Resource depletion

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Tar sands in Alberta, 2008. Oil is one of the most used resources by humans. Tar sands in alberta 2008.jpg
Tar sands in Alberta, 2008. Oil is one of the most used resources by humans.

Resource depletion is the consumption of a resource faster than it can be replenished. Natural resources are commonly divided between renewable resources and non-renewable resources (see also mineral resource classification). Use of either of these forms of resources beyond their rate of replacement is considered to be resource depletion. [1] The value of a resource is a direct result of its availability in nature and the cost of extracting the resource, the more a resource is depleted the more the value of the resource increases. [2] There are several types of resource depletion, the most known being: Aquifer depletion, deforestation, mining for fossil fuels and minerals, pollution or contamination of resources, slash-and-burn agricultural practices, soil erosion, and overconsumption, excessive or unnecessary use of resources.


Resource depletion is most commonly used in reference to farming, fishing, mining, water usage, and consumption of fossil fuels. [2] Depletion of wildlife populations is called defaunation . [3]

Depletion accounting

In an effort to offset the depletion of resources, theorists have come up with the concept of depletion accounting. Better known as 'green accounting,' depletion accounting aims to account for nature's value on an equal footing with the market economy. [4] Resource depletion accounting uses data provided from countries to estimate the adjustments needed due to their use and depletion of the natural capital available to them. [5] Natural capital are natural resources such as mineral deposits or timber stocks. Depletion accounting factors in several different influences such as the number of years until resource exhaustion, the cost of resource extraction and the demand of the resource. [5] Resource extraction industries make up a large part of the economic activity in developing countries. This, in turn, leads to higher levels of resource depletion and environmental degradation in developing countries. [5] Theorists argue that implementation of resource depletion accounting is necessary in developing countries. Depletion accounting also seeks to measure the social value of natural resources and ecosystems. [6] Measurement of social value is sought through ecosystem services, which are defined as the benefits of nature to households, communities and economies. [6]


There are many different groups interested in depletion accounting. Environmentalists are interested in depletion accounting as a way to track the use of natural resources over time, hold governments accountable or compare their environmental conditions to those of another country. [4] Economists want to measure resource depletion to understand how financially reliant countries or corporations are on non-renewable resources, whether this use can be sustained and the financial drawbacks of switching to renewable resources in light of the depleting resources. [4]


Depletion accounting is complex to implement as nature is not as quantifiable as cars, houses, or bread. [4] For depletion accounting to work, appropriate units of natural resources must be established so that natural resources can be viable in the market economy. The main issues that arise when trying to do so are, determining a suitable unit of account, deciding how to deal with the "collective" nature of a complete ecosystem, delineating the borderline of the ecosystem, and defining the extent of possible duplication when the resource interacts in more than one ecosystem. [4] Some economists want to include measurement of the benefits arising from public goods provided by nature, but currently there are no market indicators of value. [4] Globally, environmental economics has not been able to provide a consensus of measurement units of nature's services.

Minerals depletion

Minerals are needed to provide food, clothing, and housing. A United States Geological Survey (USGS) study found a significant long-term trend over the 20th century for non-renewable resources such as minerals to supply a greater proportion of the raw material inputs to the non-fuel, non-food sector of the economy; an example is the greater consumption of crushed stone, sand, and gravel used in construction. [7]

Large-scale exploitation of minerals began in the Industrial Revolution around 1760 in England and has grown rapidly ever since. Technological improvements have allowed humans to dig deeper and access lower grades and different types of ore over that time. [8] [9] [10] Virtually all basic industrial metals (copper, iron, bauxite, etc.), as well as rare earth minerals, face production output limitations from time to time, [11] because supply involves large up-front investments and is therefore slow to respond to rapid increases in demand. [9]

Minerals projected by some to enter production decline during the next 20 years:

Minerals projected by some to enter production decline during the present century:

Such projections may change, as new discoveries are made [13] and typically misinterpret available data on Mineral Resources and Mineral Reserves. [9] [10]


Oil depletion is the decline in oil production of a well, oil field, or geographic area. [17] The Hubbert peak theory makes predictions of production rates based on prior discovery rates and anticipated production rates. Hubbert curves predict that the production curves of non-renewing resources approximate a bell curve. Thus, according to this theory, when the peak of production is passed, production rates enter an irreversible decline. [18] [19]

The United States Energy Information Administration predicted in 2006 that world consumption of oil will increase to 98.3 million barrels per day (15,630,000 m3/d) (mbd) in 2015 and 118 million barrels per day in 2030. [20] With 2009 world oil consumption at 84.4 mbd, [21] reaching the projected 2015 level of consumption would represent an average annual increase between 2009 and 2015 of 2.7% per year.


Deforestation in New Zealand. Deforestation NZ TasmanWestCoast 2 MWegmann.jpg
Deforestation in New Zealand.
Satellite image of deforestation in progress in eastern Bolivia. Worldwide, 10% of wilderness areas were lost between 1990 and 2015. Bolivia-Deforestation-EO.JPG
Satellite image of deforestation in progress in eastern Bolivia. Worldwide, 10% of wilderness areas were lost between 1990 and 2015.
Forest Landscape Integrity Index showing anthropogenic modification of remaining forest. Flii globe.png
Forest Landscape Integrity Index showing anthropogenic modification of remaining forest.
Annual deforestation Annual-deforestation.svg
Annual deforestation
Annual change in forest area Annual-change-forest-area.svg
Annual change in forest area

Deforestation or forest clearance is the removal of a forest or stand of trees from land that is then converted to non-forest use. [24] Deforestation can involve conversion of forest land to farms, ranches, or urban use. The most concentrated deforestation occurs in tropical rainforests. [25] About 31% of Earth's land surface is covered by forests at present. [26] This is one-third less than the forest cover before the expansion of agriculture, a half of that loss occurring in the last century. [27] Between 15 million to 18 million hectares of forest, an area the size of Bangladesh, are destroyed every year. On average 2,400 trees are cut down each minute. [28]

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines deforestation as the conversion of forest to other land uses (regardless of whether it is human-induced). "Deforestation" and "forest area net change" are not the same: the latter is the sum of all forest losses (deforestation) and all forest gains (forest expansion) in a given period. Net change, therefore, can be positive or negative, depending on whether gains exceed losses, or vice versa. [29]

The removal of trees without sufficient reforestation has resulted in habitat damage, biodiversity loss, and aridity. Deforestation causes extinction, changes to climatic conditions, desertification, and displacement of populations, as observed by current conditions and in the past through the fossil record. [30] Deforestation also reduces biosequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, increasing negative feedback cycles contributing to global warming. Global warming also puts increased pressure on communities who seek food security by clearing forests for agricultural use and reducing arable land more generally. Deforested regions typically incur significant other environmental effects such as adverse soil erosion and degradation into wasteland.

The resilience of human food systems and their capacity to adapt to future change is linked to biodiversity – including dryland-adapted shrub and tree species that help combat desertification, forest-dwelling insects, bats and bird species that pollinate crops, trees with extensive root systems in mountain ecosystems that prevent soil erosion, and mangrove species that provide resilience against flooding in coastal areas. [31] With climate change exacerbating the risks to food systems, the role of forests in capturing and storing carbon and mitigating climate change is important for the agricultural sector. [31]

Controlling deforestation

The United Nations Collaborative Programme on "Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries (REDD+)" was first negotiated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2005, with the objective of mitigating climate change through reducing net emissions of greenhouse gases through enhanced forest management in developing countries. Most of the key REDD+ decisions were completed by 2013, with the final pieces of the rulebook finished in 2015.

The programme is a collaboration between FAO, UNDP and UNEP under which a trust fund established in July 2008 allows donors to pool resources to generate the requisite transfer flow of resources to significantly reduce global emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. [32]

Since 2000, various studies estimate that land use change, including deforestation and forest degradation, accounts for 12-29% of global greenhouse gas emissions. [33] [34] [35] For this reason the inclusion of reducing emissions from land use change is considered essential to achieve the objectives of the UNFCCC. [36]

During the negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol, and then in particular its Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the inclusion of tropical forest management was debated but eventually dropped due to anticipated methodological difficulties in establishing – in particular – additionality and leakage (detrimental effects outside of the project area attributable to project activities). What remained on forestry was "Afforestation and Reforestation", sectoral scope 14 of the CDM. Under this sectoral scope areas of land that had no forest cover since 1990 could be replanted with commercial or indigenous tree species. In its first eight years of operation 52 projects had been registered under the "Afforestation and Reforestation" scope of the CDM. [37] The cumbersome administrative procedures and corresponding high transaction costs are often blamed for this slow uptake. Beyond the CDM, all developed countries that were parties to the Kyoto Protocol also committed to measuring and reporting on efforts to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions from forests.


Wetlands are ecosystems that are often saturated by enough surface or groundwater to sustain vegetation that is usually adapted to saturated soil conditions, such as cattails, bulrushes, red maples, wild rice, blackberries, cranberries, and peat moss. [38] Because some varieties of wetlands are rich in minerals and nutrients and provide many of the advantages of both land and water environments they contain diverse species and provide a distinct basis for the food chain. Wetland habitats contribute to environmental health and biodiversity. [38] Wetlands are a nonrenewable resource on a human timescale and in some environments cannot ever be renewed. [39] Recent studies indicate that global loss of wetlands could be as high as 87% since 1700 AD, with 64% of wetland loss occurring since 1900. [39] Some loss of wetlands resulted from natural causes such as erosion, sedimentation, subsidence, and a rise in the sea level. [38]

Wetlands provide environmental services for:

  1. Food and habitat
  2. Improving water quality
  3. Commercial fishing
  4. Floodwater reduction
  5. Shoreline stabilization
  6. Recreation

Resource in wetland

Some of the world's most successful agricultural areas are wetlands that have been drained and converted to farmland for large-scale agriculture. [38] Large-scale draining of wetlands also occurs for real estate development and urbanization. [40] In contrast, in some cases wetlands are also flooded to be converted to recreational lakes or hydropower generation. [38] In some countries ranchers have also moved their property onto wetlands for grazing due to the nutrient rich vegetation. [40] Wetlands in Southern America also prove a fruitful resource for poachers, as animals with valuable hides such a jaguars, maned wolves, caimans, and snakes are drawn to wetlands. [40] The effect of the removal of large predators is still unknown in South African wetlands. [40]

Humans benefit from wetlands in indirect ways as well. Wetlands act as natural water filters, when runoff from either natural or man-made processes pass through, wetlands can have a neutralizing effect. [41] If a wetland is in between an agricultural zone and a freshwater ecosystem, fertilizer runoff will be absorbed by the wetland and used to fuel the slow processes that occur happen, by the time the water reaches the freshwater ecosystem there won't be enough fertilizer to cause destructive algal blooms that poison freshwater ecosystems. [41]

Bramiana Wetlands Bramiana Wetlands Ierapetra.JPG
Bramiana Wetlands

Non-natural causes of wetland degradation

To preserve the resources extracted from wetlands, current strategies are to rank wetlands and prioritize the conservation of wetlands with more environmental services, create more efficient irrigation for wetlands being used for agriculture and restricting access to wetlands by tourists. [40]


Groundwater flow paths vary greatly in length, depth and travel time from points of recharge to points of discharge in the groundwater system Groundwater flow.svg
Groundwater flow paths vary greatly in length, depth and travel time from points of recharge to points of discharge in the groundwater system

Water is an essential resource needed to survive everyday life. Historically, water has had a profound influence on a nation's prosperity and success around the world. [42] Groundwater is water that is in saturated zones underground, the upper surface of the saturated zone is called the water table. [43] Groundwater is held in the pores and fractures of underground materials like sand, gravel and other rock, these rock materials are called aquifers. [43] Groundwater can either flow naturally out of rock materials or can be pumped out. Groundwater supplies wells and aquifers for private, agricultural, and public use and is used by more than a third of the world's population every day for their drinking water. Globally there is 22.6 million cubic kilometers of groundwater available and only .35 million of that is renewable. [44]

Groundwater as a non-renewable resource

Groundwater is considered to be a non-renewable resource because less than six percent of the water around the world is replenished and renewed on a human timescale of 50 years. [45] People are already using non-renewable water that is thousands of years old, in areas like Egypt they are using water that may have been renewed a million years ago which is not renewable on human timescales. [44] Of the groundwater used for agriculture 16 to 33% is non-renewable. [46] It is estimated that since the 1960s groundwater extraction has more than doubled, which has increased groundwater depletion. [46] Due to this increase in depletion, in some of the most depleted areas use of groundwater for irrigation has become impossible or cost prohibitive. [47]

Environmental impacts

Overusing groundwater, old or young, can lower subsurface water levels and dry up streams, which could have a huge effect on ecosystems on the surface. [44] When the most easily recoverable fresh groundwater is removed this leaves a residual with inferior water quality. This is in part from induced leakage from the land surface, confining layers or adjacent aquifers that contain saline or contaminated water. [47] Worldwide the magnitude of groundwater depletion from storage may be so large as to constitute a measurable contributor to sea-level rise. [46]


Currently, societies respond to water-resource depletion by shifting management objectives from location and developing new supplies to augmenting conserving and reallocation of existing supplies. [47] There are two different perspectives to groundwater depletion, the first is that depletion is considered literally and simply as a reduction in the volume of water in the saturated zone, regardless of water quality considerations. [47] A second perspective views depletion as a reduction in the usable volume of fresh groundwater in storage. [47]

Augmenting supplies can mean improving water quality or increasing water quantity. Depletion due to quality considerations can be overcome by treatment, whereas large volume metric depletion can only be alleviated by decreasing discharge or increasing recharge. [47] Artificial recharge of storm flow and treated municipal wastewater, has successfully reversed groundwater declines. [47] In the future improved infiltration and recharge technologies will be more widely used to maximize the capture of runoff and treated wastewater.

Resource scarcity as a moral problem

Researchers who produced an update of the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth report find that many people deny the existence of the problem of scarcity, including many leading scientists and politicians. [48] This may be due, for example, to an unwillingness to change one's own consumption patterns or to share scarce natural resources more equally, or to a psychological defence mechanism.

The scarcity of resources raises a central moral problem concerning the distribution and allocation of natural resources. Competition means that the most advanced get the most resources, which often means the developed West. The problem here is that the West has developed partly through colonial slave labour and violence and partly through protectionist policies, which together have left many countries underdeveloped. [49] The moral problem is, in the light of such a history, which has made different countries differently developed and competitive, can competition be considered to distribute resources in a fair and equitable way?

In the future, international cooperation in sharing scarce resources will become increasingly important. Where scarcity is concentrated on the non-renewable resources that play the most important role in meeting needs, the most essential element for the realisation of human rights is an adequate and equitable allocation of scarcity. Inequality, taken to its extreme, causes intense discontent, which can lead to social unrest and even armed conflict. Many experts believe that ensuring equitable development is the only sure way to a peaceful distribution of scarcity.

Another approach to resource depletion is a combined process of deresourcification and resourcification where one strives to putting an end to the social processes of turning into resources what is unsustainable, for example, non-renewable natural resources, and develop instead processes of turning sustainable things into resources, for example, renewable human resources. [50]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Natural resource</span> Resources that exist without actions of humankind

Natural resources are resources that are drawn from nature and used with few modifications. This includes the sources of valued characteristics such as commercial and industrial use, aesthetic value, scientific interest, and cultural value. On Earth, it includes sunlight, atmosphere, water, land, all minerals along with all vegetation, and wildlife.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Non-renewable resource</span> Class of natural resources

A non-renewable resource is a natural resource that cannot be readily replaced by natural means at a pace quick enough to keep up with consumption. An example is carbon-based fossil fuels. The original organic matter, with the aid of heat and pressure, becomes a fuel such as oil or gas. Earth minerals and metal ores, fossil fuels and groundwater in certain aquifers are all considered non-renewable resources, though individual elements are always conserved.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Renewable resource</span> Natural resource that is replenished relatively quickly

A renewable resource, also known as a flow resource, is a natural resource which will replenish to replace the portion depleted by usage and consumption, either through natural reproduction or other recurring processes in a finite amount of time in a human time scale. When the recovery rate of resources is unlikely to ever exceed a human time scale, these are called perpetual resources. Renewable resources are a part of Earth's natural environment and the largest components of its ecosphere. A positive life-cycle assessment is a key indicator of a resource's sustainability.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Exploitation of natural resources</span> Use of natural resources for economic growth

The exploitation of natural resources is the use of natural resources for economic growth, sometimes with a negative connotation of accompanying environmental degradation. Environmental degradation can result from depletion of natural resources, this would be accompanied by negative effects to the economic growth of the effected areas.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hubbert peak theory</span> One of the primary theories on peak oil

The Hubbert peak theory says that for any given geographical area, from an individual oil-producing region to the planet as a whole, the rate of petroleum production tends to follow a bell-shaped curve. It is one of the primary theories on peak oil.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Environmental degradation</span> Any change or disturbance to the environment perceived to be deleterious or undesirable

Environmental degradation is the deterioration of the environment through depletion of resources such as quality of air, water and soil; the destruction of ecosystems; habitat destruction; the extinction of wildlife; and pollution. It is defined as any change or disturbance to the environment perceived to be deleterious or undesirable.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Human impact on the environment</span> Impact of human life on Earth and environment

Human impact on the environment refers to changes to biophysical environments and to ecosystems, biodiversity, and natural resources caused directly or indirectly by humans. Modifying the environment to fit the needs of society is causing severe effects including global warming, environmental degradation, mass extinction and biodiversity loss, ecological crisis, and ecological collapse. Some human activities that cause damage to the environment on a global scale include population growth, overconsumption, overexploitation, pollution, and deforestation. Some of the problems, including global warming and biodiversity loss, have been proposed as representing catastrophic risks to the survival of the human species.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Carbon sequestration</span> Storing carbon in a carbon pool (natural as well as enhanced or artificial processes)

Carbon sequestration is the process of storing carbon in a carbon pool. The process acts like a carbon sink, meaning it removes a greenhouse gas, or a precursor of a greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. Carbon sequestration is a naturally occurring process but it can also be enhanced or achieved with technology, for example within carbon capture and storage projects. There are two main types of carbon sequestration: geologic and biologic.

Peak water is a concept that underlines the growing constraints on the availability, quality, and use of freshwater resources. Peak water was defined in 2010 by Peter Gleick and Meena Palaniappan. They distinguish between peak renewable, peak non-renewable, and peak ecological water to demonstrate the fact that although there is a vast amount of water on the planet, sustainably managed water is becoming scarce.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Water resources</span> Sources of water that are potentially useful

Water resources are natural resources of water that are potentially useful for humans, for example as a source of drinking water supply or irrigation water. 97% of the water on the Earth is salt water and only three percent is fresh water; slightly over two thirds of this is frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps. The remaining unfrozen freshwater is found mainly as groundwater, with only a small fraction present above ground or in the air. Natural sources of fresh water include surface water, under river flow, groundwater and frozen water. Artificial sources of fresh water can include treated wastewater and desalinated seawater. Human uses of water resources include agricultural, industrial, household, recreational and environmental activities.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sustainability measurement</span>

Sustainability measurement are tools and methods that attempt to measure the degree of sustainability of processes, products, services, businesses and so forth. Sustainability is difficult to quantify, perhaps even immeasurable. The metrics used to try and measure sustainability involve the sustainability of environmental, social and economic domains, and are still evolving. They include indicators, benchmarks, audits, sustainability standards and certification systems like Fairtrade and Organic, indexes and accounting, as well as assessment, appraisal and other reporting systems. They are applied over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. Some of the widely used sustainability measures include corporate sustainability reporting, Triple Bottom Line accounting, World Sustainability Society, and estimates of the quality of sustainability governance for individual countries using the Environmental Sustainability Index and Environmental Performance Index. The UN Human Development Index and the ecological footprints are methods to monitor sustainable development over time.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Index of environmental articles</span>

The natural environment, commonly referred to simply as the environment, includes all living and non-living things occurring naturally on Earth.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Environmental issues</span> Concerns and policies regarding the biophysical environment

Environmental issues are disruptions in the usual function of ecosystems. Further, these issues can be caused by humans or they can be natural. These issues are considered serious when the ecosystem cannot recover in the present situation, and catastrophic if the ecosystem is projected to certainly collapse.

The environmental impact of agriculture is the effect that different farming practices have on the ecosystems around them, and how those effects can be traced back to those practices. The environmental impact of agriculture varies widely based on practices employed by farmers and by the scale of practice. Farming communities that try to reduce environmental impacts through modifying their practices will adopt sustainable agriculture practices. The negative impact of agriculture is an old issue that remains a concern even as experts design innovative means to reduce destruction and enhance eco-efficiency. Though some pastoralism is environmentally positive, modern animal agriculture practices tend to be more environmentally destructive than agricultural practices focused on fruits, vegetables and other biomass. The emissions of ammonia from cattle waste continue to raise concerns over environmental pollution.

At the global scale sustainability and environmental management involves managing the oceans, freshwater systems, land and atmosphere, according to sustainability principles.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mire</span> Wetland terrain without forest cover, dominated by living, peat-forming plants

A mire, peatland, or quagmire is a wetland area dominated by living peat-forming plants. Mires arise because of incomplete decomposition of organic matter, usually litter from vegetation, due to water-logging and subsequent anoxia. All types of mires share the common characteristic of being saturated with water, at least seasonally with actively forming peat, while having their own ecosystem. Like coral reefs, mires are unusual landforms that derive mostly from biological rather than physical processes, and can take on characteristic shapes and surface patterning.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Deforestation and climate change</span> Relationship between deforestation and global warming

Deforestation is a primary contributor to climate change. Land use changes, especially in the form of deforestation, are the second largest anthropogenic source of atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions, after fossil fuel combustion. Greenhouse gases are emitted during combustion of forest biomass and decomposition of remaining plant material and soil carbon. Global models and national greenhouse gas inventories give similar results for deforestation emissions. As of 2019, deforestation is responsible for about 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon emissions from tropical deforestation are accelerating. Growing forests are a carbon sink with additional potential to mitigate the effects of climate change. Some of the effects of climate change, such as more wildfires, may increase deforestation. Deforestation comes in many forms: wildfire, agricultural clearcutting, livestock ranching, and logging for timber, among others. The vast majority of agricultural activity resulting in deforestation is subsidized by government tax revenue. Forests cover 31% of the land area on Earth and annually 75,700 square kilometers of the forest is lost. According to the World Resources Institute, there was a 12% increase in the loss of primary tropical forests from 2019 to 2020. Mass deforestation continues to threaten tropical forests, their biodiversity, and the ecosystem services they provide. The main area of concern of deforestation is in tropical rain forests since they are home to the majority of the planet's biodiversity.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fresh water</span> Naturally occurring water with low amounts of dissolved salts

Fresh water or freshwater is any naturally occurring liquid or frozen water containing low concentrations of dissolved salts and other total dissolved solids. Although the term specifically excludes seawater and brackish water, it does include non-salty mineral-rich waters such as chalybeate springs. Fresh water may encompass frozen and meltwater in ice sheets, ice caps, glaciers, snowfields and icebergs, natural precipitations such as rainfall, snowfall, hail/sleet and graupel, and surface runoffs that form inland bodies of water such as wetlands, ponds, lakes, rivers, streams, as well as groundwater contained in aquifers, subterranean rivers and lakes. Fresh water is the water resource that is of the most and immediate use to humans.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sustainable Development Goal 15</span> 15th of 17 Sustainable Development Goals to protect life on land

Sustainable Development Goal 15 is about "Life on land". One of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals established by the United Nations in 2015, the official wording is: "Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss". The Goal has 12 targets to be achieved by 2030. Progress towards targets will be measured by 14 indicators.


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Further reading