Stefan Giljum from the Institute for Ecological Economics at Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU) and his research group “Sustainable Resource Use” have been awarded a highly prestigious Consolidator Grant by the European Research Council (ERC). In the FINEPRINT project, which will run from 2017-2022, Stefan Giljum and his team will develop a spatially-explicit global material flow and footprint model, in order to assess material flows and related environmental and social impacts embodied in international trade and consumption.For more information about the project, see www.fineprint.global.
Increasing impacts of international trade
In the era of globalisation, product supply chains are increasingly international, thus disconnecting the location of production from final demand. Consumption has developed into a major, geographically distant driver of various local environmental and social impacts in countries producing raw materials such as copper, petroleum, soy beans or timber.
Today, the world economy uses more than 85 billion tonnes of renewable and non-renewable raw materials, compared to around 27 billion tonnes in 1970. This remarkable growth in material extraction strongly increased environmental pressures and caused impacts such as the degradation of natural habitats or increasing water scarcity. Also social conflicts have intensified with the expansion of agricultural and mining activities. The amount of materials embodied in international trade augmented even faster than overall material use. Today, more than a third of globally extracted materials serve as direct or indirect inputs for the production of internationally traded products.
Current limitations of footprint models
Methods to assess global supply chains from raw material extraction to final consumption have improved significantly over the past few years. The approach most widely applied for consumption-based (or footprint-type) assessments is multi-regional input-output (MRIO) analysis. Such environmentally extended models have already been applied to a large number of environmental pressures and impacts, such as GHG emissions, air pollution, water use, land use, material use, deforestation and biodiversity loss. Despite these improvements, existing MRIO databases have important limitations for the application to material flows and related footprints, as their spatial resolution is limited to the national level. Current MRIO models thus need to assume average environmental or social impacts per unit of product originating from a certain country and are unable to link specific supply chains to the actual geographical locations of production. This can lead to severely distorted footprint results, as the heterogeneity of environmental and social conditions within specific producing countries is not taken into account.
FINEPRINT: Creating knowledge to reduce the global impacts of our raw material use
In order to overcome the shortcomings of current footprint models with regard to geographical resolution, the FINEPRINT project will develop a spatially explicit and highly detailed global material flow model covering extraction, transportation, processing and final consumption.
The extraction (or territorial) part of the model will investigate the geographical distribution of around 60 different biotic and abiotic raw materials in countries world-wide on a detailed grid cell level. Further, this part will analyse the relation between trends and patterns of raw material extraction and a range of related environmental and social impacts.
The part of the model dealing with international trade and supply chains will in a first step trace the flow of raw materials from the location of extraction to specific transportation facilities such as ports. The second step involves tracing raw material flows from a certain export trade facility to the destination country, in which further processing of the raw materials takes place. For this analysis of physical trade flows, we will develop a system of multi-regional physical supply-use tables, which can then be linked to existing monetary MRIO models, such as EXIOBASE, Eora or the OECD ICIO database.
The new model will then be applied to perform the first fine-scale assessments of Europe’s global material footprint. This will allow identifying global raw material extraction hot-spots related to the consumption of specific European countries and investigating the spatially explicit material footprint of key consumption products such as, for example, meat and dairy products or electronics. In order to tele-connect impacts occurring elsewhere with the various products finally consumed in Europe, the environmental and social impacts related to raw material extraction will be analysed in relation to the spatially explicit material footprint.