By Heinz Schandl, Senior Science Leader and Thomas Wiedmann, Associate Professor at University of New South Wales
For some time Australians have been considered among the biggest consumers of natural resources in the world. According to previous studies, we each get through 70 tonnes of materials every year. This is way higher than other developed nations. But could something be influencing these figures?
Traditional analysis of international consumption of natural resources suggests countries such as Japan and the United Kingdom are consuming less as their economies grow, suggesting growth and resource use can be decoupled. Unfortunately, a closer look shows some countries are simply off-shoring the resource consumption they use to feed their growth.
Our new study shows something is missing from traditional analysis: the upstream natural resource requirements of imports and exports. With these included, the picture of national resource consumption changes dramatically.
Fossil fuels, minerals, ores, timber and food are critical to the global economy. The methods used so far to quantify natural resource use measure the flow of materials, energy, waste and emissions within a nation or region. This delivers an estimate for domestic material consumption: the amount of material and energy flow per person for that nation or region.
By this measure, Australia is one of the largest users of natural resources in the world. Japan has a domestic material consumption of around 10 tonnes per person, and the United Kingdom is even lower, at around 8 tonnes per person.
Measured this way, it seems reasonable to claim nations such as Japan and the UK are finally managing to decouple economic growth from resource consumption – something of a holy grail achievement as we face a resource-restricted future.
But the claim is based on misleading data. The domestic material consumption approach is flawed because it fails to account for two very important factors: the resource requirements of imports and exports.
This difference between consumption-based and territorial accounting is well known for greenhouse gas emissions. We know that you can count a country’s emissions either by looking at emissions generated in the country, or emissions generated in creating things that the country consumes. In our new paper published in PNAS, we now replicate this method for total use of primary resources.
This is known as the “material footprint