The material basis of the global economy

Lutter, S., Giljum, S. (2008)

Economic and thus human development have always been closely linked to the control and production of materials. In the past 20 years, several methods have been developed which allow a quantification of the use of natural resources by modern societies. Material Flow Accounting and Analysis (MFA) is one of the key methods and internationally recognised as an important tool for evaluating environmental policies.

In order to quantify the use of resources, SERI built up and maintains the only worldwide comprehensive data base on resource extraction, which comprises data for almost 200 countries, 270 types of resources, and currently a time series of 26 years (1980-2005). The complete aggregated data set is freely accessible on the website www.materialflows.net. Global resource extraction grew more or less steadily over the past 25 years, from 40 billion tons in 1980 to 58 billion tons in 2005, representing an aggregated growth rate of 45%. Due to simultaneously increasing world population numbers, the average resource extraction per capita remained almost stable, today amounting for nearly nine tons. Regarding material intensity, i.e. economic output per unit of domestic natural resource extraction, Europe is the most ‘ecoefficient’ region, while Africa produces the smallest economic output per domestic extraction.

Nonetheless, Europe’s share in worldwide resource extraction is 1.5 times higher than the share of the African continent and Europe is increasingly importing natural resources from other world regions.

Empirical studies as well as modelling results clearly indicate the need for international policies aiming for decoupling economic growth and resource use and the acceptance of global responsibility by all world regions. Through its work, SERI makes a valuable contribution to a better understanding of these correlations.

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