EU's global ecological footprint "rising"

EEA reports only limited decoupling of wealth, resource use, significant burden on third countries

The EU has improved its resource productivity since the late 1980s, but is consuming more in absolute terms, and is thus imposing an increasing burden on the world environment, according to a new report from the European Environment Agency (EEA). The finding will increase pressure on the European Commission to do more to address the EU's global "ecological footprint" in the bloc's sixth environmental action programme and a forthcoming sustainable development strategy.

Prepared for the EEA by Germany's Wuppertal Institute, the study explores the prospects for an overall indicator of resource efficiency called "total material requirement" (TMR). Some of its conclusions were published in last year's EEA "environmental signals" report (ENDS Daily 3 May 2000), but the full study has only now been finalised.

TMR measures the total volume throughput of the economy. This, says the report, is equivalent to the total "potential amount of wastes and emissions".

The indicator is made up of four components. On the one hand, these are "direct" resource flows, both domestic and imported, together making up what the study calls total "direct material input" (DMI). On the other hand, TMR also includes "hidden flows," again both domestic and foreign.

Examples of hidden flows are extraction waste in mining and quarrying, excavation by construction and erosion of agricultural soils. The report uses "extraction coefficients" to calculate the hidden flows behind the direct material input measurable through industrial production and import statistics.

Ignoring these hidden flows, the study finds that there has been a significant decoupling of resource use and wealth (measured as GDP). The EU's DMI fell by 5% in absolute terms between 1988 and 1997, equivalent to an 8% drop in per capita terms. More strikingly, the drop in DMI relative to GDP was 28%.

Cuts in EU fossil fuel mining played a large part in this, the study says, and particularly the big fall in lignite extraction in the eastern states of Germany after reunification in 1990.

Trends in the GDP/DMI ratio differed between EU member states, the study says. While five countries managed an absolute reduction in DMI alongside continued economic growth, others saw it rise, though more slowly than GDP.

The study reports less good news when it measures TMR, including hidden resource flows. There was a slight fall in the GDP/TMR ratio between 1988 and 1997, but the study describes this as not significant. Furthermore, the EU's absolute TMR rose by 11% between 1988 and 1997, from 45 tonnes per capita to 50 tonnes per capita.

Follow Up:
EEA, tel: +45 33 36 71 00, a press release, and the report.

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