The global metabolic transition: Regional patterns and trends of global material flows, 1950--2010

Since the World War II, many economies have transitioned from an agrarian, biomass-based to an industrial, minerals-based metabolic regime. Since 1950, world population grew by factor 2.7 and global material consumption by factor 3.7-71 Gigatonnes per year in 2010. The expansion of the resource base required by human societies is associated with growing pressure on the environment and infringement on the habitats of other species. In order to achieve a sustainability transition, we require a better understanding of the currently ongoing metabolic transition and its potential inertia. In this article, we present a long-term global material flow dataset covering material extraction, trade, and consumption of 177 individual countries between 1950 and 2010. We trace patterns and trends in material flows for six major geographic and economic country groupings and world regions (Western Industrial, the (Former) Soviet Union and its allies, Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Sub-Saharan Africa) as well as their contribution to the emergence of a global metabolic profile during a period of rapid industrialization and globalization. Global average material use increased from 5.0 to 10.3 tons per capita and year (t/cap/a) between 1950 and 2010. Regional metabolic rates range from 4.5 t/cap/a in Sub-Saharan Africa to 14.8 t/cap/a in the Western Industrial grouping. While we can observe a stabilization of the industrial metabolic profile composed of relatively equal shares of biomass, fossil energy carriers, and construction minerals, we note differences in the degree to which other regions are gravitating toward a similar form of material use. Since 2000, Asia has overtaken the Western Industrial grouping in terms of its share in global resource use although not in terms of its per capita material consumption. We find that at a sub-global level, the roles of the world regions have changed. There are, however, no signs yet that this will lead to stabilization or even a reduction of global resource use.

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