[ExI] The True Raw Material Footprint of Nations

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Mon Sep 23 06:21:01 UTC 2013


The True Raw Material Footprint of Nations

Sep. 2, 2013 — The amount of raw materials needed to sustain the economies of
developed countries is significantly greater than presently used indicators
suggest, a new Australian study has revealed.

Using a new modelling tool and more comprehensive indicators, researchers
were able to map the flow of raw materials across the world economy with
unprecedented accuracy to determine the true "material footprint" of 186
countries over a two-decade period (from 1990 to 2008).

The study, involving researchers from the University of New South Wales,
CSIRO, the University of Sydney, and the University of California, Santa
Barbara, was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences. It reveals that the decoupling of natural resources from economic
growth has been exaggerated.

The results confirm that pressures on raw materials do not necessarily
decline as affluence grows and demonstrates the need for policy-makers to
consider new accounting methods that more accurately track resource

"Humanity is using raw materials at a level never seen before with
far-reaching environmental impacts on biodiversity, land use, climate and
water," says lead author Tommy Wiedmann, Associate Professor of
Sustainability Research at the UNSW School of Civil and Environmental
Engineering. "By relying on current indicators, governments are not able to
see the true extent of resource consumption."

"Now more than ever, developed countries are relying on international trade
to acquire their natural resources, but our research shows this dependence
far exceeds the actual physical quantity of traded goods," says Wiedmann, who
worked at CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences when the research was undertaken.

In 2008, the total amount of raw materials extracted globally was 70 billion
metric tons -- 10 billion tons of which were physically traded. However, the
results show that three times as many resources (41% or 29 billion tons) were
used just to enable the processing and export of these materials.

The researchers say that because these resources never leave their country of
origin, they are not adequately captured by current reporting methods. They
have used a new indicator they call the "material footprint" to more
accurately account for these 'lost' resources and have developed tools that
could assist policy-makers in future.

Economy-wide accounting metrics (such as Domestic Material Consumption or
DMC) currently used by certain governments and intergovernmental
organisations, including the OECD, the European Union and the UN Environment
Programme, only account for the volume of raw materials extracted and used
domestically, and the volume physically traded.

These indicators suggest resource-use in wealthy nations has increased at a
slower rate than economic growth -- something known as relative decoupling --
and that other countries have actually seen their consumption decrease over
the last 20 years -- something known as absolute decoupling. (See figures).

Decoupling of raw material usage from economic growth is considered one of
the major goals en route to achieving sustainable development and a
low-carbon economy.

But the study authors say when their "material footprint" indicators are
factored in these achievements in decoupling are smaller than reported and
often non-existent.

The study relates to the following resources: metal ores, biomass, fossil
fuels and construction minerals.

Selected country findings:

In 2008 China had by far the largest material footprint (MF) in absolute
values (16.3 billion tons), twice as large as that of the US and four times
that of Japan and India. Sixty per cent of China's MF consists of
construction minerals, reflecting its rapid industrialisation and
urbanisation over the last 20 years.

Australia had the highest material footprint per capita (about 35 tons per
person), but because it is a prolific exporter of resources, it appears to
have a relative decoupling. Other developed economies (USA, Japan, UK) show
similar levels at around 25 tons per person.

Lower material standard of living and lower average level of consumption in
many developing countries is reflected in a footprint below 15 tons per
person, with India at the lower end at 3.7 tons per person.

In absolute values, the US is by far the largest importer of primary
resources embodied in trade and China the largest exporter. The largest
per-capita exporters of embodied primary materials -- in particular metal
ores -- are Australia and Chile.

All industrialised nations show the same typical picture over time: as GDP
grew over the last two decades there appeared to be a relative decoupling of
resource use as indicated by DMC (even absolute decoupling for the UK).
However, when measured by the material footprint indicator, resource use has
grown in parallel to GDP with no signs of decoupling. This is true for the
USA, UK, Japan, EU27 and OECD.

South Africa was the only country shown to have an absolute decoupling using
the MF indicator.
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