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Australia’s consumption of natural resources – a report card

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…

Australia consumes less resources because we export a lot of them. But that doesn’t let us off the hook. Flickr/brainsnorkel

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” approach. Material footprint measures the total amount of primary resources required to service consumption in a country, whether those resources are found within the borders of that country or are imported from elsewhere.

Calculating the material footprint is more complex than calculating domestic material consumption because it requires the additional inputs of global material flows. We used global and national data on primary resource extraction, and a multi-regional global input-output table showing the material flow relationships around the world.

From that, we were able to attribute resource flows, wherever they originated from, to the point of final consumption. We calculated the result for the past two decades.

When viewed through the material footprint lens, the global picture of resource consumption looks very different.

What we see now is that Australia’s material footprint is actually around 35 tonnes of material per person - a vast improvement on 70 tonnes per person. The reason for this is that a significant proportion of the natural resources that are extracted and harvested within our boundaries are exported overseas for consumption elsewhere.

In contrast, the material footprint of the United Kingdom is around 24 tonnes per person and Japan’s material footprint is around 28 tonnes per person. A significant proportion of goods and resources consumed in those countries are imported.

As a result, we can no longer say that the UK and Japan are making headway towards decoupling consumption from economic growth. In fact, their growing economies are still demanding greater and greater amounts of natural resources, and our data suggest that with every 10% increase in GDP the average national material footprint increases by 6%.

According to the material footprint measure, most OECD nations fit somewhere between the 25-35 tonnes per person mark. This gives us a much clearer forecast of how global resource consumption might change in the future, as the standard of living in developing nations approaches that currently enjoyed by those of us living in the industrialised world.

By 2050, a global population of 9 billion people would require an estimated 270 billion tonnes of natural resources to fuel the level of consumption we are used to in OECD countries. This is dramatic increase from 70 billion tonnes consumed in 2010. Global consumption of primary resources would be four times as large compared to today, leading to much larger environmental impacts as well.

While the picture for Australia’s consumption now looks a little less bloated, we still consume more resources per person than most other nations on earth. For example, and emerging nation like India would consume about 5 tonnes per person, while the US and Japan would consume about 28 tonnes. Australia is still probably one of the highest consumers.

This is largely thanks to our resource-intensive lifestyle of large houses with poor energy efficiency, large travel distances, significant amounts of food waste, and a diet heavy in meat and dairy products. These factors alone account for much of the difference in consumption between Australia and Japan.

So while the material footprint story reveals that the Australian economy is not nearly as resource-hungry as we have been led to believe previously, it does show that we have significant room for improvement in order to achieve an low-carbon, resource efficient economy.

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16 Comments sorted by

  1. Marc Richard Lachance

    Warehouse Manager

    Gentlemen;
    Thank you for the article.
    I'm curious: what is the net global resource consumption in tonnes?
    Has this total changed over time? What is Australia's share of this total?
    I would presume this total - projected over time - would indicate what might be available in future, and just how painful re-allocation of shares in it, by nation, might turn out to be...

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    1. Heinz Schandl

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Marc Richard Lachance

      Global resource consumption - crops, timber, metal ores, fossil fuels and construction minerals - has grown from 25 billion tonnes in 1970 to currently 70 billion tonnes. Growth of global resource use has increasingly been driven by consumption and the transition from agricultural to industrial metabolism in many developing countries. The large number of new middle class consumers is going to grow further which would result in massive growth in global resource consumption contributing to accelerating environmental change. In such a situation, investing in decoupling of resource use and human development is an important priority.

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  2. Mark McGuire

    climate consensus rebel

    The material footprint is an interesting concept. Is it the missing 'something' from traditional analysis of international consumption of natural resources? When looking at 'critical' factors, food, and the underlying climate science might be a problem.
    How so? The idea of a 'low carbon (sic) economy" seems a antithesis to observed reality. Note the Climate Commission, 2010 The Critical Decade, Climate Change Impacts for South Australia, "#2. Changing rainfall patterns, combined with higher temperatures…

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  3. Colin Mackay

    logged in via Facebook

    The link to the article doesn't seem to work?

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    1. Heinz Schandl

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Colin Mackay

      Sorry everyone,the time difference between Australia and the US must mean that the paper is not up on the web and hence the link not working. We will send the paper to everyone who has commented by e-mail.

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  4. Michael Lardelli

    logged in via Facebook

    Thanks for an interesting article. The idea that economic growth could be decoupled from growth in resource use is an obvious fantasy but is used as an excuse by conventional economists to justify continuation of a business-as-usual approach. Conventional economics seems to be mainly an exercise in making up stories that allow elites to continue their current selfish behaviour.

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  5. Nicky Grigg

    Research scientist in environmental dynamics at CSIRO

    Thanks so much for your article and useful research. What are the prospects for this kind of analysis contributing to an accreditation process, so that for any item on the market we can readily access information about its material footprint and use this information to distinguish apparently similar products from one another? And from the work you have done already can you offer some useful, non-obvious rules of thumb that readily allow people to create a lower material footprint lifestyle for themselves? There's a general message that material footprint grows with household expenditure, so a starting rule of thumb is simply to reduce expenditure - especially expenditure of material 'stuff' - but have you come across any particularly counter-intuitive findings?

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    1. Thomas Wiedmann

      Associate Professor at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Nicky Grigg

      Hi Nicky,

      This particular study looked at a fairly aggregated set of raw materials only and wouldn't be directly suited to distinguish different brands of the same product type. Some work is being done for other types of product footprints (carbon, ecological, water,…). For example, there are three product carbon footprint standards (PAS2050, GHG Protocol, and ISO14067) but nothing comparable for the material footprint of products. The method we used could be further developed to accommodate this…

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  6. Mark Johnston

    Analyst

    Thanks also for a fine article. I wonder if the material use methodology includes a factor for recyling / resource reuse (such as waste to energy etc)?
    It would be interesting to know if particularly high performance in the recycling sphere by any country made at least some contribution to combatting the correlation between GDP growth and material use. I look forward to the full paper.

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    1. Thomas Wiedmann

      Associate Professor at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Mark Johnston

      Hi Mark, we have used data for the domestic extraction of raw materials only, so this doesn't include recycling/reuse directly. The only way this would show up is in a reduced demand for virgin materials. Interesting question for a follow-up study...

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  7. Nick Hoffman

    Geoscientist

    How about we stop the distortion of measuring per capita and measure per square km? That way resource-rich and low populated countries get the credit for not being overpopulated and under-resourced.

    The whole reason that Australia avoided a recession in the GFC is that we are not over-leveraged, over-stressed, and over-populated. Even when the price of resources wend down, there were still enough for the number of people who depend on them. In Europe and USA, that is not true.

    BTW. by this measure, US, China, and India don't look too bad either, but Korea, japan, The Industrial heart of Europe - shocking. And the worst in the world per square km? - Singapore

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  8. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    Australia only has about 50 years of biocapacity left before biocapacity reaches zero.

    http://awsassets.wwf.org.au/downloads/mc079_country_factsheet_australia_living_planet_report_2012_15may12.pdf

    So if there is a new way of measuring natural resource consumption in Australia, (such as described in this article) then the consumption measurement should be compared to the natural resources that are left, and how many years people can continue to live in the country.

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  9. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    Many of those commenting on Australia's use of resources live in two universe's:

    Universe 1 - Call for Australia to be a low carbon nation.
    Universe 2 - Click Buy Tickets on JetStar website so they can burn JetA1 fossil fuel to fly to Europe for a holiday.

    And that, I am afraid, is a universal truth.

    Gerard Dean

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