A United Nations-backed global database that better captures the planet’s use of resources could hold the answer to countries effectively reducing their material footprint.

UNSW is part of the collaborative piece of research led by Australia’s national science agency CSIRO and the University of Sydney. Along with Vienna University and the United Nations Environment Programme, the team of researchers developed a tool – called the material footprint indicator – to track and investigate international material supply chains, and deliver credible, science-based information on individual countries’ material footprints.

The paper describing the platform was published in Nature Sustainability today, shortly after two major UN conferences on biodiversity and climate change cemented the need for world leaders to work together more effectively on planetary scale environmental problems.

The material footprint of a country is a consumption-based indicator, showing where all resources used by that country are coming from, globally. The team’s research shows that the global material footprint has quadrupled since 1970 and, while it has plateaued somewhat since 2014, it is not projected to decline significantly for decades.

“The material footprint indicator provides a comprehensive account of environmental pressure related to a country’s demand,” said UNSW co-author Professor Tommy Wiedmann. “It’s a counterweight to the omnipresent economic growth indicators of GDP (gross domestic product) or stock exchange rates that dominate public discourse and completely fail to address planetary environmental issues.”

Coordinating author Dr Heinz Schandl from CSIRO said the size of our global material footprint had consequences for climate mitigation, biodiversity, and waste and pollution outcomes.

“Net zero carbon can only be achieved if supported by a significant change in material composition reducing the share of carbon intensive materials, for example, in construction and transport,” he said.

Working towards the UN’s goals

The researchers behind the global web interface said the database was a robust solution that is needed to achieve two of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

SDGs 8.4 and 12.2 require countries to improve their sustainable consumption and production. For example, they suggest countries use materials responsibly by adopting a circular economy and reducing waste through avoidance, reuse, repairing or recycling.  

“Our new collaborative research platform enables countries to monitor their progress towards SDGs 8.4 and 12.2. by regularly producing, updating and reporting detailed global material footprint accounts – currently, there’s no international reporting facility that allows countries to do that,” said Prof. Wiedmann.

Lead author Professor Manfred Lenzen from the University of Sydney said final consumption of households in affluent countries had been the main driver of the world’s material footprint.

“But mid-income emerging economies are catching up rapidly and capital investments for infrastructure development increasingly dominate,” he said.

“Countries cannot produce an accurate measure of their footprint without domestic extraction data from every other country and representation of industry-to-industry relationships among countries.

“For two of the UN’s sustainable development goals there has been no way to measure how the global economy measures up. How can we reach goals when we can’t quantify our track record?” Prof. Lenzen said.

The indicator in action

The global interface builds on the existing Multi Regional Input Output (MRIO) table that enables countries to make their own material footprint assessment using national data in the context of global needs. It is hosted by the Industrial Ecology Laboratory at UNSW for the UN.

Drawing on the MRIO table, the Vienna University team will develop an interface that will be available to government agencies, statistical offices, academics, consultants and practitioners to support evidence-based decision making to reduce the material footprint of economic development.

“Australian governments can rely on the material footprint measure and the new global capability to inform resource productivity, recycling and clean energy, net zero and waste reduction efforts, placing Australia as a global leader to achieve decoupling of economic activity and living standards from adverse environmental and climate impacts,” Dr Schandl said.

“Humanity needs to shift away from material-intensive lifestyles,” Prof. Lenzen said.

“We need to maximise product lifetimes, repairability, and recyclability, while also reducing obsolescence and consumption that doesn’t enhance wellbeing.”