Global Material Flows and Resource Productivity: Forty Years of Evidence
12 Pages Posted: 6 Aug 2018
Date Written: August 2018
The international industrial ecology (IE) research community and United Nations (UN) Environment have, for the first time, agreed on an authoritative and comprehensive data set for global material extraction and trade covering 40 years of global economic activity and natural resource use. This new data set is becoming the standard information source for decision making at the UN in the context of the post‐2015 development agenda, which acknowledges the strong links between sustainable natural resource management, economic prosperity, and human well‐being. Only if economic growth and human development can become substantially decoupled from accelerating material use, waste, and emissions can the tensions inherent in the Sustainable Development Goals be resolved and inclusive human development be achieved. In this paper, we summarize the key findings of the assessment study to make the IE research community aware of this new global research resource. The global results show a massive increase in materials extraction from 22 billion tonnes (Bt) in 1970 to 70 Bt in 2010, and an acceleration in material extraction since 2000. This acceleration has occurred at a time when global population growth has slowed and global economic growth has stalled. The global surge in material extraction has been driven by growing wealth and consumption and accelerating trade. A material footprint perspective shows that demand for materials has grown even in the wealthiest parts of the world. Low‐income countries have benefited least from growing global resource availability and have continued to deliver primary materials to high‐income countries while experiencing few improvements in their domestic material living standards. Material efficiency, the amount of primary materials required per unit of economic activity, has declined since around 2000 because of a shift of global production from very material‐efficient economies to less‐efficient ones. This global trend of recoupling economic activity with material use, driven by industrialization and urbanization in the global South, most notably Asia, has negative impacts on a suite of environmental and social issues, including natural resource depletion, climate change, loss of biodiversity, and uneven economic development. This research is a good example of the IE research community providing information for evidence‐based policy making on the global stage and testament to the growing importance of IE research in achieving global sustainable development.
Keywords: environmental policy, global material flows, industrial ecology, material flow accounting (MFA), resource productivity, trade
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation