Despite increasingly vocal calls for large-scale reductions in material use and efforts to initiate a ‘circular economy’, there has so far been a limited decoupling between overall resource extraction and economic growth. This is particularly true if resource use is measured with the life cycle or consumption-based material footprint (MF) indicator, that allocates material extraction to final goods and services.
In this recent paper, the authors introduce the capital-augmented material footprint (CAMF) as a new metric for material use that includes all the materials embedded in capital goods. They note that understanding the role and use of capital is a prerequisite for designing measures to reduce global material use. Otherwise, they suggest, it will not be possible to achieve a truly circular economy, or to develop effective climate mitigation strategies.
This new indicator results in substantial increases in the material footprints of final consumption, particularly for mineral use. Data shows this increase was generally stronger in more developed countries and can be traced back to the additional capital-based material load of services, which are more dominant in these economies.
CONTINUED DEVELOPMENT, REDUCED CONSUMPTION?
As the authors reiterate in this paper, the question we ultimately face is whether society can continue to develop without a consequent dependence on material resources.
By introducing the capital-augmented material footprint (CAMF), they look to assess material usage more accurately and fully. They also explore how developing nations can potentially learn lessons from the past, and progress in a more efficient and less materially ‘expensive’ way.
Having analysed results for 49 countries and regions over the period 1995–2015, the study shows that for mineral use, about 50–60% of the total footprint of final consumption is embodied in capital goods, whereas for biomass, the figure is around 10%. The largest increase in material requirements was observed in non-OECD countries and in service sectors in general. More countries achieve relative and absolute decoupling when using the CAMF as an indicator of material use.
The study’s results underpin the need for comprehensive indicators when assessing options to decrease the impacts of consumption.
OECD countries’ per-capita material footprints are still much higher than for non-OECD countries, but the gap between them is narrowing for both approaches. Whereas non-OECD countries are steadily increasing their consumption across all material groups, OECD countries have managed to reverse the consumption trends for biomass, fossil fuels and metals. As a result, non-OECD countries have overtaken OECD countries during the analysed period regarding the total use of fossil fuels, metals and materials.
As economies mature, a smaller portion of economic activity is related to resource exploitation and more to services. The total use of materials (both for current and capital requirements) increased substantially more for non-OECD countries than for OECD countries, indicating that a certain saturation – or at least a slower growth – of material use can be expected upon reaching a certain development level. In other words, the authors expect to see a decoupling of material use from GDP – relative for most countries, but possibly absolute for some.
At a time when governments around the world are looking to kick-start economies, with large-scale, carbon-intensive infrastructure and homebuilding often the go-to options, the authors argue that focussing investment in people might produce better short and long-term outcomes – certainly so for material indicators, but potentially for other socio-economic outcomes.
They conclude that failing to include the materials embedded in services strongly underestimates their total impact. Using the new CAMF approach brings new important insights into recent studies showing that service sectors have achieved the largest reductions in CB material use.