The University of Arizona

Cumulative material flows provide indicators to quantify the ecological debt

Andreas Mayer, Willi Haas


There is ample evidence that an unabated growth in material consumption is likely to pass the earth system's source and sink capacities. In the face of limited resources, distributional questions increasingly gain importance. Material flow accounting is a methodological tool to trace biophysical patterns of disproportionate resource consumption across countries and the debt towards the environment, other parts of the world, and towards future generations through the excessive consumption of natural resources. At the core of this article, we address different developments of material use for individual countries and world regions from 1950 to 2010. During this phase, fossil fuel-based industrialization triggered an unprecedented growth in material consumption, mainly in the wealthy world regions of Europe, Australia, North America, and partly in the countries of the former Soviet Union, while low resource consumption persists in other regions. We thus calculated cumulative resource use from 1950 to 2010 to show the extent of this wealth built up upon countries' own resources, or through imports from other countries or world regions. We use the degree of net-import dependency of individual countries as a proxy for the ecological debt, and relate it to the domestic resource extraction in a country. Our observations show that there was a highly uneven distribution of resource extraction and use in the 60 years analyzed, which has important implications for future global resource policies.

Keywords: Ecological debt, material flow accounting, international trade, global resource use

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