Brussels, September 27, 2012 -The
extraction, trade and consumption of materials, such as biomass,
minerals, metals and fossil fuels, are the main drivers of most
global environmental problems, according to a new report. Action
must be taken now to achieve the policy target of a global 'green
Over the last 30 years, global extraction of raw materials has
increased by 80%. The damage caused to ecosystems has already hit
unsustainable levels, with climate change, biodiversity loss,
desertification and soil erosion all linked to material
The new report reveals, for the first time, data on material
consumption, trade, consumption and productivity for all countries
of the world over three decades, from 1980 to 2008. The biggest
increase in consumption occurred in East Asia, rising from 4.7 to
21.1 billion tonnes, which is now twice as high as the United
Just 18 countries are responsible for
more than three quarters of global resource use while the 100
least-consuming countries only use 1.5%.
Using future projections of consumption, the report outlines the
need for action to reduce material use.
In a 'business as usual' scenario, in which all countries in the
developing world increase their economic development to equal OECD
countries, humans would require around 2.7 times more materials in
2050 than at present (180 compared to 67 billion tonnes).
Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels would increase from 30
to 78 billion tonnes and water required for agriculture from 182 to
327 trillion litres.
The alternative to 'business as usual' is for all countries to
develop highly resource-efficient 'green economies', which allow
for economic growth while limiting environmental impacts from
One strategy is to base future development on current 'best
practice' countries. For example, if all countries follow the
examples set by China and Italy for biomass use, Switzerland,
Sweden and Iceland for renewable energy, Japan for metal use and
the Netherlands and the UK for mineral use, their projected global
material use could be just 93 billion tonnes by 2050.
Iron, gold, sand, coal, oil, wood, rice - and many
more belong to the natural resources, which build the base of the
economic well-being of modern consumer
societies. Sustainability concepts use the
"ecological rucksack" for measuring the use of these resources as
an additional indicator besides the water rucksack, the
CO2-emissions and the land use. The "ecological rucksack" is the
main actor in this story - a global story about resource use,
economic growth and its decoupling.
Moving towards a global green economy requires policy targets to
be set for reductions in absolute levels of resource use plus vast
improvements in 'material productivity', which is the economic
value generated per tonne of material used.
But the questions of how to reduce material use, increase
material productivity and monitor progress towards a global green
economy present major challenges to policymakers.
For example, should a target for global resource use be equally
distributed worldwide? If so, at what level? Or should a global
target account for inequality of development in different
countries? If so, what level of inequality is socially
Furthermore, indicators of green growth currently do not account
for 'hidden' consumption, which is when a country outsources
material-intensive production to another country, thus reducing its
own resource use but not from a global perspective.
While this report provides a valuable overview of global
material consumption for policymakers, future research should focus
on including hidden material flows in consumption estimates to
obtain even more comprehensive indicators of resource use in order
to set appropriate targets, say the researchers.
The report can be downloaded here.
Source: Dittrich, M., Giljum, S., Lutter, S., Polzin C.,
(2012) Green economies around the world? Implications of resource
use for development and the environment. Vienna: Sustainable Europe
Research Institute. Available at:
http://seri.at/green-economies "Science for Environment
Policy": European Commission DG Environment News Alert Service,
edited by SCU, The University of the West of England,