Flashing indicators

Domingo Jiménez-Beltrán describes the impact that the European Union countries
have on the global environment, outlining the results of
the first study of their use of materials to fuel their economies

The world’s use of natural resources will have to be reduced if economic growth is to be brought in line with the Earth’s carrying capacity. In other words, economic performance and requirements for natural resources must be separated, and efficiency in using resources must be increased.

So concluded the heads of state meeting of the European Union (EU) countries in Helsinki in December 1999. And in the same city, in July of that year, the EU’s environment ministers agreed that, where appropriate, targets and timetables should be set for improving eco-efficiency, and that progress towards them should be monitored, using appropriate indicators.

If the worldwide extraction of resources is to be halved, industrial countries will need to increase the efficiency with which they use energy and materials by four to ten times over the next 30 to 50 years. This ‘factor 4 to 10’ goal was noted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s environment ministers in 1996 and adopted by the special session of the United Nations General Assembly in 1997. In some EU Member States – like Austria and Finland – it has become part of political programmes. In others – like Germany, The Netherlands and Sweden – it has stimulated political debate. And in others still, it has been the subject of specific research.

Meanwhile the United Nations has presented a core set of indicators for measuring changes in consumption and production patterns, with the total material requirement (TMR) representing a major driving force. This TMR indicator consists of the cumulative amount of primary materials, measured in tonnes, that are extracted from nature – both at home and abroad – for a country’s economic activities. It indicates a generic pressure on the environment, similar to energy requirements and overconsumption of water. The level of resource extraction indicates in a general way the scale of local disturbances (such as the ‘hidden flows’ of mining wastes), the throughput of the economy, and amounts of emissions and wastes.
Targets and timetables must be set for improving eco-efficiency
The first calculation of the indicator for the EU – published in the European Environment Agency’s recent Environmental Signals report – shows that the total TMR for the 15 Member States increased slightly from 18.1 to 18.7 billion tonnes between 1995 and 1997. This works out at about 49 to 50 tonnes per capita, much less than for the United States of America (84 tonnes per capita in 1994) and not much higher than Japan (45 tonnes per capita), both of which have a higher GDP per capita than the EU states. By comparison, Poland’s TMR had already reached 59 per cent of the EU level in 1995, while its GDP per capita was only 19 per cent of the EU level.

Per capita domestic ‘hidden’ flows showed the largest variations (13 to 18 tonnes per capita), reaching their highest level in 1991 with the inclusion of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). This was due to the large quantities of lignite extracted to power the GDR’s economy, with huge amounts of overburden: after 1991 this was drastically reduced, in the course of technological conversion to the West German economy, and domestic TMR per capita in the EU decreased significantly as a result.

Hidden flows
Hidden flows associated with imports varied between 12 and 16 tonnes per capita from 1988 to 1995 in the then 12 countries of the EU, peaking in 1989. These variations were strongly determined by imports of precious metals as raw materials. Foreign hidden flows of the 15 present Member States increased from 14.7 to 16.5 tonnes per capita from 1995 to 1997, also mainly because of imported metals.

The EU’s per capita TMR increased 11 per cent between 1988 and 1997, indicating continuous pressure on the global environment, dominated by the extraction of energy, metals and mineral resources.

Efficiency in the use of materials to generate GDP (materials productivity) varies significantly among Member States. Finland, The Netherlands and Germany are all below the EU average (at 62, 80 and 87 per cent respectively). Elsewhere, Poland will have to increase its productivity by more than three times if it is to achieve the current EU average. But Japan’s materials productivity was 1.5 times as high as the average for today’s 15 EU countries in the mid-1990s.

Improving eco-efficiency
Can Member States successfully separate further economic growth from the use of natural resources? Targets will have to be set for improvements in eco-efficiency if this is to be achieved, as the heads of state indicated. And absolute reductions will be necessary where environmental burdens, such as emissions of carbon dioxide and acidifying gases, are already above carrying capacities. ‘Sufficiency’ as well as eco-efficiency will need to be an objective if sustainable development is to be achieved.

TMR provides only a very crude proxy for pollution, but the complexity and lack of data on toxics and their impacts on the environment is encouraging the search for indicators that can help focus attention on flows of materials – like persistent chemicals which accumulate in living things – that have potential for causing pollution and ill health.

The European Environment Agency’s ‘dangerous chemicals intensity of GDP’ indicator is a first and tentative illustration of this approach. This proxy indicator is based on 802 high-production-volume chemicals that are either classified as dangerous by the EU or are of concern to maritime conventions and/or some Member States, and covers potential damage to both health and the environment. It is not weighted by toxicity or dispersion due to lack of sufficient information. It has been rising since 1993.

Much more work clearly needs to be done on pollution proxies such as TMR and dangerous chemicals intensity, in particular to capture the different potential for pollution posed by specific chemicals or materials. Meanwhile, by flagging up the rising pressure on the environment these indicators can help steer us towards improving well-being while using fewer natural resources

Domingo Jiménez-Beltrán is Executive Director, European Environment Agency.

PHOTOGRAPH: Kerttu Lohua/UNEP/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | The right to diversity | Gain, not pain | Changing course | From summit to summit | Empowering the poor | The environment millennium | Focus On Your World | Competition | A critical priority | Flashing indicators | Sea changes | No wires attached | Now for vigorous action | Malmö Ministerial Declaration | Young, impatient and soon to be in charge | Green spot in Africa

Complementary articles in other issues:
Guro Fjellanger: Meeting new challenges (UNEP – Looking Forward) 1999
Jurgen Trittin: Spirit of optimism (UNEP – Looking Forward) 1999
Ritt Bjerregaard: Call for more action (Climate & Action) 1998
Tony Blair: Opportunity, not obstacle (Climate & Action) 1998
Robin Cook: Everything to gain (Climate Change) 1997
Ruben Mnatsakanian: A poisoned legacy (Chemicals) 1997