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The footprint of using metals: new metrics of consumption and productivity

Abstract

Metal use and modern society are intrinsically linked and it is no surprise that global processes of industrialization and urbanization have led to ever increasing amounts of metal use. In recent decades, global supply and demand networks for metals have become increasingly complex. Industrial Ecology research is well placed to unpack this complexity and to explore potential resource efficiencies for metals. This is especially important during the current period of rising ore prices. We examine patterns of supply and demand for iron ore and bauxite, and recent trends in resource productivity of these two important metal ores. We introduce a consumption perspective and compare the material footprint of metal ores to the GDP of countries to look at how much economic benefit countries achieve per unit of metal footprint. We find that for the past two decades global amounts of iron ore and bauxite extractions have risen faster than global GDP, that both supply and demand of iron ore and bauxite have been concentrated in a handful of countries and that resource productivity from a consumption perspective has fallen in developed nations, as well as globally. The research shows no saturation of metal ore consumption at any level of income. Policies will be required to enhance both the productivity of metal production and the economic productivity of consumption (GDP per metal footprint) through more efficient mining, product design, reuse and recycling.

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Notes

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    We note that global average ore grades for iron ore and bauxite are not thought to have changed significantly in the last fifty years (West 2013).

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Acknowledgments

We thank James West for his advice on metal ore grades. Heinz Schandl acknowledges financial support from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s Climate Adaptation Flagship and Integrated Carbon Pathways Initiative and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

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Correspondence to Thomas O. Wiedmann.

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Wiedmann, T.O., Schandl, H. & Moran, D. The footprint of using metals: new metrics of consumption and productivity. Environ Econ Policy Stud 17, 369–388 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10018-014-0085-y

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Keywords

  • Material footprint
  • Metal ores
  • Resource productivity
  • Multi-region input–output analysis
  • Sustainable resource management

JEL Classification

  • C67
  • F18
  • F64
  • Q31
  • Q37
  • Q56
  • P17