New Study Says Nations’ Raw ‘Material Footprints’ Are Much Larger Than Current Models Predict

By Philip Ross on September 3, 2013 4:07 PM EDT

material footprint
Countries' "material footprints" - the amount of raw material, like metal ores, they consume - are much larger than current estimates say they are. (Photo: Reuters)

The world consumes more raw materials than current measurement models reason, say researchers in Australia. They say present accounting metrics only measure the volume of raw materials extracted and used within a country along with the amount that is physically traded, but don't account for the raw materials used to process and export these resources.

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According to current figures, 70 billion metric tons of raw materials were taken from the earth in 2008, 10 billion tons of which exchanged hands across political borders. But researchers claim that number is too low. They say the amount of raw materials not being accounted for could be as high as three times the amount that is actually traded - that's about 30 billion tons of unmarked material.

Researchers from the University of New South Wales, the University of Sydney, the University of California, Santa Barbara and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization mapped the flow of raw materials across 186 of the world's economies using a new measurement tool they say is more accurate. They call it the "material footprint," which accounts for the amount of "lost" resources in addition to the amount traded and used domestically.

Their study referred to resources including metal ores, biomass, fossil fuels and construction materials.

"Humanity is using raw materials at a level never seen before with far-reaching environmental impacts on biodiversity, land use, climate and water," Tommy Wiedmann, Associate Professor of Sustainability Research at the UNSW School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and lead author of the study, said in a press release. "By relying on current indicators, governments are not able to see the true extent of resource consumption."

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