Events & Media

Study Reveals Nations' True Resource Consumption
Sangwon Suh and co-authors uncover extensive unaccounted-for trade-related resource use

Sept. 9, 2013

Santa Barbara, CA — The amount of raw materials needed to sustain the economies of developed countries is significantly greater than presently thought, a new study co-authored by Bren School associate professor Sangwon Suh has revealed.

Sangwon Suh

The study, for which Suh teamed with researchers from Australia's University of New South Wales (USNW) and University of Sydney, as well as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) — Australia's national science agency — was published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Its central finding is that the decoupling of natural resources from economic growth — that is, increasing economic production without a corresponding increase in natural resource use — has been exaggerated.

Using a new modeling tool and more comprehensive indicators, the team was 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.

“By relying on current indicators, governments are not able to see the true extent of resource consumption,” says lead author Tommy Wiedmann, Associate Professor of Sustainability Research at the UNSW School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

The key to this "blind spot" has to do with the fact that, as Wiedmann says, “Now more than ever, developed countries are relying on international trade to acquire their natural resources."

While internationally traded resources were counted previously in the footprint of nations, resources used as part of the trading infrastructure and in the processing of those traded materials were not counted, leaving a significant amount of resource extraction and use outside accounting protocols.

"Previous decoupling metrics that use domestic materials consumption can paint a rosier picture on the progress of decoupling, especially for developed nations," Suh said. "The paper found that what was previously believed to be the effect of decoupling is in large part a problem shifting through international trade."

For example, in 2008, the total amount of raw materials extracted globally was 70 billion metric tons – 10 billion tons of which were physically traded. The results show, however, that nearly three times as many resources as were traded (41% of total resource use, or 29 billion tons) were used just to enable the processing and export of these materials.

Because those resources never leave their country of origin, they are not adequately captured by current reporting methods, say the researchers, who have used a new indicator they refer to as the “material footprint” to more accurately account for these "lost’ resources.

“The study clearly demonstrates a need for policy-makers to consider new accounting methods to track raw material us," Wiedemann says. "And importantly, our team has now developed the tools to do this."

"This paper is not the firstto recognize the importance of imports and materials and resources consumption embodied in them, but it does provide a global view with time-series data that were not available before," Suh said.

Decoupling of raw material usage from economic growth is a major goal in moving toward a low-carbon economy and sustainable economic development.

Economy-wide accounting metrics currently used by certain governments and intergovernmental organisations, including the OECD, the European Union and the UN Environment Programme, account only for the volume of raw materials extracted and used domestically, and for the volume physically traded.

These indicators suggest that 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 decreased consumption over the past 20 years – something known as "absolute decoupling."

It turns out that this is a falsely "positive" outcome, for when the authors' “material footprint” indicators are factored in, decoupling achievements prove to be smaller than reported or even non-existent.

Wiedmann says that humans are using natural materials at a level never seen before, with far-reaching environmental impacts on biodiversity, land use, climate, and water, and that these impacts disproportionately affect poorer nations.

The study relates to metal ores, biomass, fossil fuels, and construction minerals.

Selected country findings:

In 2008 the Chinese economy had by far the largest material footprint (MF) in absolute values (16.3 billion tons), twice as large as that of the U.S. 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 past 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 standards of living and lower average levels of consumption in many developing countries are 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 U.S. 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 past two decades there appeared to be a relative decoupling of resource use, but 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 U.S., the U.K., Japan, EU27 and OECD.

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