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Agriculture The amount of raw materials needed to sustain the economies of developed countries is significantly greater than presently used indicators suggest.
Image Credit: Copper Mine via Flickr CC

Published on September 10th, 2013 | by James Ayre

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Amount Of Raw Materials Needed To Sustain Economies Of Developed World Is Significantly Underestimated, Research Finds



The true raw material footprint of the world’s leading economies has been revealed thanks to new research — and the findings don’t bode well, the amount of raw materials necessary to sustain the economies of the developed world is considerably greater than previously thought, new research has revealed.

By utilizing a new modeling tool — along with new, more-comprehensive indicators — researchers have been 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).”

Essentially, what the research has revealed is that the supposed decoupling of natural resources from economic growth has been greatly exaggerated — economic growth is as dependent upon raw materials now as it always has been — deforestation, mining, fossil fuel extraction, etc, are all at all-time highs, along with the consumption of the materials/resources used to to power these activities.

The amount of raw materials needed to sustain the economies of developed countries is significantly greater than presently used indicators suggest. Image Credit: Copper Mine via Flickr CC

The amount of raw materials needed to sustain the economies of developed countries is significantly greater than presently used indicators suggest.
Image Credit: Copper Mine via Flickr CC

As the researchers note: “Pressures on raw materials do not necessarily decline as affluence grows and (this research) demonstrates the need for policy-makers to consider new accounting methods that more accurately track resource consumption.”

“Humanity is using raw materials at a level never seen before with far-reaching environmental impacts on biodiversity, land use, climate and water,” states 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,” continues Wiedmann, who worked at CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences when the research was undertaken.


The press release from the University of New South Wales continues:

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).

The decoupling of raw material/resource usage from economic growth is currently considered to be necessary for the achievement of a “sustainable development and a low-carbon economy.”

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

The new research factors in the following resources: metal ore, biomass, fossil fuels, and construction minerals.

Here are some highlights from the new research:

  • “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. 60% of China’s MF consists of construction minerals, reflecting its rapid industrialization and urbanization 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 industrialized 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.”

The new findings were just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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About the Author

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.



  • zdlax

    High and rising use of raw materials is not in and of itself unsustainable. The carrying capacity of Earth is much more a function of the sophistication of technology than population or resource use. Of course as it stands, the extractive technology today is far too wasteful to be sustainable.

    If we could “close the loop” in our industrial processes where we recycled near 100% of all matter and only brought in new resources into the fold as needed by a growing economy, then there would be much less hand wringing about resource scarcity.

    Resources aren’t really scarce. Neither is the potential of technology.
    What’s scarce is the political will and vision of those in power.

    • johnBas5

      There was an article somewhere about aluminium being almost 100% recycled.

      • Bob_Wallace

        I think it’s a lot lower than that. Probably closer to 50% with aluminum cans around 65%.

        Some day we may mine our landfills….

  • CarlMN

    While we struggle to deal with individual deaths due to obesity, heart problems, cancer, auto accidents, shootings, wars, humanity will die off in the footprint of consumption.

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