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Implementing the material footprint to measure progress towards Sustainable Development Goals 8 and 12

Abstract

Sustainable development depends on decoupling economic growth from resource use. The material footprint indicator accounts for environmental pressure related to a country’s final demand. It measures material use across global supply-chain networks linking production and consumption. For this reason, it has been used as an indicator for two Sustainable Development Goals: 8.4 ‘resource efficiency improvements’ and 12.2 ‘sustainable management of natural resources’. Currently, no reporting facility exists that provides global, detailed and timely information on countries’ material footprints. We present a new collaborative research platform, based on multiregional input–output analysis, that enables countries to regularly produce, update and report detailed global material footprint accounts and monitor progress towards Sustainable Development Goals 8.4 and 12.2. We show that the global material footprint has quadrupled since 1970, driven mainly by emerging economies in the Asia-Pacific region, but with an indication of plateauing since 2014. Capital investments increasingly dominate over household consumption as the main driver. At current trends, absolute decoupling is unlikely to occur over the next few decades. The new collaborative research platform allows to elevate the material footprint to Tier I status in the SDG indicator framework and paves the way to broaden application of the platform to other environmental footprint indicators.

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Fig. 1: Evolution of the world’s MF between 1970 and 2019.
Fig. 2: Material exporters and importers.
Fig. 3: Per capita MF and material intensity as a function of per capita GDP for the four aggregate material types.

Data availability

All data have been deposited at https://ielab.info/resources/datasets. Material footprint data are freely available. Multiregion input–output data are available on request only because of the large file sizes.

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Acknowledgements

This work was financially supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) through its projects DP0985522, DP130101293, DP190102277, LE160100066 and DP200102585 (M. Lenzen, A.G., J.F. and A.M.), as well as the National eResearch Collaboration Tools and Resources project (NeCTAR) through its Industrial Ecology Virtual Laboratory infrastructure VL 201 (M. Lenzen, A.G., J.F., A.M. and T.W.), by the United Nations Environment Programme International Resource Panel (IRP) work stream on metrics, data and indicators (M. Lenzen, A.G., J.W. and H.S.), by the United Nations Environment Programme Life Cycle Initiative that—together with the One Planet Network and the UN-IRP—commissioned the development of the online tool SCP-HAT (Agreement ref. DTIE17-SC052, DTIE19-SC042, DTIE20-SC042) (M. Lenzen, A.G., S.G., P.P., S.L., M.S. and H.S.) and by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 725525) (S.G. and S.L.) . We thank S. Juraszek for expertly managing the Global MRIO Lab’s advanced computation requirements, C. Jarabak for help with collecting data and K. Hosking for editorial services. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the various affiliated organisations.

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H.S. and M. Lenzen designed the study; M. Lenzen, A.G., J.W., J.F. and M. Li performed the analysis; S.L., S.G. and P.P. reviewed the analysis; M. Lenzen, A.M. and H.S. wrote the manuscript; J.P., I.T., L.M.C., M.V.V., M.S., K.N. and T.W. reviewed the manuscript and contributed to the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Heinz Schandl.

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Lenzen, M., Geschke, A., West, J. et al. Implementing the material footprint to measure progress towards Sustainable Development Goals 8 and 12. Nat Sustain 5, 157–166 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00811-6

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