11) In the period 2000 to 2005 DMC grew at an average annual growth rate of 3.7% (TPES: 2.7%) as compared to
1.8% (TPES: 1.4%) in the preceding decade.
Which countries or regions drive global growth in materials use?
Unfortunately, no country- or region-specific data on global materials use are available yet for
the observed period which constrains a more in-depth discussion of the contribution of
different world regions or country groups to the trends observed at the global level.
Nevertheless, some basic issues can be pointed out. Total global materials use in a given year
can be expressed as the product of population and metabolic rates (materials use per capita).
Thus, for a given material standard of life, population growth drives materials use: Population
increased considerably and continuously throughout the last century in all regions of the
world, but it grew by a factor of two faster in the so called “developing world” than in the
industrialized countries.12 In contrast, the metabolic rate increased much faster in the
industrialized countries. Available case studies for the long term development of material and
energy use in industrialized countries such as the USA (Matos and Wagner, 1998) and various
European countries (Schandl and Schulz, 2002; Krausmann et al., 2008c; Kuskova et al.,
2008; Gales et al., 2007; Bartoletto and Rubio, 2008) show that in the post WWII period per
capita resource use has been rapidly growing. After the oil price peaks in the 1970ies, growth
slowed down markedly and materials use in industrialized nations stabilized at a high percapita
level (see e.g. Eurostat, 2007a). In contrast, in developing countries such as India
(Lanz, 2008), the Philippines (Kastner, 2007), China (Eisenmenger et al., 2009) and many
Latin American countries (Russi et al., 2008, Gonzalez-Martinez and Schandl, 2008), during
most of the 20th century growth in materials use was predominantly driven by population
increase. Only in the last one to two decades a more pronounced growth of the metabolic rate
can be observed. Even today, the use of fossil fuels and minerals per capita and year is very
low in many countries of the South (Krausmann et al., 2008b).
This indicates that over the whole period, the contribution of the developing world to the
growth of global materials use was mostly due to rapidly growing population numbers. In
particular, this has driven global biomass extraction, but was much less responsible for the
observed surge in the use of non renewable materials. In contrast, industrial development and
post-war prosperity multiplied per-capita material and energy use in Europe, North America,
Japan and the USSR. In combination with the growing number of people in the industrialized
world, this has contributed disproportionately to the observed changes in the metabolic rate
and to the changes of composition of materials use at the global scale. Thus the steep increase
of metabolic rates and total volume of materials use after WWII as well as the relative
stabilization since the early 1970s – mainly reflect the trends within the industrial world. The
marked upturn of materials use since the year 2000, though, can be mainly attributed to a rise
in metabolic rates in China, India and several Latin American countries. Nevertheless, at the
beginning of the new millennium, the industrialized countries still dominate the global pattern
of materials use: In the year 2000, fully industrialized countries (inhabited by 15% of the
world population) were directly responsible for one third of global resource extraction13; this
imbalance is even more pronounced for key materials such as fossil energy carriers, industrial
minerals and metallic ores, where the share of the industrial countries is above 50%
(Krausmann et al., 2008b; SERI, 2008).
12) The population of industrial countries (here OECD countries plus Eastern European countries and the Soviet
Union and successor states) grew by a factor of 3 while that of all other countries by a factor of 6 (Maddison,
2008). Consequently, the share of the industrial countries in world population declined from 25% in 1900 to
15% in 2005.
13) Indirectly, their share may have been even larger, as many materially and energetically intensive production
processes have been externalized to developing countries but result in commodities used in industrial countries
(Fischer-Kowalski and Amann, 2001; Giljum and Eisenmenger, 2004).
Global materials use and environmental impacts
In the past century, the expansion of the global social metabolism has resulted in a significant
increase in human pressure on natural systems. The amount of materials used per unit of
global land area(14) and year has increased from 0.5 t/ha/yr in 1900 to currently more than 4.5
t/ha/yr. Many local and global environmental problems that emerged in the 20th century are
directly or indirectly related to the extraction and use of materials and changes in the size and
structure of social metabolism. The expansion of biomass extraction has driven large-scale
deforestation, a reduction of wilderness areas and biodiversity loss and an increase in land use
intensity which is related to soil degradation, groundwater contamination and groundwater
depletion. Mining activities and ore processing are associated with considerable toxic releases
and the use of ores and other industrial minerals in consumer goods produces large amounts
of often hazardous wastes. The total combustion of 500 Gt of fossil energy carriers in course
of the 20th century was a major contributor to global green house gas emissions and climate
change. The environmental effect of the extraction and use of bulk construction minerals is
mostly indirect. Their movement, processing and use require considerable amounts of energy.
The built infrastructure for which these materials are used contributes to soil sealing and
requires materials and energy for operation and maintenance. In this case qualitative
characteristics of the built infrastructure are more important than the sheer size of the
associated flow of materials. Last but not least, the growth in materials use leads to the
accelerated exploitation of unevenly distributed and limited stocks of mineral resources. This
contributes to increasing production costs and eventually physical scarcity and often causes
conflicts about access to resources and about resource prices within and between countries
(Martinez-Alier, 2002; Bunker and Ciccantell 2005). In most cases, the ones who suffer from
these conflicts are countries of the global south and the poorest fractions of society.
Clearly, the environmental pressures and sustainability problems associated with the
extraction and use of materials are extremely heterogeneous. They differ largely by material
and vary over time with technological change. Aggregate materials use indicators as those
discussed in this paper can not capture the full environmental effect of shifts in the
composition of materials use or of technological fixes. But even though there is no simple one
to one relation between aggregate materials use and environmental deterioration, the size and
composition of materials use serves as a proxy for environmental pressures resulting from
The last century witnessed an eightfold multiplication of the size of the global social
metabolism and a transition from the dominance of renewable biomass towards mineral
materials. Materials use has reached a size which matches material flows in ecosystems and
continues to grow. In the past century, materials use grew at a smaller rate than GDP, and
material productivity continuously improved at an average rate of 1% per year. By the
centennial perspective, it is evident that relative dematerialization is a standard feature of
economic development. Nevertheless, this dematerialization and these productivity gains did
not translate into reductions of materials use. What can we expect for the future of global
materials use? During the last century, it has been a combination of global population growth
and first rising and then stabilizing per-capita materials use of industrial countries that has
driven global materials use. In the most recent past, per-capita resource use in newly
14) Global land area excluding Greenland and Antarctica (Haberl et al. 2007).
industrializing country like China, India, Mexico or Brazil started to rise, while the world’s
least developed countries are only now beginning the transition towards an industrial type
social metabolism. With global economic development continuing in a business-as-usual
mode and a projected population growth of 30-40% until 2050 (UN, 2007b; Lutz et al., 2004),
we should expect another sharp rise in global material extraction. A reduction of global
materials use or at least stabilization at the current level will require major reductions in
metabolic rates, above all in industrialized countries. Gains in the efficiency of materials use
could contribute to a decoupling of economic growth and materials and energy use but this
requires effective strategies to avoid rebound effects (Herring 2004), which in the past century
have counterbalanced the effect of efficiency gains on material use.
In view of the need to substantially de-carbonize social metabolism (or else face major threats from climate change), an alarming decline of global remains of wilderness and biodiversity, and with multiple scarcities coming into vision (available cropland, fish stocks, freshwater, fossil oil and gas, various metal ores), it does not seem so likely that by the end of the current economic crisis there will be a return to an economic business-as-usual mode. Even if everybody would strive for an American way of life for themselves or their children in the future, it is hard to believe that this is going to succeed. So may be the current economic crisis, willingly or not, provides with an opportunity for a strategic withdrawal from
overconsumption instead of taking the risk, that finally humanity has to accept a full defeat.
This research was funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) project P21012-G11 and draws on research from the FWF funded project P20812-G11. We would like to thank three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.
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