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September 06, 2013
Governments Overestimate Levels of Sustainable Development
    by Robert Kropp

By failing to account for materials extraction through international trade, developed nations provide a misleading picture of raw materials use.

It's not quite the equivalent of the corporate practice of greenwashing, but according to a new report the claims of sustainable development by many developed nations are inaccurate to significant degrees.

Entitled The material footprint of nations, the report analyzes resource productivity metrics currently in use and states, “Metrics on resource productivity currently used by governments suggest that some developed countries have increased the use of natural resources at a slower rate than economic growth (relative decoupling) or have even managed to use fewer resources over time (absolute decoupling).”

But in reality, according to the authors, “we find the contrary: Achievements in decoupling in advanced economies are smaller than reported or even nonexistent.”

The marked discrepancies, the authors continue, arise from the methods used by developed nations to determine resource productivity. The European Commission, for example, has proposed a metric consisting of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) divided by domestic material consumption. By resorting to such a metric, developed nations can point to reductions in raw materials produced domestically as evidence of sustainable development.

However, such a metric fails to account for the report's finding “that countries’ use of nondomestic resources is, on average, about threefold larger than the physical quantity of traded goods.” Forty percent of global raw materials were used for the export of goods and services.

“This truncation might mislead assessments of national resource productivity and supply security of natural resources as the increasing spatial separation of production and consumption in global supply chains leads to a shift of resource use and associated environmental pressures among countries,” the report continues.

“By relying on current indicators, governments are not able to see the true extent of resource consumption,” report co-author Thomas Wiedmann told BBC News. “The trade figure just looks at the physical amounts of material traded, but it doesn't take into account the materials that are used to produce these goods that are traded .”

“Pressure on natural resources does not relent as most of the human population becomes wealthier,” the report concludes. “This goal might be harder to achieve than previously thought as global affluence grows."


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