'Peak Stuff' updated

Have the UK, and perhaps other mature economies, reached a peak in their consumption of natural resources?  In ‘Peak Stuff’ I put forward evidence that the total use of material resources rose to a maximum a decade or so ago in the UK and has probably declined since. I added to this work in ‘Sustainability: All That Matters’, suggesting that once an economy had acquired a large enough stock of the main industrial metals and minerals, its need for raw materials would fall, possibly sharply. In the case of copper, for example, I looked at the evidence assembled by Tom Graedel and others that showed that 200 kilogrammes of the metal per person appears to give us all we need. In the eighteen months since I did the work on ‘Peak Stuff’ new data has become available. These updated numbers strongly support the theses in the paper and in my ‘Sustainability’ book. The conventional assumption that human wants are infinite, and therefore that economic growth is incompatible with ecological stability, seems to me to be wrong. I think a strong case can be made that growth in mature economies is profoundly good for the environment, partly because it speeds up 'dematerialisation'.

The new data

In this article, I look at six (very disparate) indices of material use in the UK, or OECD, economies. Some are updates of numbers provided in ‘Peak Stuff’ while others are new data series of which I wasn’t previously aware. It isn't comprehensive, or in a particularly logical order, but it does show trends across different parts of the UK economy.

a)      The material flow account

b)      Weights of goods transported

c)       Flows of material into waste

d)      Energy use forecasts from BP

e)      Personal transport trends

f)       Indices for wood product use


a)      The material flow account (MFA)

The MFA is a measure of the weight of materials used in an economy. It sums the number of tonnes of fossil fuels, biomass and minerals used by the UK, both in goods produced locally and in imports. (‘Peak Stuff’ has a discussion of why the MFA is one of the best available measure of the impact of the economy on the natural environment.)

The decline in UK materials use that I noted in that earlier paper has continued. The 2010 estimate for what is called the ‘Total Material Requirement’ (TMR) of the UK economy fell by 5.4% in the year to around 1,615 million tonnes. The peak was 2,138 million tonnes in 2001. Although the UK economy grew little, if at all, in 2010, the 5.4% reduction in TMR shows a continued rapid rate of ‘dematerialisation’. It requires fewer and fewer tonnes of input to create £1 of GDP.


b)      The weight of goods transported

I don’t know that this measure existed when I did the work for ‘Peak Stuff’. It shows Department for Transport estimates of how much is carried in road, rail, air and water transport in the UK. The number for 2010 is down 16% on its recent high of 2007. But the striking thing to me is that this measure is now lower than it was 20 years. In fact, the weight of material goods moved has barely changed since the mid-1960s. It may not be obvious why this data is relevant: if the economy  needs more material inputs as it grows then we’d expect  to see more goods being shipped around the UK. The data suggests otherwise.


c)       Flows of material into waste

In ‘Sustainability’ I pointed out that every manufactured thing (food, metals, minerals) eventually  becomes waste. Although some objects, such as cathedrals, last for ever the weight  of waste being processed is a good proxy for the volume of material being used by an economy. We’re well aware that household waste volumes are falling, but the total waste from industry, construction and sewage processing sites is also sharply reducing. Household waste declined 3% in 2011/12 and latest available statistics (for 2008) show a continuing cut in total waste processed. The fall is over 10% between 2004 and 2008, even though the UK economy grew strongly  during this period.

d)      Energy use forecasts from BP

Most of the charts in ‘Sustainability’ record past data. It’s also powerful to record what industry experts expect to happen in the future. In mid-January 2013 BP released its annually updated energy use forecasts for 2030. The document doesn’t provide estimates specifically for the UK but does predict how much energy the OECD countries as a whole will use in 2030. Although economic growth is expected to resume, consumption of fuels and energy from renewable sources will increase only a very small amount and will actually fall in per capita terms. The cut will be particularly sharp in the 2020-2030 period. Energy efficiency gains, estimated by BP as averaging 2% per year worldwide, and dematerialisation will outweigh any impact of economic growth.

Total consumption of energy in the UK was broadly flat from the mid-seventies to the middle of the last decade. (Not a fact well-enough understood). It’s fallen sharply since 2008 and the reduction continues.

e)      Personal travel trends

The total distance travelled has been flat or declining in most developed countries for some years. (If you are sceptica about this, please read the original paper by Adam Millard Ball on this phenomenon at http://web.mit.edu/vig/Public/peaktravel.pdf)

UK personal trave mileage rose slightly in 2011 according to the latest National Travel Survey but it is still well down on a decade earlier. The number of trips taken per person fell and is now no more than in 1973. Walking and cycling fell until recently but have now stabilised while car trips are down more than 10% since the peak.


f)       Indices for wood use

This is data that I wasn’t aware of when I wrote ‘Sustainability’. It shows that wood products and paper use (including imports) is down almost 25% since the middle of the last decade. The chart for paper consumption is below.


The reaction to ‘Peak Stuff’ was largely to suggest that the evidence I presented was highly selected to show a pattern on falling use of materials. Obstinately, I continue to think that the developed world may well be near to a peak - and probably past it in the UK – of the extraction and processing of fuels, minerals and biomass.

This is the good news. The bad news is that the decline in fossil fuel use in Britain and elsewhere is nowhere near fast enough to cancel out the increase in the developing economies. Although the evidence is increasingly clear that China is generating a unit GDP with lower and lower energy use, the overall world position, at least as forecast by BP, is for a 36% increase in overall energy use by 2030. Renewables and other low-carbon sources take only a 25% share of this much larger total. This looks like locking in a 5 degree temperature rise.