4 September 2013 — The amount of raw materials needed to sustain developed nation economies is much greater than current indicators suggest, an Australian study has found, putting lie to the claim there has been a relative decoupling of economic growth and resource use.
The study, involving researchers from UNSW, CSIRO, the University of Sydney and the University of California, Santa Barbara, and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that decoupling of natural resources from economic growth has been exaggerated, and in many cases is non-existent.
Using a new modelling tool and comprehensive indicators, researchers mapped 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 results confirm that pressures on raw materials do not necessarily decline as affluence grows.
The researchers said this demonstrates the need for policymakers 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,” said 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.
The paper found that 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 were used to enable the processing and export of these materials.
The researchers said that because these resources never leave their country of origin, they were not adequately captured by current reporting methods.
The study authors say when their “material footprint” indicators were factored in, relative decoupling – resource-use increasing at a slower rate than economic growth – was non-existent or smaller than reported.
Australia was reported as having the highest material footprint per capita (about 35 tons per person), while similar developed economies like the US, UK and Japan were around 25 tons per person.