Read out

Researcher of the Month Stefan Giljum

Video Stefan Giljum

Stefan Giljum

Researcher of the Month

Out­sourcing in­creases Europe’s global foot­print

At 20 to 30 tons per cap­ita, Europeans’ an­nual re­source con­sump­tion is ten times as high as the aver­age con­sump­tion in Africa or Asia. Europe’s high levels of con­sump­tion are based in­creas­ingly on raw ma­ter­i­als both ex­trac­ted and pro­cessed in other re­gions of the world. Ac­cord­ing to WU re­searcher Stefan Giljum, this means Europe is con­trib­ut­ing to en­vir­on­mental prob­lems like cli­mate change, de­for­est­a­tion, or wa­ter scarcity, and is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly de­pend­ent on for­eign fossil fuels and metal­lic com­mod­it­ies. In a large-s­cale re­search pro­ject at WU, he is in­vest­ig­at­ing the amount of nat­ural re­sources re­quired for the pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion of goods and ser­vices and the ef­fects of glob­al­iz­a­tion on our use of raw ma­ter­i­als.

The equi­val­ent of 100 truck­loads of raw ma­ter­i­als per second are re­quired to sup­ply our global economy. Over the course of one year, this amounts to 90 bil­lion tons of ma­ter­i­als sourced from min­ing, oil drilling, ag­ri­cul­ture, and forestry. As a res­ult of glob­al­iz­a­tion, the loca­tions where products are con­sumed are in­creas­ingly dis­tant from where ma­ter­i­als are ori­gin­ally ex­trac­ted, man­u­fac­tured, or pro­cessed. In a pro­ject fun­ded by the European Re­search Coun­cil (ERC), Stefan Giljum, head of the re­search group for Sus­tain­able Re­source Use, and his team at WU’s In­sti­tute for Eco­lo­gical Eco­nom­ics are tra­cing products con­sumed in European coun­tries back to the pre­cise geo­graph­ical loca­tion where spe­cific en­vir­on­mental and so­cial im­pacts re­lated to raw ma­ter­ial ex­trac­tion take place. “To quan­tify raw ma­ter­ial ex­trac­tion in coun­tries around the world, we are gath­er­ing stat­ist­ical data from a vari­ety of sources and pair­ing them with eco­nomic mod­els that map out global sup­ply chains for all pro­duct groups,” ex­plains Stefan Giljum. “This al­lows us to trace the flow of raw ma­ter­i­als from the coun­try where they are ex­trac­ted through the vari­ous pro­cessing steps all the way down to the end con­sumer.”

In­creas­ing im­ports, grow­ing de­pend­ency

The pro­ject’s find­ings show that Asia’s share of global re­source ex­trac­tion has been grow­ing markedly, par­tic­u­larly since the turn of the 21st cen­tury. In 2013, already 61% of all raw ma­ter­i­als ex­trac­ted around the world were of Asian ori­gin, and this num­ber con­tin­ues to rise. In com­par­ison, Europe’s share of only 8% is very low. Raw ma­ter­i­als ex­trac­ted in Asia are used to man­u­fac­ture products for do­mestic use in the coun­tries of ex­trac­tion, but many other re­gions of the world profit from them as well. “In re­cent years, coun­tries like Ch­ina have be­come the world’s most im­port­ant ex­porter for a wide vari­ety of dif­fer­ent products, in­clud­ing elec­tron­ics and house­wares, tex­tiles, and toys. Most of these products are ex­por­ted to Europe or North Amer­ica,” says Giljum. He con­tin­ues, “That makes these two con­tin­ents the re­gions with the highest level of de­pend­ency on for­eign im­ports.” Giljum says that Europe is par­tic­u­larly de­pend­ent on two raw ma­ter­ial cat­egor­ies: On the one hand on fossil fuels, be­cause Europe im­ports over 70% of the pet­ro­leum and nat­ural gas it re­quires for in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion, mobil­ity, and heat­ing. However, with an im­port rate of over 85%, Europe is even more de­pend­ent on for­eign metals. This af­fects all products based on metal com­pon­ents, like cars, house­hold items, and elec­tron­ics. “In some cases, for example rare metals used in the elec­tron­ics in­dustry, Europe’s im­port rate is ac­tu­ally 100%,” says Giljum.

Mak­ing the global ef­fects of con­sump­tion vis­ible

The more com­plex and in­ter­na­tional the pro­duc­tion chain of an every­day item is, the less aware con­sumers are of the en­vir­on­mental and so­cial im­pacts of con­sump­tion on other re­gions of the world. A cell phone, for example, re­quires 30 dif­fer­ent raw ma­ter­i­als sourced from coun­tries around the world. “My goal is to make the global con­nec­tions between man­u­fac­tur­ing and con­sump­tion vis­ible. In do­ing so, I hope to be able to provide an em­pir­ical basis for the devel­op­ment of policy meas­ures for sus­tain­able sup­ply chains,” says Giljum about his re­search. Dur­ing the five-year ERC pro­ject, Stefan Giljum and his team will be the first to dir­ectly con­nect the eco­lo­gical and so­cial con­di­tions in the coun­tries where raw ma­ter­i­als are ex­trac­ted with the con­sump­tion of products in Europe. “With regard to the en­vir­on­mental im­pact of our con­sump­tion, it makes a huge dif­fer­ence if, for example, metals are im­por­ted from ex­tremely dry areas like the Atacama Desert in Chile or from more tem­per­ate cli­mate zones with a suf­fi­cient sup­ply of wa­ter,” he ex­plains.

Sus­tain­able re­source use in the age of plan­et­ary bound­ar­ies

This re­search provides valu­able con­clu­sions for the real­iz­a­tion of a sus­tain­able global economy. “Glob­al­iz­a­tion and in­ter­na­tional trade are cur­rently or­gan­ized in such a way that raw ma­ter­i­als from coun­tries with low per cap­ita con­sump­tion levels are ex­por­ted to coun­tries where the per cap­ita con­sump­tion is already very high,” says the re­searcher. As a res­ult, in­ter­na­tional trade is in­creas­ing eco­lo­gical inequal­ity around the world. However, to im­prove the ma­ter­ial liv­ing stand­ards of the pop­u­la­tion in pover­ty-stricken re­gions like sub­-Sa­ha­ran Africa or South­ern Asia, re­source con­sump­tion in these coun­tries would have to in­crease. “In a world that has already crossed en­vir­on­mental plan­et­ary bound­ar­ies, this growth is only possible if at the same time, raw ma­ter­ial use de­creases in high-­con­sump­tion re­gions like Europe. The know­ledge of the neg­at­ive im­pacts of com­mod­ity ex­trac­tion in the source coun­tries should be used to help us im­prove ex­trac­tion con­di­tions and in­crease re­source use ef­fi­ciency in in­ter­na­tional pro­duc­tion chains.”

More about this topc

Giljum, S., Wieland, H., Lut­ter, S., Bruck­ner, M., Wood, R., Tuk­ker, A., Stadler, K., 2016. Identi­fy­ing pri­or­ity areas for European re­source policies: a MRI­O-­based ma­ter­ial foot­print assess­ment. Journal of Eco­nomic Struc­tures 5, 1-24. DOI: 10.1186/s40008-016-0048-5

Tuk­ker, A., Bu­lavskaya, T., Giljum, S., de Kon­ing, A., Lut­ter, S., Si­mas, M., Stadler, K., Wood, R. 2016. En­vir­on­mental and re­source foot­prints in a global con­text: Europe’s struc­tural de­fi­cit in re­source en­dow­ments. Global En­vir­on­mental Change 40, 171-181. DOI: 10.1016/j.gloen­vcha.2016.07.002

Giljum, S., Bruck­ner, M., Martinez, A., 2015. Ma­ter­ial Foot­print Assess­ment in a Global In­put‐Out­put Frame­work. Journal of In­dus­trial Eco­logy. 19, 792-804. DOI: 10.1111/jiec.12214

Stefan Giljum and his team also ad­min­is­trates the world's biggest on­line portal for ma­ter­ial flow data, provid­ing ac­cess to data on the na­tional level.
To the platt­form