of the nonrenewable resource supply in growing economies, even if a large share of the materials is recycled. Over time, recycled materials may become more important as the saturation point is approached. Energy requirements for mining materials is likely, therefore, to become increasingly important over the coming decades, but perhaps less important in the more distant future.

Ultimately, resources are used not specifi cally for themselves, but for the functionality provided by resource use. Where linkages seem likely to constrain functionality, an understanding of those linkages will provide the incentive to pursue more vigorously alternative approaches to provide the functionality we desire while doing so with the resources we possess. To the extent possible, this understanding must be quantitative. As Lord Kelvin stated: "When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it, but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager, unsatisfactory kind" (Thomson 1883). Meager, unsatisfactory knowledge will not suffice to resolve the issues posed by resource linkages, and meager, unsatisfactory knowledge is largely what we have at this moment, the contributions in this book notwithstanding. Resource linkage examples and the challenges they imply demonstrate how important it will be to establish a joint scientific community to build up databases, to discuss and harmonize research results, and to develop joint methodologies and methods to analyze and assess the great issues at hand for the support of the transition toward a more sustainable society.

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