Natural resources are the basis for life on earth. However, rapidly growing consumption is pushing many environmental indicators to overshoot planetary boundaries. Humans today extract and use around 50 percent more natural resources than they did only 30 years ago – around 60 billion tonnes a year. Given current growth trends, extraction of natural resources is expected to increase to 100 billion tonnes by 2030. At the current rate of use, the world's natural resources base is in danger of over-exploitation and collapse.
As the global population increases, and more people lead resource-intensive lifestyles, we are making ever-higher demands on the planet. This creates competition between different regions of the world, resulting in high resource prices which impact the poor, and competition between different uses of resources – for example whether land is dedicated to food or fuels.
Europe is a net importer of resources, dependent on resources from outside its boundaries, often from other poorer, lower-consuming countries. The current world trade system supports substantial inequalities in the distribution of natural resources, raising important questions relating to global justice. This has led to growing inequalities across the world and alarming levels of resource use by a small minority of the global population.
Europe has made significant progress in improving its resource efficiency – the amount of goods that can be produced for a given resource input – but this has not resulted in reduced consumption of natural resources. Due to the 'rebound effect', an increase in eco-efficiency does not inevitably lead to a decrease in the use of natural resources and energy in absolute terms. In fact, increases in efficiency have been outweighed by rises in consumption.
Existing EU environmental policy mainly focuses on the environmental impacts related to resource use, rather than addressing the overall levels of resource use. But Europe needs to reduce in absolute terms the amount of resources it consumes.
Sufficiency policy complements the eco-efficiency approach that so far has been the main focus of the sustainable development debate.
The term 'sufficiency' refers to a strategy of introducing hard limitations to unsustainable trends—in particular to overconsumption—plus an emphasis on distributional justice in order for everyone to have access to enough resources to meet their needs.
A sufficiency approach is not meant to disparage the value of eco-efficiency, but rather it tries to harness its true potential: once sufficiency is accepted as a necessary pre-requisite for sustainability, eco-efficiency is then correctly seen as a tool for affluence maximisation. In other words, while sufficiency includes setting an 'ecological ceiling' for the amount of natural resources used by the economy, eco-efficiency aims at generating a maximum of goods and services from that capped amount of resources.