Global patterns of materials use: A socioeconomic and geophysical analysis

Human use of materials is a major driver of global environmental change. The links between materials use and economic development are central to the challenge of decoupling of materials use and economic growth (dematerialization). This article presents a new global material flow dataset compiled for the year 2000, covering 175 countries, including both extraction and trade flows, and comprising four major material categories: biomass, construction minerals, fossil energy carriers and ores/industrial minerals. First, we quantify the variability and distributional inequality (Gini coefficients) in international material consumption. We then measure the influence of the drivers population, GDP, land area and climate. This analysis yields international income elasticities of material use. Finally, we examine the coupling between material flows, and between income and material productivity, measured in economic production per tonne material consumed. Material productivity is strongly coupled to income, and may thus not be suitable as an international indicator of environmental progress — a finding which we relate to the economic inelasticity of material consumption. The results demonstrate striking differences between the material groups. Biomass is the most equitably distributed resource, economically the most inelastic, and is not correlated to any of the mineral materials. The three mineral material groups are closely coupled to each other and economic activity, indicating that the challenge of dematerializing industrial economies may require fundamental structural transformation. Our analysis provides a first systematic investigation of international differences in material use and their drivers, and thus serves as the basis for more detailed future work.

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