A comprehensive set of resource use indicators from the micro to the macro level

Giljum, S., Burger, E., Hinterberger, F. & Lutter, S.

Due to growth of world population, continued high levels of consumption in the developed world, combined with the rapid industrialisation of countries such as China, India and Brazil, worldwide demand on natural resources and related pressures on the environment are steadily increasing. Renewable resources, and the ecological services they provide, are at great risk of degradation and collapse. The depletion of these ecological assets is serious, as human society is embedded within the biosphere and depends on ecosystems for a steady supply of the basic requirements for life: food, water, energy, fibres, waste sinks, and other services. At the same time, extraction of many non-renewable resources is already reaching or near a peak; some authors even describe today’s situation as “peak everything”.

Since the mid-1980s, a certain type of environmental problem became increasingly important, associated with global changes in production, trade and consumption patterns. These problems are more difficult to address, as they are complex, international or even global in scope, and involve multi-dimensional cause-effect-impact relationships and time-lags. Issues such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, land cover conversion and high levels of energy and resource consumption are part of this new type of environmental problems. These problems are more closely related to the overall volume (or scale) of economic activities than a result of the specific potential for environmental harm of single substances. As evidence illustrates, Europe has performed much worse in this regard: many species are threatened by extinction, fish stocks are depleted, water reserves shrink, overall waste volumes have been growing, urban sprawl transforms fertile land into sealed areas, valuable soil is lost through erosion, energy consumption grows, and Europe is far away from achieving a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).

Given this serious situation, it is necessary to develop systems which measure resource use as well as its environmental, economic, and social impacts through appropriate indicators. What is not measured often gets ignored in policy processes. While standards for measuring greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) have been developed within the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC), such standards on the international level are only beginning to be introduced for the issue of measuring resource use.

Based on a review of existing resource use indicators, this paper suggests a consistent and comprehensive set of resource use indicators. The indicator set comprises the resource input categories of abiotic and biotic materials, water, and land area and considers greenhouse gas emissions as the most important output stemming from natural resource use.

This set of indicators can be applied on all levels of economic activity: from the micro level of products and enterprises, via the meso level of economic sectors to the macro level of countries and world regions. The suggested set of indicators can be regarded as the general indicator framework, based on which more specific indicators (for example, on different environmental impacts) can be calculated.

The paper is structured as follows. Section 2 illustrates the links between different types of natural resource use and various environmental problems stemming from resource use. Section 3 lists criteria for the identification of resource indicator sets. In section 4 we briefly review existing resource use indicators and illustrate their interrelations, in particular, how different categories of resource use are considered in the various indicators. Section 5 provides the suggestion of the resource indicator set, explains the reasons for selecting these indicators and describes, how this indicator set should be applied in practice. Section 6 concludes.

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