Europe: Fails to decouple natural resource use and economic growth

by Brian Kenety

Brussels, 2 Apr 2001 (IPS) -- The European Union (EU) has failed to decouple economic growth from the intensified use of natural resources, thus increasing the burden on the global environment, says a new study produced for the European Environment Agency (EEA) in Copenhagen.

The study, undertaken by Germany’s Wuppertal for Climate, Environment and Energy Institute, indicates that EU countries had made little progress towards preventing economic growth from translating into higher natural resource use.

The EU’s “material requirements increased almost as fast as the expansion of its economy, indicating that it is not improving the efficiency of its resource use,” said the study, which examined data from 1985 to 1997 and presents comparable statistics on the 15 EU member states for the period of 1995 to 1997.  The study puts forth a new aggregated indicator for overall pressures on the environment: total material requirement (TMR). The TMR measures the mass turnover of all domestic and imported primary materials, except for air and water, that are extracted from nature to support human activities, including all resources required for industrial production, transport, energy and food supply.  It indicates the extent of environmental impacts associated with resource extraction, materials and energy use, and generation of emissions and waste.

The 37-page study also contains the results of the first calculation of the TMR of the EU comprising both extraction from domestic sources and imports along with their hidden flows, that is, those extractions which are not used further but nevertheless burden the environment, such as extraction waste. The aim of the study is to explore the usefulness of such an indicator to support policy-making by showing elaborated, concrete examples.

The study’s authors, Stefan Bringezu and Helmut Schutz, found that domestic extraction of resources within the EU declined from 1985 to 1997 by 13 percent.  Domestic extraction tends to use resources with higher resource efficiency.

Conversely, in the most recent period examined, requirements for resources from outside the EU increased by 11% from 1995 to 1997. Imported metals, minerals and agricultural products are associated with higher hidden flows per commodity than domestic production, “indicating a relatively higher burden to the environment of foreign countries,” said the authors.

No significant decoupling of the TMR and gross domestic product (GDP) occurred during these three years, the study found. It notes that foreign TMR is significantly influenced by the high “demand for luxury and precious commodities” within the EU.

EU countries’ predominant material requirements are fossil fuels, metals and minerals. Extraction of biomass - raw materials from plants and crops - and erosion of agricultural soil are also significant factors in the EU’s resource demands. The EU’s material requirements have increased almost as fast as the economy has expanded.

Between 1995 and 1997, the most recent year for which calculations have been made, the TMR rose by 3% from 18.1 billion tonnes to 18.7 billion tonnes. The increase was due entirely to increased materials imports, particularly of precious metal ores, whose extraction creates large volumes of mining waste.

The TMR grew by the same percentage on a per capita basis. Consequently, in 1997 around 50 tonnes of materials were extracted from the Earth to support the lifestyle of each of the EU’s 373 million citizens. This compares with a TMR of 45 tonnes per head in 1988, when the EU counted 12 members and a lower population of 323 million.

In Helsinki in July 1999, the environmental ministers of the EU agreed that targets and timetables should be set, where appropriate, for improving eco-efficiency in the different sectors and the development monitored with appropriate indicators. They agreed a net reduction in the use of natural resources was needed to bring economic growth in line with the Earth’s carrying capacity.

Accordingly, the decoupling of economic growth and resource use is one of the objectives of the EU’s current (6th) Environmental Action Programme. The study finds there is significant room for improvement, as the EU has made only limited progress towards improving the efficiency of its resource use - its so-called material productivity. The report is a contribution to the EEA’s work on developing leading indicators to monitor and benchmark the EU’s progress towards more environmentally sustainable development.

“At the same time as EU countries are criticising the US government for changing its policy over climate change, the report proves that the 15 EU member states are increasing their burden on the global environment,” said the EEA in a statement.

Bringezu and Schutz argue that in order to reduce global resource extraction by half, “industrial countries should increase the efficiency of overall primary resource requirements of energy and materials in the next 30 to 50 years by 4 to 10 times”.

As a proposal for target development, the factor-4-to-10 goal had been noted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) environmental ministers in 1996 and was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in 1997.

“In some of the [EU member states] it has stimulated political debate; for example, in Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, it has become part of political programmes, and in Austria and Finland, it is subject to specific research,” note the authors.

The study also found that within the context of integrated environmental and economic accounting, some EU member states - such as Austria, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Italy, Sweden and the United Kingdom - have started to monitor the use of natural resources more comprehensively and to relate this to economic performance and industrial sectors.

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