A study by the University of New South Wales, CSIRO, the University of Sydney, and the University of California has tallied the true material impact of several nations, revealing that some are considerably more resource-hungry than previously reported.

The researchers employed a new modelling tool and more comprehensive indicators to map the flow of raw materials across the world economy. The unprecedented accuracy allowed teams to decipher the actual material cost of 186 countries over a period from 1990 to 2008.

The report published in the latest edition of US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that decoupling of natural resources from economic growth has been exaggerated. The results demonstrate the need for policy-makers to consider new counting methods to more accurately track and assess resource consumption.

“Humanity is using raw materials at a level never seen before with far-reaching environmental impacts on biodiversity, land use, climate and water,” says lead author Tommy Wiedmann, Associate Professor of Sustainability Research at the UNSW School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“Now more than ever, developed countries are relying on international trade to acquire their natural resources, but our research shows this dependence far exceeds the actual physical quantity of traded goods,” says Wiedmann, who worked at CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences when the research was undertaken.

Figures show the total amount of raw materials extracted globally in 2008 came to 70 billion metric tonnes. Of that amount, 10 billion tonnes were physically traded, but three times as many resources (41% or 29 billion tons) were used just to enable the processing and export of that which was sold.

In order to account for the missing resources not normally factored in, the team created the “material footprint” model. The decoupling of raw material usage from economic growth is a key element in the move to sustainable development of low-carbon economies. The study’s authors say their “material footprint” indicators show that decoupling achievements so far are quite skewed, and much greater efforts will need to be made for actual results.

The report is accessible here