Abandoned white goods on a street

New tool tracks countries' resource footprints

10 December 2021
Indicator measures individual countries' footprints.
Australian researchers have developed a tool to drive practical change in the world's global resource consumption through better understanding how many resources each country consumes.

Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, has teamed up with fellow researchers from the University of Sydney, UNSW Sydney, Vienna University and the United Nations Environment Programme to develop the material footprint indicator.

The tool tracks and monitors reporting done by each country on international material supply chains to deliver credible, science-based information on countries’ material footprints, and was described in Nature Sustainability today. The research shows the global material footprint has quadrupled since 1970 and it is not projected to decline significantly for decades.

A country’s material footprint captures the raw materials they consume domestically, showing where those resources come from globally. For example, materials used to make cars in Japan that are exported to Australia go into Australia’s material footprint.

Dr Heinz Schandl, CSIRO Group Leader for Urban and Industrial Transformations, is the paper’s coordinating author.

“The size of our global material footprint has consequences for climate mitigation, biodiversity, and waste and pollution outcomes,” Dr Schandl said.

“Net zero carbon can only be achieved if supported by a significant change in material composition reducing the share of carbon intensive materials, for example, in construction and transport.

“Australian governments can rely on the material footprint measure and the new global capability to inform resource productivity, recycling and clean energy, net zero and waste reduction efforts. This places Australia as a global leader to inform the decoupling of economic growth and living standards from adverse environmental and climate impacts.”

While the tool draws on existing data provided by each country, there is currently no international reporting facility providing global, detailed, continuous and timely information on countries’ material footprints that allows countries to undertake their own footprint analysis and compare it with other countries. 

The easy-to-use tool will enable government agencies, statistical offices, academics, consultants and practitioners to support evidence-based decision making to reduce the material footprint of economic development.

Head and shoulders photo of Manfred Lenzen

Professor Manfred Lenzen

Professor Tommy Wiedmann, Professor of Sustainability Research at UNSW, is a co-author on the paper.

“The material footprint indicator provides a comprehensive account of environmental pressure related to a country’s demand,” Prof Wiedmann said.

“It’s a counterweight to the omnipresent economic growth indicators of GDP (gross domestic product) or stock exchange rates that dominate public discourse and completely fail to address planetary environmental issues.”

As part of achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, countries can adopt a circular economy and reduce waste through reuse, recycling and waste avoidance.

High income countries such as China, America, United Kingdom and Australia tend to have the highest material footprint. Put simply, they have larger houses, more infrastructure and are bigger consumers.

Lead author Professor Manfred Lenzen from the University of Sydney said final consumption of households in affluent countries is the main driver of the world’s material footprint, with mid-income emerging economies catching up rapidly, particularly through investment in infrastructure development.

“For two of the UN’s sustainable development goals there has been no way to measure how the global economy measures up. How can we reach goals when we can’t quantify our track record?”Prof Lenzen said.

“Shifting away from material-intensive lifestyles requires maximising product lifetimes, reusability, repairability, and recyclability, while also reducing obsolescence and consumption that doesn’t enhance wellbeing.”

The tool is available at: https://ielab.info/resources/gloria

Image courtesy of Anthony Dean. 

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