Report on the Environment

Resource Consumption


Importance of Reducing Pressures on Environmental Resources

Two important goals for advancing toward sustainability are:

  • To reduce the rate at which non-renewable resources are consumed.
  • To ensure that consumption of renewable resources does not exceed their long-term rates of natural regeneration.1

Historically, economic growth and increased prosperity have been correlated with increased use of natural resources.2 However, to achieve sustainability, both in the United States and worldwide, the rate of resource depletion must be reduced substantially. Doing so will require “decoupling” (i.e., breaking the dependent linkages between) resource consumption from economic growth and social progress.3 Otherwise, natural resource shortages will limit further development and may cause economic hardships, especially to poor and disadvantaged segments of society.

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Critical Resources

Many types of natural resources play a role in supporting human well-being. Water, energy, and materials are particularly important. Learn more »

  • Water. Fresh water is a critical, finite resource, and both the quality and the availability of U.S. water sources are being stressed due to agricultural, urban, and industrial uses. Especially in arid or water-stressed regions, excessive water use may deplete the long-term supply of fresh water; adversely impact plants, animals, and the environment; and threaten both economic growth and human well-being.
  • Energy. Energy is a critical resource, and there is growing concern over shrinking fossil fuel resources, rising energy costs, and adverse health, environmental, and economic impacts of some energy generation technologies. Both energy efficiency and renewable energy development offer opportunities to address these concerns. While the United States has made important progress in energy efficiency and renewable energy development, many more opportunities exist to enhance the sustainability of how we use energy and our energy supply.
  • Materials. Materials are critical resources, and many important materials are non-renewable. Moreover, the more material is consumed, the greater are the demands for resources (e.g., water, energy, minerals, land) and the greater are the quantities of pollutants and wastes generated. In the United States, more than 90 percent of the materials that are extracted from the environment, transported, and processed are eventually discharged as waste or atmospheric emissions.4 To achieve sustainability, it is necessary to break this pattern by decoupling material consumption from value creation.
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ROE Indicators

The ROE presents four national-scale indicators to track the intensity of resource consumption in the United States: Energy Use, Freshwater Withdrawals, Municipal Solid Waste, and RCRA Hazardous Waste. Each indicator consists of an environmental metric (e.g., energy use) normalized by population size (a social indicator) and by annual economic output (an economic indicator). Rather than measuring absolute consumption trends, these normalized indicators measure the intensity or rate at which natural resources and materials are being consumed to support the needs of the U.S. population and economy. Learn more »

The ROE indicators cover the following topics:

  • Freshwater withdrawals: Ideally, this indicator would measure water use, which is the amount of water withdrawn from the environment minus the amount discharged back into water bodies. Water returned to the environment is an important consideration because some industrial sectors (e.g., electric power generation) return large quantities of treated water to the environment, while other sectors (e.g., agriculture) do not. However, comprehensive long-term data are not currently available to support a water use indicator. Instead, the ROE presents the best available surrogate indicator: water withdrawals.
  • Energy use: Energy is used for a wide variety of tasks, including manufacturing, heating and cooling buildings, transportation, and powering appliances. Tracking the intensity of energy use (as reported by energy producers) provides information about changes in industrial and community patterns of energy consumption. Ideally, this indicator would also include energy consumed overseas to create products for sale in the United States, but that information is not currently available.
  • Waste generated and managed: Ideally, the ROE would present material use intensity as one indicator of progress in material use reduction. However, it is difficult to gather reliable data on a national scale regarding actual material consumption over the life cycles of all products and services. The ROE therefore presents two surrogate indicators for which reliable data are available: one on municipal solid waste and one on wastes classified as “hazardous” under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). These two types of wastes have the best available data, but collectively they represent a small percentage of total solid wastes generated in the United States.
One limitation of all four of these indicators is that they measure intensity based on quantity, and therefore they do not directly account for impacts on the environment or human well-being. For example, fresh water withdrawn from a slow-recharging aquifer could have a greater impact than withdrawing from a water body that recharges more quickly. Energy-related impacts depend on the extent to which pollution is generated and subsequently captured. Waste-related impacts depend upon the chemical characteristics of the wastes and the disposal practices.
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