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Chasing Efficiency & Decoupling the truth

The Issue

It is common knowledge that resource use has increased exponentially in the last 50 years and humanity's metabolism is highly unsustainable. Current policy changes and solutions are ineffective as they are only chasing efficiency which is not exactly targeting the problem; stabilizing material use and trying to reach resource productivity is just going to delay the time it takes humans to exceed all planetary boundaries which does not actually solve the issue. This issue is not just an ecological or environmental problem but in fact, it is interdisciplinary. Because the developed countries have the autonomy to manipulate and control the power dynamics, the poor are even more vulnerable today; for instance, the per capita food production is declining in sub-saharan Africa, the number of undernourished people worldwide is increasing, one in three people are affected by water scarcity worldwide, half of the developing countries' urban population suffers from diseases associated with water and sanitation and much more. Most recent research done by UNEP and International Resource Panel suggests that decoupling and systems innovation are primary ways, which can establish a sustainable global economy.

Historical approach & Anthropocene

Steffen (2011) dictates that Anthropocene allows us to look at the human evolution within the context of the entire Earth history, which is necessary to understand the complexities of achieving a sustainable state of Earth and human development. Holocene started approximately 10,000 years ago and developed in four stages. Even though the development of sedentary lifestyle, villages and cities, creation of complex civilizations and early agricultural activities led to an increase in atmospheric Co2 concentrations, the increase was not that significant and the Earth system was still considered to be operating within the Holocene state (Steffen 2011). It is the Industrial revolution that led to rapid ecosystem changes. Accelerated increase in population, fossil fuel based manufacturing systems, production of goods and services led to steep increase in CO2 concentrations by the early 20th century which were above the upper limit of Holocene level (Steffen 2011). The mid 20th century is defined by the second stage of the Anthropocene; it was the starting of the Great Acceleration. The human population, the global economy, material consumption, foreign direct investment, tourism and global connectivity all increased rapidly and so did the impact on the environment, which led to unpleasant feedback loops (Steffen 2011). These factors led to exploitation of fisheries, conversion of mangrove forests to shrimp farms, tropical deforestation, rise in sea levels and increase in domesticated land (Steffen 2011). Although arguable, it has led to rise in northern hemisphere temperatures and floods. Additionally, increase in greenhouse gases has led to massive changes in ocean circulation; oceans' acidity levels have increased to such an extent that it puts pressure on calcifying oceanic organisms (Steffen 2011). These factors don't just have an impact on climate and ecosystem; they also have consequential impact on human health and Economy. In terms of human health, Folke (2011) dictates that existing diseases have become resurgent and increasing rates of famine have emerged. Within the economic framework, financial market shocks due to trade disruptions have increased.

Global Material use in 20th Century

Krausmann et. all, unlike Steffen who investigates human development within the context of earth history, provides an insight into the human development measured in terms of global material use in the 20th century. Krausmann et. all explains that the increasing of global population by a factor of 4 and increasing of GDP by a factor of 20 have led to massive changes in the society-nature relations in the 20th century. Because of industrialization, global material use has increased by a factor of 8 and currently, 60 billion tons (Gt) of materials per year is used (Krausmann 2009).

During the first half of the 20th century, materials use only grew at a modest pace because of two World Wars followed by economic crisis. DMC just grew by 1.2% per year, at a much slower pace than GDP growth (2.13% per year) but faster than the world population (0.98% per year) (Krausmann 2009). Materials use per capita grew by 0.2% per year (Krausmann 2009). After the WWII was the time period where rapid physical growth increased rapidly due to accelerated population and economic growth. The dominance of renewable biomass was replaced by mineral materials (Krausmann 2009). DMC increased by 3.3% per year, fossil fuels use by 4.5% and construction materials use by 6% a year. Materials use increased at a slower rate than the GDP but faster than population growth which resulted in an increased rate of materials use per capita (materials per capita doubled from 4.6 to 10.3 t/cap/year) (Krausmann 2009).

Current Material Flow Account

In order to revive a sustainable social metabolism, material flows need to be analyzed as they are deeply consequential to human survival and finite in terms of availability and productivity. The Sankey diagram of material flows allows us to analyse the material throughput, the spacial dimension of material flow from extraction to disposal, the impact of the flows within the framework of sustainability science and then embed the analysis into the development conflict. Willi Haas investigated how circular is the global economy by assessing material flows, waste production, and recycling in the world in 2005. He applied a socio-metabolic approach to asses the circularity of global material flows. All societal material flows were traced from extraction to disposal. Haas explains that in 2005, 58 gigatonnes per year (Gt/yr) or extracted raw materials and 4 Gt/yr of recycled material (processed materials) entered the global economy. 44% of these processed materials were used to provide energy (combustion, gaseous emissions and solid waste) and 6% of the processed materials left the socio-economic system (SES) as waste rock from ore processing (Hass 2015). 30 Gt/yr was included in the production process for material use out of which, 4 Gt/yr was used in goods with 1 year lifetime and 26 Gt//yr for more than 1 year lifetime. A total of 17 Gt/yr was added to stocks. 13 Gt/yr was the total EOL waste flow which is approximately one fifth of all material inputs. Only 4 Gt/yr (one third of waste flow) was recycled and the rest was disposed off to the environment (Hass 2015). In conclusion, the degree of circularity of the global economy (recycled materials over total processed material) is extremely low at 6% (Hass 2015). 66% of the processed materials leave the global economy as wastes and emissions and can only be recycled after longer periods of time (Hass 2015). If we include biomass into the cyclical flow, then the level of circularity comes out to be 37% globally however, biomass is usually considered as a new cyclical cycle. Haas concludes that there are two main reasons why the degree of circularity is so low. Firstly, 44% of the processed materials are used for the provision of energy and hence cannot be recycled. Secondly, socioeconomic stocks continue to grow at high rates (Hass 2015).

Decoupling, Trade and Development

UNEP's (2011) report mentions, the sustainable development approach needs to be decoupled from GDP because GDP itself depends on the increase of extracted resources. Other indicators are needed to paint a more balanced picture of development. That being said, we cannot completely eliminate GDP from the discourse either. UNEP explains that a sustainable economy entails decoupling of growth rates from rates of resource consumption and environmental degradation (when well-being improves along with non-material economic growth) and the key to achieving decoupling is using innovation to increase resource productivity.

Wiedmann et. all investigate resource productivity by looking at material footprints of nations associated with global production and consumption. Wiedmann mentions that few developed countries like Canada have achieved relative decoupling; because as wealth grows, countries are able to reduce their materials extraction through international trade. However, in reality, domestic material consumption (DMC) does not include upstream raw materials related to imports and exports originating from outside of the local economy, therefore, when material footprint (MF) is used to calculate resource use, we find that countries' level of decoupling is much less than the level reported. In some cases, decoupling has not been achieved at all (Wiedmann 2013). MF shows that countries' use of non-domestic resources is about 3-fold greater than the physical quantity of traded goods. In summary, Wiedmann et. all's research highlights the complexity of global supply chains and achieving resource productivity - total resource productivity increases less with income when measured by MF than with DC due to construction material component which is usually traded. DMC incorrectly portrays developed countries as more resource efficient than in reality and, MF actually shed's light on the political discourse - trade is shifting environmental burdens from North to South and making it much harder for the global south to achieve decoupling (Wiedmann 2013).

Industrial countries usually tend to be the importers and developing countries tend to be the exporters of material resources. By outsourcing their material extraction processing to the global south, global north are able to improve their resource productivity through decoupling (UNEP 2011). Developing countries end up in a state of reverse decoupling effect, for instance, countries like Peru and Chile ended up extracting natural resources faster than their GDP, which resulted in rising material intensity (UNEP 2011). The situation gets further aggravated because of fall in prices of raw materials. This forces developing countries to mobilize even larger amount of natural resources to maintain a unit of GDP making it harder for developing countries to achieve a state of decoupling (UNEP 2011). Material extraction has increased from 35 billion tons (35 Gt) in 1980 to 60 billion tons (60 Gt) in 2005. Naturally, the benefits of global economic growth were not equally distributed; UNDP's report in 1998 proclaims that the richest 20% of the world's population enjoyed 86% of the consumption expenditure whereas; the 20% of the poorest were only responsible for 1.3% of consumption expenditure (UNEP 2011). The statistic shows that richest countries can practice resource decoupling easily but it is much harder for the poorest countries.

Decoupling as a concept is a great initiative as it places sustainable development and wellbeing in its core instead of economic growth (UNEP 2011). It focuses on reducing environmental risks, ecological scarcities as well as promotes social equity. However, its practicality is still in question. Decoupling essentially leads to dematerialization, which may lead to more efficient resource use, however, it does not reduce the amount of resource use or the cost of production (UNEP 2011). Secondly, decoupling often leads to rebound effect which is counter productive (UNEP 2011). Thirdly, international trade adds to the complexity of the issue; it leads to uneven distribution of benefits of trade, causes inequality, and lastly, shifts the burden of costs of trade onto the global south (UNEP 2011). Lastly, how realistic is decoupling for trade dependent countries is still an area greatly unexplored. UNEP's report claims that "many governments have adopted "green growth" as an important part of their economic development" and are working towards finding "radical innovation" not just in terms of technology but also politically, socially and institutionally. This goal is extremely ambitious because decoupling will not affect everyone equally; the world's poorest and most vulnerable will be deprived of opportunities of development. UNEP's Green Economy initiative report projects that global GDP is going to decrease by 5% where poorer countries will experience losses in excess of 10%, water scarcities will become more pervasive, 3 billion people will be living under $3 (USD) a day. At the end of the day, decoupling or dematerialization is still focusing on prolonging the time it takes to deplete all resources and exceed planetary boundaries. Present day policies should instead focus on re-thinking growth and present a way in which we can revive the ecosystem and live within the boundaries while keeping equity at its core.

Haas, W. et al. (2015). How Circular is the Global Economy?: An Assessment
of Material Flows, Waste Production, and Recycling in the European Union
and the World in 2005. Journal of Industrial Ecology. Vol. 19 (5).

Krausmann et al. (2009). Growth in global materials use, GDP and population
during the 20th century. Ecological Economics. Vol. 68, pg. 2696-2705

Wiedmann, T., Schandl, H., Lenzen, M., Moran, D., Suh, S., West, J. & Kanemoto, K. (2013). The material footprint of nations. PNAS Early Edition.

Steffen, W., Persson, A., Deutsch, L., Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Richardson, K.
et al. (2011). The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship.
AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment, 40, 739-761.

UNEP (2011): Decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from
economic growth. A Report of the Working Group on Decoupling to the
International Resource Panel.

Ms Miha Alam
Byrn Mawr College