Sustainable economic development requires pulling off a difficult feat: increasing people’s wealth while also reducing their material impact on the planet. It’s not a trick society has mastered yet. But the world is apparently digging itself into a deeper hole than most experts ever imagined.
In the past, some measures have shown that richer nations have managed to grow wealth and reduce impact in certain scenarios. Economists call this feat the “decoupling” of wealth and consumption. But this might really be a red herring, according to a new analysis.
Researchers from the University of New South Wales, CSIRO, and the University of Sydney calculated a new measure they call the “material footprint” of 186 nations and published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently.
The researchers made a point to include the true resources that go into all of the goods that a country imports. That means not only the resources that make it into a finished product, but also the materials–from biomass to metal ores to fossil fuels–that go into enabling the complicated web of global trade. “It’s very similar to a carbon footprint,” says Tommy Wiedmann, the study’s lead author. “It’s exactly the same principle.”
“As an example you might think of Japan exporting cars to the U.S.,” Wiedmann explains to Co.Exist. The existing indicator measures consumption in terms of trade statistics, and trade statistics show that the U.S. consumes a certain tonnage of cars per year. “But further upstream in the production processes, somewhere in Japan or in another country there would be mining of iron ore to produce steel,” Wiedmann says. “Maybe you get one ton of steel out of 1,000 tons of iron ore, and this amount of material of iron ore is actually not recorded in trade statistics.”
They learned that a whopping two-fifths of all global raw materials were extracted for the purpose of exporting goods in 2008. Overlooking figures like this has allowed countries that are huge importers to seem like they’ve slowed their growing environmental footprints.
In the new rankings, China’s material footprint is the highest–twice as large as the U.S., which is in second place. Much of China’s resource consumption is linked to construction materials. But taking into account population size, Australia has the highest material footprint. Its per-person material footprint, at 35 tons a person, is more than double the average developing world nation. India’s is at the lower end at 3.7 tons per person. South Africa is the only country that has demonstrated “absolute” decoupling.
All industrialized nations show the same pattern: As GDP grew over the last decades, their material footprint grew in parallel. A common indicator that looks only at “domestic material consumption” is what previously showed a more optimistic (and incorrect) decoupling trend. The researchers write:
“As wealth grows, countries tend to reduce their domestic portion of materials extraction through international trade, whereas the overall mass of material consumption generally increases. With every 10% increase in gross domestic product, the average national MF increases by 6%. Our findings call into question the sole use of current resource productivity indicators in policy making.”
And it’s just going to get worse: “There have been some projections of how economic growth will develop in some Asian countries,” says Wiedman.” And some very rough estimates have suggested that if we continue on the path that we’ve been on for a while that by 2050 we will use up to four times as much [natural resources] as we currently use.”
Map and additional reporting by Sydney Brownstone