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The challenge

Natural resources in a global economy

All economic activity and improvements in human development depend on the availability of natural resources.

The Global Materials Flows database encompasses 40 years (1970–2010) of data from every country in the world. ©  iStockphoto

For example, biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores and industrial minerals are all crucial for production, infrastructure and consumption.

Just how many resources are consumed by the global economy used year by year, and how efficiently these resources are used for economic and development gains has been widely unknown.

Despite the indisputable importance of natural resources, no authoritative information is available which captures the global scale of natural resource use, resource productivity and its allocation to different economic activities. This information is crucial for policy-makers working toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Our response

Data on material use

We led a global consortium of leading research institutes to establish the first authoritative global database covering:

  • material extraction
  • trade in primary materials and
  • material footprint of consumption.

The Global Materials Flows database encompasses 40 years (1970–2010) of data from every country in the world.

With our collaborators from the Vienna University of Economics and Business, the German Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna, the University of Sydney and Nagoya University, we aggregated existing knowledge on global material flows and produced a comprehensive report to the UNEP International Resource Panel.

The report: Global Material Flows and Resource Productivity.

The results

Informed decisions for sustainable development

The Global Material Flows database is now being used  by many countries for policy planning and to monitor SDG objectives, enabling countries to assess their resource demand over time and their performance in resource productivity.

Previously, sustainability policy decision-making relied on a small set of economic indicators, such as GDP, employment and trade balance, which did not capture the complexity of sustainability issues. Now, governments are using satellite accounts for natural resource use side by side with economic accounts.

The new data in the Global Material Flows database is also informing policy-makers about emerging issues, such as import dependency of resources or increased consumption. Furthermore, they are using the data and indicators in policy statements and setting targets based on actual past trends as well as monitoring the progress of policy initiatives such as environmental taxes and regulations.

Perhaps most importantly, indicators are being used to monitor countries' progress against improvements in resource productivity and success in sustainable management of natural resources.

Historical information is also used to develop scenarios for future global demand of metals, minerals, biomass and fossil fuels. These scenarios provide information to policy makers, business leaders and investors to show the potential benefits of policies that aim to reduce resource use and increase human wellbeing.

The Global Material Flows database can be accessed through the UN Environment International Resource Panel online data platform.

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